How to get your hands dirty

This is probably the most amount of writing I’ve done not on a technical report in… well, ever. I talked to my crew a couple times over the past couple weeks, since I was invited to participate on this project, to get some ideas for post topics. There were a couple of common requests, so I’ll talk about one today.

So, you want to try archaeology. How do you get started? You have some options and can transition between them. Essentially you can make a career out of it, or you can make a hobby of it.

If you want to make a hobby of it, I do have a warning, or disclaimer depending on you want to take this. I will never endorse picking a place you know there are artifacts and to just start digging holes. Same goes for metal detecting. I know I will never fully convince metal detectorists to only work under the supervision of an archaeologist, but if you try to keep maps of the properties and where you find older things it will keep the archaeologists friendly. As much as we hate to admit it local collectors often are the best resource for information about archaeological sites in areas we are not already familiar with.

If you want archaeology to be your full time job, to join the legion of dirt, I can’t guarantee that my strategies will work for everyone but, I can at least share some of my experiences and what has worked for me.

First, how do you find a job? Shovelbums and are job boards specifically for archaeology job listings. Another strategy that produced results for me was to find your State historic Preservation office or local municipality’s list of approved vendors and send resumes and CVs to every company you’re interested in. Here’s Alexandria, Virginia’s. This shotgun approach may sound a little daunting, but it will get your name in to field tech pools when those companies are looking to fill out crews. Attending local conferences to network is also extremely helpful. MAAC, SEAC, and CNEHA cover the east coast.

CRM archaeology works similarly to an apprenticeship system. Promotion usually comes with experience and demonstrated skill.  Entry level jobs as an archaeological field technician require a degree in anthropology (or related field), and a field school. Field technicians are the grunts in the ranks of CRM archaeologists. They are the ones that actually do most of the physical work of archaeology. Having dependable, skilled technicians on your crew is absolutely invaluable when conducting field work.When you first start out working CRM archaeology, you’re probably not going to get a full-time job right out of the gate. Most employment is temporary, and project based for archaeological field technicians. Having a side gig that you can set the schedule for is a good idea to help support yourself between projects. If you are pursuing a career in archaeology, you probably have a college degree and are likely an interdisciplinarian. Depending on where you’re based the school district may have a different system, but substitute teaching worked well for me; comparable pay to archaeology and I could decide what days I was going to work teaching.

After a few years at this base level, opportunities to become a crew chief will start opening up to you; keeping the technicians working, and carrying out testing under the direction of the project archaeologist or field director.  Becoming a field director or eventually a primary investigator requires a graduate degree to meet Secretary of the Interior standards.

If you don’t want to make a career out of it, but are still interested in getting your hands dirty, there are plenty of avocational groups to get involved with in addition to volunteer opportunities. My experience limits me to the Washington, D.C. metro area, but most states have an avocational group. The Archeological Society of Virginia is one of the places I gained field experience as I searched for my first job after my undergraduate education. They also have a field technician certification program that provides fairly comprehensive training for field and lab work. Maryland has a similar avocational program the Archeological Society of Maryland.

Local governments with cultural resource programs often accept volunteers. For example Fairfax County Park Authority Archaeology and Collections has a fairly robust volunteer program, as does Alexandria Archaeology, and Montgomery County Parks. Historic sites often accept volunteers for excavations as well: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier. Montpelier also has a few week long program that will pair you up with an archaeologist and house on the property, including one specifically for metal detectorists learn more here.

Many of the above organizations offer youth programs as well as those for adults. The nonprofit I work with, Archaeology in the Community, offers several programs for children and families including after school programs and internships. Learn more here.

If you have a volunteer program or archaeology nonprofit you would like to share, please post where we can find more information in the comments.

Please excuse this shameless plug, but AITC’s 10th birthday is coming up in the beginning of March. We are having a fundraising push leading up to the date, March 9. Donations to this fundraiser help fund our educational programming for youths as well as paid internships for students entering the field. You can donate here.

I’ll include more pictures in my next post.


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