What is an Archaeological Technician?

The people who go out into the heat, rain, and snow to survey and record the information needed for compliance reports (for Archaeology and Cultural Resources required under Federal Law) are the true work horses of the Cultural Resource Management Industry. These legions of underpaid and unappreciated people are the "Archaeological Technicians." But, what exactly does it mean to be an "Archaeological Technician?

The industry answer to this question depends upon which side of the fence you are standing, and who is asking the Question. The official definition is forwarded by the U. S. Department of Labor. They are solely responsible for determining the classes of employment for Federal Contract work, but there are Professionals in this industry who would like to have technicians classed as "professionals" to suit their egocentric view of themselves as scientists, and in turn have techs classed as common laborers when it comes to establishing pay levels. The UAFT is here to announce to them that they can not have it both ways and that this industry will have to accept and acknowledge the important roll of the "Archaeological Technician" in the CRM Industry.

U. S. Dept. of Labor Wage and Hour Division Service Contract Act Directory of Occupations

29020 Archeological Technician

Provides technical support to professional archeologist, utilizing a basic understanding of anthropological and archaeological field techniques in connection with locating, testing and evaluating cultural resource sites. Conducts prefield office research, field surveys and site testing, using a variety of reference materials, interviews with source individuals, aerial photographs and technical instruments. Searches areas of proposed projects for evidence of historic and prehistoric remains. Determines exact location of sites and marks them on maps and aerial photographs. Records information on site survey form and prepares an archaeological reconnaissance report needed for evaluation and management of the project. Insures that work assignments are carried out in safe and timely manner according to established standards and procedures. Reviews work in progress and reports to superiors relative to the completion date and other standards set in report. Cleans and catalogs artifacts recovered from inventories and excavations.

Education and Experience

Although the technician is principally engaged in field or lab work, nearly all will at one time or another, during their tenure as an "Archaeological Technician," be involved in every aspect of CRM work listed above. What an Archaeological Technician can never do is act as "Principal Investigator" on a project or sign reports as a "Professional Archaeologist." Professional Archaeologists must meet the minimum experience and educational requirements set forth by the U. S. Secretary of the Interior and respective State Historic Preservation Officers. Archaeological Technicians have no such educational requirements beyond that which it takes to obtain "a basic understanding of anthropological and archeological field techniques..."

Some may argue that this means an Archaeological Technician is little more than a laborer with some limited skill. Never-the-less, a skill it is, and one that develops greatly with years of experience in the field. Regardless of their number of years in the business, Professional Cultural Resource Managers gain precious little field experience, and while they are the acknowledge experts in professional research, they may have only a fraction of the practical field experience of the seasoned Archaeological Technicians working on their projects. The analogy of the difference between the Carpenter and the Architect could be used to illustrate this relationship.

Where do Archaeological Technicians come from?

Technicians usually promote themselves for work by circulating resume's to as many Consulting Companies as possible. They rely on their body of experience to win them a position on a field crew for the duration of a single project. As a project ends they are forced to repeat the process, seeking to sign on to the next company with an upcoming field project. This system works well until the supply of experienced Technicians is exhausted. When this happens companies will begin to hire large numbers of green students, relatives, or anyone with a pulse to raise the crew size to the level called for in their initial contract proposal. After the experienced tech pool has run dry the companies are only concerned about finding billable bodies. This can result in field crews composed of over 70% inexperienced workers, little useful field research is accomplished under these circumstances, and the companies know it. To add insult to injury, the companies routinely pay the experienced and inexperienced at or near the same hourly rate and expect the experienced Technicians to train the novices in the field.

How long do Archaeological Technicians stay around?

The sad truth is, that under present industry conditions it is unusual for many Technicians to remain in the industry for more than five years; the average is only three years. Technicians seldom move up in the industry, companies seem to prefer to hire junior professionals fresh out of graduate school, and nearly no companies offer their employees opportunities to advance their education. Technicians are frequently forced to seek better paying although less rewarding work outside the industry to make ends meet. This situation of constant turn over further degrades the quality of field work by denying the industry an adequate supply of trained and experienced technicians.

What is causing experienced Archaeological Technicians to leave CRM in such great numbers?

The working conditions of this industry are the catalyst driving good people out of CRM. The following profile and industry averages should serve to illustrate this point. This information is based on recent surveys and interviews of people working in the field from across the country. These figures reflect averages of responses to a range of similar questions, some regional differences in working conditions do occur.

