When to Say ‘No’ to Archaeology

You’ve heard the old cliché, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. Sometimes the way you should go will take you away from archaeology.


Walking away from archaeology can be a tough thing to talk about. It can be a matter of pride after investing so much time, energy, blood, and sweat into a line of work that can often be quite fulfilling. It can also be pretty ego-deflating to stop working in archaeology when so many of us wear the badge of “archaeologist” as an identity. Can you still call yourself an archaeologist if you’re working in a bar, serving up lattés, or doing anything else for a living? There’s a lot to unpack there, and some of that baggage could be standing in the way of your happiness and financial prosperity.

1. You can still be an archaeologist even if it doesn’t pay the bills.

No matter where we are in our careers as archaeologists, we all need to divorce our personal identities from our professions. When you cling to “archaeologist” as a badge that validates your self-worth, you take a lot of pride in the hard work and dedication you’ve invested in the field. That’s all well and good, but you also lash your emotional and financial well-being to something you might have to toss overboard at some point in your life just to stay afloat. Take pride in your work, but know when to take a lap and come back to it. There are other ways to stay involved in archaeology even if that’s not your day job.

2. Know when to quit.

I can’t tell you any one-size-fits-all reason to hang up your boots and put away your trowel, but I can tell you this much: don’t waste time doing something that doesn’t fulfill you. Maybe you’re on a project that isn’t managed well, isn’t providing you with anything useful to your CV, and the pay sucks. Maybe it’s time to quit. Maybe your time and skills aren’t being appreciated as much as they should be. If you know you can do better, quit. If you have personal career goals that are nowhere in sight, consider finding an alternative way to accomplish those goals. That’s not to say that whenever things get challenging, you should pack it in and run; no, hard work and perseverance do pay off and if you serve your time in the salt mines long enough, you’ll be able to better control your options. Bill White at Succinct Research has a couple great posts on sticking it out that we highly recommend. It takes being really honest with yourself to know when it’s just not worth it to you to grind out a ton of negative shovel tests for a project that was already over budget and behind schedule (that your name won’t be on the report for anyway).

3. Use your time away to improve yourself.

Just because you stop being an archaeologist by profession, doesn’t mean you must stop being an archaeologist by practice. Here are just a few things to keep you fresh, for starters:

When you “return” to archaeology (as a profession), you’ll be stronger than when you left and hopefully have more options available to you.

4. You’re Never Really ‘Done’ with Archaeology.

You might only be out of the profession of archaeology for a few months or even a few years, or you might be out of the profession altogether. That doesn’t diminish what you’ve done in archaeology, or – even bigger – what archaeology has done to you. Even if you leave the profession entirely, you’ll take an anthropological way of delivering critical thought to your work. You studied the science of how people use resources and interact with their environments, and you’ll find that it’s more relevant than you ever thought once you explore other venues. At the very least, even if you try to put as much distance between you and archaeology as possible, you’ll still find yourself in a pub someday, overhearing a trivia game, and you’ll know what an Acheulean hand axe is when nobody else does.

5. Don’t Give in to the Gripe.

As Bill White points out on Succinct Research, CRMers and other archaeologists have a tendency to wind each other up when they share their “battle stories”. Try not to join in on naysaying the field, and try not to be discouraged when others do. This does a lot of damage to the field because, not only is it unprofessional as all get out, it also makes you wonder if it’s even worth it to stick out 20-odd years of field archaeology if you’re just going to end up whining about it to a 22-year old when your knees hurt and you don’t have any retirement savings to fall back on. If your project isn’t padding your CV, but you’re getting decent pay, it’s not the end of the world. If you held a higher position in one firm but took a lower position to move to another state, that’s still something to amp up your experience. Sometimes you go through some hard times, but you need to Rule #5 it and keep moving.

6. Don’t Be an Enabler.

There’s another reason to say ‘no’ to a project that’s a hot-button debate in the CRM industry – pay. If the hourly wages and per diem are just insultingly poor, you shouldn’t take that job, no matter how easy it is to get hired. If you’re new to CRM, you’ll hear a lot of your colleagues talk about The Recession as a major turning point for the industry. I got into CRM as “the way things used to be” were quickly evaporating and firms had to make a lot of tough decisions just to stay in business. Firms across the board had to low-ball budgets just to win contracts, which meant working with really tight margins for overhead. Some firms developed somewhat despotic budgeting strategies, where the profit margins were culled from field tech wages and per diem allowances. That’s not to accuse all firms of being outright evil, but wages and per diems went on a serious diet across the board no matter how well-intentioned the administration of a firm were. Now The Market is allegedly in an upswing and more projects with bigger budgets are appearing. However, most firms are still behaving like it’s 2008. Employers are in a fantastic position in 2015 with supposedly more talented applicants than ever, however they should also be prepared to allot living wages and fair per diems in their budget proposals. It is absolutely shameful for an employer to low-ball their field techs on wages and nickel-and-dime them on per diem, and these employers don’t deserve your hard-earned skill set. Take your CV to someone who can reward you fairly for your work. I’m no economist, but I’d wager that despotic wages are symptomatic of larger problems and firms that try to scrape profits off their laborers rather than deliver quality products (i.e. efficient, productive field investigations) are signaling catastrophic failure.

