In addition to my academic archaeological experience, I have worked in the CRM (Cultural Resource Management, or “Contract Archaeology”) field. I have worked on numerous CRM projects in Ohio and West Virginia. All of those projects have been what we call “Phase 1,” which is the initial process of finding and documenting any sites or cultural resources that would be affected by a project. As such, I have performed both pedestrian survey and shovel testing as what is most frequently referred to as a “field technician.” (Sometimes field techs are called “shovel bums” and there is even a website under this name that lists archaeology-related jobs. Simply googling the term turns up various social media accounts and other sites.) I have also been a field supervisor on a couple of small projects, meaning I directed the field technicians where to dig (aligning their transects) and hand and GPS mapped shovel tests and findspots.
CRM archaeology can be a demanding field. Firms will want you to dig as many shovel tests as possible in order to complete the project in time/under budget. I don’t mean to say that safety is thrown out the window, but contract archaeologists will likely have to “prove” themselves a bit and demonstrate that they can do the work. Students aspiring to be contract archaeologists should complete a field school (see here for websites listing field schools) where they learn how to dig. Most if not all firms will also require a bachelor’s degree in Archaeology/Anthropology (in the US most archaeology programs are housed in Anthropology departments). They should also have or acquire some basic skills in map reading, orienteering, and artifact recognition. To some extent, knowledge in using GPS can most easily be learned on the job training, but to the extent possible off the job, such knowledge will be an attractive skill for job candidates. Students should also seek out CRM firms in their areas and inquire about internships.
Being an entry-level CRM archaeologist also often requires a significant amount of time on the road. There will be some opportunities for laboratory work of identifying and cataloging artifacts that will be located in offices.
In order to move up the ladder, experience and on-the-job training will be sufficient to move to field supervisor in some cases. In order to move up to Principal Investigator (PI) and direct a project from start to finish, however, an advanced degree (MA is often sufficient) is often required. Some US programs are developing Applied Archaeology programs that tailor their content and skills to the CRM world, and I think this is a positive development. PIs must also have knowledge of relevant laws and requirements of federal and state governments, for example Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
Documenting and analyzing the archaeological sites and the cultural resources of the country is a big task and it requires many people to play their parts. In my opinion while the CRM field can present certain challenges, at the end of the day it is rewarding to contribute to archaeological knowledge and preservation. While you likely won’t find anything that a non-archaeologist would regard as spectacular, you still get good bit of excitement from finding a projectile point and feeling a connection to the past person who made and used it.
For more detailed discussions of the nitty-gritty life of a CRM archaeologist, look for my blog posts categorized under “CRM.”