Financial outlook (figures based on a three year period)

Average total hours worked per year:
Number of months per year with some CRM work:
Average hourly wage:
Average annual income (before taxes):

Personal Job Related Expenses

Average amount of jobs requiring extensive travel:
Average travel radius from home to work:
300 miles
Average number of States worked in per year:
Average number of companies worked for per year (based on number of annual W-2's received):
Average annual uncompensated work related out-of-pocket travel expenses (based on unpaid mileage, meals, lodging):
Average Adjusted Annual Income
(Annual "take-home-pay" after deduction of uncompensated work related expenses):
If paid the national average prevailing wage ($15/hr.) the adjusted annual income for the same 1400 hours would
only amount to $16,500. Less than a laborer or truck driver.

Profile of Archaeological Technicians

Age average:
Age range:
19 to 62
Years in the field average:
(this figure is heavily weighted by respondents with under two years of experience: the second most common response was seven years)
Ratio of men to women Archaeological Technicians

Some telling percentages

Percentage of individuals with a college education:
Of individuals with a college degree, number with outstanding student loans:
Of people with outstanding student loans, number presently delinquent or in default:
Percentage of individuals without health insurance:
Percentage of individuals without a retirement plan:
Percentage of individuals who rely on unemployment on an annual basis:
Percentage of individuals who have had to take jobs out of their field to make ends meet:
Percentage of individuals who have had to rely on family or friends for housing while between jobs:
Percentage of individuals who have no home or apartment to return to on weekends or between jobs (homeless):
Percentage of individuals who find that what they earn as an Archaeological Technician is not even enough to meet basic living expenses:
In-spite of these figures...
Percentage of individuals who are trying to make a career as an Archaeological Technician:
Of those who start out as Archaeological Technicians percentage of individuals who will last more than three years:

A Word of Warning to Those Who Would Consider a Career as an Archaeological Technician

To be fair, there are some rewarding aspects to Technician work in the CRM industry. Working in a field that you truly care about is a reward all its own. Working outdoors in good weather and meeting fellow technician to share experiences and interests with can be greatly rewarding. There is little argument that there are fleeting moments of excitement in working on an actual archaeological mitigation or finding a previously unknown site. The magic of these moments can be truly thrilling. Unfortunately none of these thrilling moments will pay the bills. For those who are independently wealthy there are plenty of opportunities to work on real archaeological sites in the U. S. and abroad as a volunteer. However, the CRM industry is a for-profit-business, and it is herein that the trouble lies.
The harsh reality of choosing work as an Archaeological Technician is that you will be choosing a life of poverty. Your credit will likely be ruined because you will not be at one address long enough to maintain regular monthly payments without the help of your parents. This is a brutal brand of poverty because by working at all you will not be eligible for Medicaid assistance, or food stamps, or JPTA job training assistance to improve your life. Your annual take-home-pay will be less than a full time job at minimum wage. In fact this hourly rate turns out to be $3.22/hour. If you are faced with a major medical expense you will be forced to file personal bankruptcy. You will not be able to afford regular dental or medical check-ups, these things will become a luxury. If you get sick you will have to suffer through it. You will also find that you will be forced into the embarrassing situation of borrowing money from your family just to survive (and you will likely be unable to repay it). You will most likely be homeless, relying on friends and family to put you up between jobs.
These conditions are brought about because your employer only cares about winning the contract as the low bidder, and making his profit. These uncaring greed mongers compete for contracts on the basis of the lowest technician wages they can get away with paying. On Federal Contracts this is expressly illegal, but done just the same. Greedy contractors care less about the quality of employees they attract than they do about their profit, so left unchecked low wages will continue to be the industry standard.

What You Can Expect From Work in CRM

Field work in CRM is labor intensive hard work. You will develop calluses any pipefitter or carpenter would be proud of. You will strain you back from shoveling, hoisting buckets full of dirt, and pushing wheelbarrows. You will hurt your knees and wrists form hours of crouching down to trowel level after level of dirt walls and floors. You will ware out countless pairs of your own gloves screening ton after ton of soil. You will work in ankle deep mud, screen wet and frozen soil, and be exposed to hypothermia and frostbite along with sunstroke and heat exhaustion. You will be routinely exposed to poison ivy, ground hornets, biting flies, mosquitoes, snake infested swamps, and hayfever. You will be faced with unsanitary and unsafe working conditions on a regular basis, and if you get sick you are likely to loose your job. Your knowledge of fieldwork will go unappreciated unless the company gets behind in the field and then it will go unrewarded. You will be expected to keep detailed notes on scientific observations but you will be given no time to write them down on the wet and muddy paperwork that you will be provided with. You will likely be treated with disrespect and regarded as disposable property.
After work you return sweaty, muddy, and tired to a motel room that you will likely be expected to share with a sweaty, muddy, total stranger. You will likely be expected to move out of your room every weekend, and back in again at the start of the next week. Even though this will be the only home you know for months or years at a time you will have little or no privacy or personal time. Your employer will most likely keep you in the dark as to the work plan and duration of the project. Often the only refuge from the job will be found in a bottle, and your will likely find yourself drinking too much, even if you would not normally drink.

