So, What do Archaeologists Actually Do?

Photo: A small excavation in Edmonton, AB, that we nicknamed “Shrodinger’s Site” when none of us could agree as to whether or not it was an actual “site” until we excavated it.  Even then we couldn’t decide what it was.

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Abandoned makeshift grow-op we stumbled across during a survey in BC

Just like every other archaeologist on the planet, I’ve heard the “Oh, just like Indiana Jones” responses when I tell people what I do (although it’s usually also combined with a weird silent look when I add in the part about working with skeletons).  I then have to spend some time explaining that no, archaeology is nothing like it is in the movies and Indiana Jones was probably the worst archaeologist ever.  Though I do highly recommend the movie Stonehenge Apocalypse, but that’s because I’m horribly addicted to B-movies and I think Misha Collins is awesome.  I’ll admit that there are some similarities to the Indiana Jones movies.  Looters – people who steal from archaeological sites for monetary gain – are a very real problem and a very real danger (yes, many carry guns).  We do have to be concerned about animals, including snakes (though they’re not usually hanging out in a giant pit).

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This tree in BC was a cougar’s scratch post, which I only discovered after I peed on it…

And yes, at times booby-traps are something to consider.  For example, illegal grow-ops can be baited with dog food to attract bears to the area.  Guns can also be placed in trees and attached to a trip-wire on the ground.  But, back to the actual archaeology of Indiana Jones, our work is nothing like that.  So then what do archaeologists actually do?

The answer to that question varies slightly depending on what part of the country (or world, but I’m focusing my discussion to Canada) you’re in.  All of the provinces and territories have their own requirements for who can be an archaeologist and perform archaeological duties, though most generally require that you have a Masters degree in archaeology with a set number of years of experience.  Once you’ve met the requirements set out by the province or territory you work in, you can apply for what’s essentially recognition from the governing body that you’ve met those requirements and can undertake archaeological work in that area.  That recognition varies in each province and territory (in BC and Alberta, for example, you have permit-holding status while in Ontario you hold a Professional License).  Without having permit-holding status or a P-license, there’s still a lot of work you can do as an archaeologist, but it is limited.  Limitations = less work = no money.  So if you’re interested in working in a specific area once you’ve graduated, spend some time now looking online to find out what kind of requirements you need to meet!

Depending on what kind if industry you’re working in, archaeologists can be involved in a lot of different work.  You could be an academic professor, teaching archaeology at universities and spending a long time focusing in depth research on a particular site or sites from a particular time period.  You could be a lab archaeologist, running samples (like radiocarbon dates or DNA samples) for either your own research or others who send you samples.  You could also be working in a museum managing archaeological collections.

In CRM archaeology, our time is usually split between 3 tasks: survey, excavation, and lab/office work (usually our lab and office are one in the same).

Surveys – We head out on surveys, and depending on what area you work in and what provincial rules and regulations are in place, surveys may or may not involve shovel testing.  In BC I’ve been on plenty of forestry surveys for forestry cutblocks (the areas designated for logging).  These surveys have involved spending 8-10 hours hiking through forests on steep, mountainous terrain looking for any sort of surface evidence indicating there are archaeological materials within that area.  In Ontario our surveys also include carrying a shovel and screen and digging small holes every 5 metres.  At the end of the day you’re sore from either hiking up and down mountains or digging a lot of holes.  Sometimes both.  We also survey a lot of ploughed farmers fields in Ontario, which is surprisingly exhausting on the legs.

A recent survey we spent a week on in Bancroft, ON.  We walked up and down hills, over and under trees, digging holes every 5 metres.

Excavation – Excavations are required where archaeological materials are encountered.  Most of the time it’s our surveys which reveal the areas for excavation, but sometimes it’s construction that reveals the archaeology.  In BC, excavations are undertaken according to

Part of our excavations of a huge historic site in Kingston, ON, included wood-lined privies (top), box and French drains (bottom left), and several large building foundations (bottom right)

five 1 m by 1 m units will be excavated.  Depending on what’s found in those units (usually it comes down to the type of artifacts and the number of artifacts), the BC Archaeology Branch will then issue us an amended permit to excavate the entire site, or up to a much larger number of 1 m by 1 m units.  Or the planned construction will change to protect the site.  In Ontario, you start with a Stage 3 excavation to assess the site.  During this stage we’ll excavate a set number of units  across the site in an attempt to understand what type of site it is and how large (or small) it is.  If the site is small enough we can usually excavate it all during a stage 3.  But if the site is large, or a more complex type of site, than a Stage 4 mitigative strategy is developed.  Sometimes this strategy involves altering the construction plans to move around and protect the site, other times it involves an excavation of the entire site.

Lab/Office – As much as we love being outside and digging and being the first people to see/touch something in hundreds to thousands of years, we actually spend the majority of

8 months after finishing our excavation, artifact processing from our Kingston site is maybe only 50% complete

our time inside the lab and/or office.  Sometimes we’re in the office getting all the prep work done for upcoming projects, such as emailing with clients and looking up pre-existing archaeological concerns so that we can prepare our permits or reports.  Other times we’re in the office writing up our reports after a project has been completed.  And between the start and the finish of a project we’re in the lab cleaning and processing all of the archaeological materials we’ve excavated.  Depending on the project and the amount of artifacts recovered, a single report can take up to months, or longer, to write.  I was recently on a huge project in Kingston, ON, where our crew (working with another crew) recovered over 35,000 artifacts from only 1/5 of the site.  8 months later we’re still not finished cleaning and processing all the artifacts.

So, there you have it.  A little insight into what archaeologists actually do.  Notice how no where in there did I mention running around from giant rolling boulders, or jumping out of crashing airplanes?  If you’re just starting out in archaeology, be warned that you’re probably not going to have very stable work.  Without all the proper credentials that I mentioned earlier (permit-holding status, licenses, etc.) you’ll be a little bit limited in what you’re actually allowed to do.  Don’t give up, though.  It’s easy to get frustrated and discouraged when you’re watching your bank account drain over the 3 weeks you’ve got between projects, knowing that your colleagues with those credentials are busy earning money in the lab/office.  Trust me, I’ve been in that position more times than I can count.  I know how incredibly disheartening it can feel.  Keep your plans and goals in mind and work hard to obtain them.  Good things always come to those who work hard and wait.  You can trust me on that one too.

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