It’s OK to Know Nothing – Your First CRM Dig

Photo: That’s me huddled over a feature I found in my unit on my very first CRM excavation, (in Edmonton, AB), which was total beginner’s luck. Pic was taken by my dad, who came with me that day to check the site out.

When I started out in Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeology, I already had a field school under my belt.  I showed up for my first CRM excavation thinking that I knew what I was doing.  Within about 5 minutes I realized I actually had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  CRM archaeology can be quite different from academic archaeology, which I wasn’t prepared for.  The good news is that I was able to learn quickly and pick up a lot of really valuable skills in a very short amount of time.  If I could do it, so can you.  So if you’re starting out in CRM and about to embark on your very first CRM dig, here’s a little bit of advice to help you be prepared.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! I cannot stress this point enough.  A little secret to share with you: when we have a new crew member who has never worked CRM before, we’re all expecting that you won’t know what you’re doing.  And therefore we’re prepared for a lot of questions and prepared to hand out a lot of instruction and advice.  Use that to your advantage!
  2. Brace yourself for a fast-paced environment. In the CRM world, time = money.  Much of our work is derived from development projects and there usually isn’t a large budget set aside for archaeology.  Our excavations are thorough and well-designed to make sure we’re recording all the proper information in a much shorter amount of time (compared to academic digs).
  3. Don’t compare yourself to other crew members. It takes a while to develop your work style and “groove”.  Yes, you will be slow at first.  You’ll be working with others who have been in CRM for longer than you have and have had the time to develop their own style.  So don’t worry about keeping up.
  4. The soil type will determine your speed.  Yes, you’ll be working under a time constraint.  But if the soil is tough, like clay, than you’re going to be moving a lot slower than usual.  If it’s a loose organic or sandy soil (my personal favs), you’ll be moving a lot faster.
  5. Excavating a site is not as fancy as what you might think.  The actual physical labour of doing archaeology is extremely simple.  Excavating = you use a shovel or trowel to take the dirt out of your unit.  Screening = you take the excavated dirt, put it in a screen, shake the screen, and look at what’s left behind.  That’s it. Most of the time  half the team digs and half screens.  It’s all about teamwork.
  6. Anything that’s “different” is worth paying attention to.  If you’ve been digging
    Artefacts 4
    My very first feature, a hearth, in Edmonton, AB

    through nothing but empty dirt and suddenly you’re finding rocks, slow down or stop.  If your dirt begins to change colour, slow down or stop.  Sometimes it’s easy to start losing focus when you haven’t been finding anything and the dirt you’re excavating all looks the same.  That’s why sudden changes in soil colour, composition, and/or materials within the soil is so important to pay attention to.  If you see something new, call over another crew member and/or the field director and have them take a look at it.  The two of you can then decide on the best way to proceed.

  7. Make sure you’re drinking lots of water and eating enough food.  Fast-paced environment = higher chances for dehydration and/or low blood sugar.  Not only that, but if you’re not drinking enough water than your joints are going to be annoyingly stiff the next morning.  Especially in your hands, from holding on to shovels and trowels for 8 hours a day.  My first CRM excavation was one week, and for that entire week I woke up with locked knuckles in my fingers from not drinking enough water.
  8. Archaeology hurts.  You’re doing hard, physical labour for at least 8 hours a day, several days in a row.  It’s going to hurt.  Keep band aids around for blisters and Advil for those aches and pains you WILL have.
  9. Wear gloves while screening.  You don’t have to, but if you’re going to be running your hands through dirt that may or may not contain sharp objects, it’s probably a good idea to wear gloves.
  10. Learn how to use a hypotenuse to make sure your units are square.

    Hypotenuse = the longest side of a right triangle, opposite the 90° right angle (AKA the diagonal part of a triangle)  Being able to figure out the hypotenuse of a square/rectangle will allow you to keep your unit straight.  If you’re lazy like me (though I much prefer the term “efficient”), you’ll keep a chart with you with hypotenuse measurements.  But if not, it’s a simple formula to plug into a calculator. A = one wall, B = one wall, C = hypotenuse.  C = √A² + B².  So say your unit is 1 metre (m) by 1 m.  1² + 1² = 2.  √2 = 1.41.  Your hypotenuse is 1.41 m.  Hammer in a northwest nail, measure 1 m south and hammer a southwest nail.  Now measure 1 m east from the southwest nail, and measure your hypotenuse length south diagonally from the

    Hypotenuse 2
    How to set up a unit. Verde Valley Archaeology Centre Field Excavation Manual, pg. 7

    northwest nail.  Where your 1 m measuring tape meets your 1.41 m measuring tape, hammer in your nail.  This is your southeast nail.  Do the same thing from the opposite corner to get the location for your final northeast nail.  Now you have a straight unit.

  11. Learn how to draw unit profiles.  It’s actually very simple.  Pick the side that shows the best stratigraphy. You need two nails on either side of the wall with a string between them.  Use a line level to make sure the string is level.  Now just measure down from the string to the bottom of each level at set intervals along the length of the wall (every 10 cm, 25 cm, 50 cm, etc.).  For each measurement you take, put a dot on your drawing.  Once you have all the measurements, connect the dots.  Don’t forget to include descriptions on the side of your drawing as to the composition of each layer.

    Profile Recording
    What your profile should look like.
  12. Make sure your unit walls are straight.  This will not only ensure you’ve been excavating the units to their fullest extent, but it will also make drawing profiles a lot easier.
  13. If you find artifacts in your unit or screen, happily share the news!  Not only is this awesome and we’ll all rush over to see what you’ve found, but it’s also super important.  It gives us all an idea of at what depths to expect to find artifacts, and what kinds of artifacts we should expect to find.
  14. You’re going to be dirty, sweaty, and exhausted. There is nothing glamorous about archaeology.  By the end of each day you’ll be covered in dirt, sweat, sunscreen, scratches, bruises, and bug bites.  Yes, you will smell gross.  You’ll want to go home and silently curl up into a ball in the shower (a cold shower beer will make this shower amazing), and then climb into bed and fall asleep just so you can wake up and do it all again the next day.


Going into your first CRM dig, you won’t have a clue what you’re doing.  Which is absolutely nothing to worry about because everyone is there to help you figure it all out.  Drink lots of water, ask lots of questions, and have a good time!

Support Research and Outreach:

Like what you’ve read on Bones, Stones, and Books? Consider supporting science research and outreach by buying me a coffee on Ko-fi!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s