What’s a fair wage, or fair per diem? Look up the Department of Labor’s prevailing wages for the state listed on a project, and check the General Services Administration for per diem rates. Not all projects qualify for SCA prevailing wage, nor per diem rates, and there are a few firms out there that play fast and loose with these caveats, so be wary.

The sticking point on low wages and per diems is that some CRMers will argue that you should be happy to get whatever you can find and take anything to stay in the game. I won’t wave the flag and be a CRM cheerleader when I see almost every other sector of the economy improving. I’ll do literally anything else that pays well rather than enable CRM managers who haven’t used The Recession to learn how to be more efficient with their budgets to attract talented staff, but some may not feel they’re in a position to negotiate more. “Beggars can’t be choosers”, so they say.

Don’t take this post as bitterness or regret for time spent in CRM. A career in archaeology has its ups and downs – just like any other profession – but it stings your pride and hurts in places you don’t expect when you’ve been told things like: “it’s not about the money” and “do what you love”. Sometimes what you love isn’t the best option, but it doesn’t mean abandoning it altogether. Stick it out as long as you can and find ways to stay current, but also be honest enough with yourself to know when you’re hurting yourself to “follow your dream”. As someone who has stepped away from archaeology several times, and in several ways, I can tell you I’ve always been better for it and been able to return with more to offer than when I left. Think of your long term goals, and it’s much easier to clearly see how each project fits into your plan.

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6 Responses

  1. Tori says:

    This is a great piece! I quit archaeology a couple of years ago and it is true that it never really quits you. I didn’t feel like I was progressing in the field and I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the temporary nature of fieldwork. That is not to say that it doesn’t work for some, I know techs that love it and revel in the uncertainty of this work. Archaeology will always have a place in my heart, as well as the amazing people who I met in the field! Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back to it.

  2. KGB, a lost Brit Archaeologist in the USA says:

    Archaeology is a fabulous job, l was one for a very long time, (l’m 59 years young).

    Do it, enjoy it, but do not, l repeat DO NOT expect to get rich!

  3. Karl says:

    Please do not confuse academic archaeology with CRM. At their roots they are very similar but the motivations and lifeways are very different. If you want to move a lot of dirt go into CRM. If you want to teach and live at home instead of a motel get a PhD and fight for one of those 30 jobs that are open every year

  4. Morley says:

    It seems that the US has particularly poor pay etc. In Canada we were somewhat insulated from the 2008 recession. Archaeology tech wages, and in particular professional level wages, stayed reasonably high. I’m shocked when I see US jobs at $12 or $15 an hour and requiring BA or MA and 5 years experience. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with obtaining paid positions right out of high school and continuing for 46 years now. I still love it and yes, I do find my identity is largely based on the profession. As an employer, I often find that the most valuable archaeologists have had a wide range of life experiences.

    The best thing you can do for longer term employment and higher pay is to take courses in technical writing. While everyone seems to think they can write — after all they did make it through an undergraduate or even graduate degree — very few can actually write well. I think academic writing may actually harm rather than help. Fresh grads tend to make horribly complex sentences and paragraphs and use way too many multi syllabic words. I need people that can simply describe what the project scope was, and not conflate methods and results. This much on its own will likely get you a more permanent job. If you are be able to put together a reasoned argument for significance and figure out what impacts will occur and quantify them so much the better. Make appropriate recommendations too? You’re in!

  5. Karen says:

    I have been in archaeology over forty years. Taught and worked in CRM, so I know both sides.
    Unfortunately many academics talk down CR M. Good things can come out of projects. The deepest site in California, some thirty feet below surface, with over 9000 years of occupation was found as a result of CRM.
    People stay in archaeology because they love it and are too stubborn to quit.

  6. C says:

    Great article. Im definitely in a fork in the road now. Archaeology not only pays poorly but you can not, i repeat, you cannot live off of the salary these days. You cannot buy a car, buy a house, repay loans, etc. You are forever Dependent on someone else. Tough pill to swallow when I primarily do GIS,when i know in a different industry I would be set. I love the people and work but I want a better personal life. Its really hard to know when to walk away.

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