What to Expect From Your Employer

Expect that your employer is a business person and is principally concerned about the bottom line. Do not expect your employer to care greatly about the archaeology or quality of field work. Your employer is paid to deliver a CRM report, the appearance of this document is the only important aspect of the contract. If your employer can deliver an acceptable report, even if it is based on fraudulent or fictitious field information, he is likely to collect his money with no consequences.
Do not expect humane treatment, or your employer to be concerned about your welfare or the burdens his project puts on your personal existence. Do not expect your employer to care about your homeless situation or your need to conduct banking or post office business on a week day (weekends off are of little use to someone trapped on the road with no home address). Your employer is likely to turn you out of your hotel room on your days off with no concern of you sleeping in your car or under a bridge. Your employer is just as likely to turn you out of your room if you get sick or injured. You will be told that you are expendable! And, to them you are!
You can also expect that your employer will be ill prepared and unable to manage a field project. Expect that they will be lacking in the major equipment needed to perform field work. There is likely to be ridiculous shortages of simple items such as shovels and screens, 30 or 100 meter tapes needed to layout grids and record finds, brush clearing equipment, drinking water or toilets, or even enough vehicles to get the crew safely into the field. There will be an utter lack of major equipment needed such as transits and survey gear, proper shelters to keep rain from ruining excavations, or pumps and generators to keep standing water out of units and block excavations. Remember we told you that your employer is more interested about profitability than archaeology, and it shows in the field work.
Aside from poor field archaeology and a total disregard for employee safety, you can also expect many employers to jerk you around on your housing and meal compensation (per diem). You can also expect to be jerked around at payday. Company pay and perdiem policies will be changed without notice to suit the companies financial need regardless of promises made to you at the start of the project. Expect to be cheated. Expect to be lied to. Expect to be abused. You can even expect to have your employer steal from you. He will illegally steal your overtime hours and federal required prevailing wages on government jobs. Remember, money is the bottom line and your employer won't be above breaking the law to get it.

What Your Employer Expects From You

Your employer will expect that you do not have a life of your own. He will expect that you are trained and educated (typically a BA degree is expected) all at your own personal cost. They will expect that you are ready and able to work in all weather conditions, and that you supply all of your own rain gear and other foul weather equipment (often including shelters). They will expect that you supply most of your own tools, and will pressure you to loan them to others who show up less well equipped. They will expect you to work silently with out proper instruction or explanation of work plans, schedules, or project goals.

What Your Employer Thinks of You

Your employer thinks you are an expendable piece of equipment that can easily be replaced. They will treat you as though you are stupid and unable to understand your own job. You will be called derogatory names like "Diggro, Shovel-bum, Wog, Field Trash." Your filthy appearance after work will make you unwelcome at the hotels where you stay, and your employers will act as though this is your fault. Generally, you will be despised as a necessary evil of the business and treated accordingly.

What Your Employer Takes From You

Your employer will try to take your dignity, but that is a cheap commodity compared to the federally guaranteed Labor Rights your employer will try to deny you. Your employers will routinely deny you the following rights without fail.

OSHA Rights

Your right to a safe and healthful workplace including:

Wage and Hour Rights

What Your Employer Gets From You

He gets a bargain basement labor force that is totally disposable. He also gets a workforce with very little overhead. Actual overhead on technicians is less than 10% for payroll expense, matching FICA, worker's-comp, and unemployment insurance. In turn your employer charges an average 100% overhead mark-up for your services (perdiem and hotel are additional direct expenses billed to the client). So for every dollar your employer pays you, he makes a buck. That sounds like a pretty good deal for the companies, at the expense of the Technicians and the Taxpayers.

Such Are the Conditions in the CRM industry

If nothing is done, these conditions will only get worse. If you are thinking of making a living in this field with only an undergraduate degree, this will be your fate. If you only want to do archaeology and don't care about your income volunteer to work with Earthwatch (680 Mt. Auburn St., PO Box 403, Watertown, MA 02272). If you need to make a living, contact the UAFT about improving your future.

What Can be Done About The Terrible Conditions That Plague Archaeological Technicians in CRM?

Many Archaeological Technicians are fed-up with these conditions and they have formed a Labor Union to fight against this oppression. But, this fight will take time and will not change the industry overnight. This fight to claim workers rights will involve education, investigation, lobbying, and hardship. But this hardship pales in comparison to the oppression faced on a daily basis in the CRM industry. If you are interested in helping the struggle for workers rights in CRM, contact the UAFT about joining the fight.

Return to the UAFT Home

Contact us at:

United Archaeological Field Technicians

3135 West Street, Box B

Weirton WV 26062