Career Spotlight: What I Do As An Archaeologist

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

With archaeology serving as a backdrop to old-fashioned adventure stories, you probably have some diverse images of what it means to be an archaeologist in mind. The truth, unsurprisingly, is less about treasure hunting and more about the methodic analysis of historical sites.

And it's not just professors in tweed either; archaeologists also work with the public and private sectors to preserve cultural history from being affected by infrastructure or construction projects. To learn a little more about what their day to day work is like, we spoke with Mason Miller, who has worked as an archaeologist in the private sector for the past 15 years.

Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.

Hi! My name is Mason Miller. I am a Senior Archaeologist/Principal Investigator and Project Manager at AmaTerra Environmental, Inc. in Austin, Texas. Working as one of the senior members of the cultural resource branch of a larger environmental consulting firm, I oversee land-based and marine archaeological investigations that are often legally required for many public and private-sector development projects.

To boil it down: there are various federal and state laws that require agencies to know what kinds of archaeological sites, historic buildings, and cultural places might be impacted by a proposed construction project like a highway expansion, or dredging a shipping channel, or a solar power plant (my favourite), or maybe installing a sewer line... generally infrastructure. To comply with these laws, firms like ours get hired to investigate project areas for archaeological sites (among other things) and determine if they are important or not. We do all kinds of analyses to find out how old a site is, what types of artefacts are there, how well it's preserved, and more. If they are important, we then do detailed excavations (like what you see on documentaries with the square holes and lots of buckets and screens) to preserve the site through the data it contains.

I develop and manage project budgets, assure that fieldwork is meeting research standards and goals, write and edit reports and other regulatory documents, and coordinate regularly with clients and members of state and federal agencies. My main geographic area of experience is Texas and the surrounding states but I've conducted studies as far away as Europe (England, Portugal, the Azores; during graduate school). I have worked at AmaTerra for the last five years, working at another environmental firm for about nine years before that.

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

Pictured: A large-scale excavation project in northeast Texas.

What drove you to choose your career path?

I've always had an interest in history. I can remember checking out the Scholastic picture books on Ancient Greece from the school library and making those sugarcube pyramids as a kid. I particularly enjoyed shipwrecks and would reenact the investigations of Andrea Dorea and Titanic I'd seen on TV in my neighbourhood pool (I can remember my sister and I whirling a Spirograph around on a page to get a "readout" on some "analysis" we did on a chunk of concrete from the pool bottom). It didn't really click, though, until I got to college. I had gotten to school without a clue where I was going with life and was watching the 1977 movie The Deep with Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset. In watching it, I realised I was rapt at all of the shipwreck scenes and just said "Aha! That's it!" I've been pursuing it ever since. I've been doing terrestrial archaeology (work on land) for most of the time because there were more career opportunities that way, but I get out on the water, too, on occasion.

How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

After I knew what it was that I wanted to do, I got my bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas (Hook 'em!). Since I wanted to study shipwrecks, I got a master's degree in nautical archaeology from Texas A&M University (I'm an orangeblood, though). I've found that having a full Ph.D. doesn't really open many more doors than just the Master's, so I haven't pursued that level of education. During college and graduate school, I did a few field projects in Belize, Florida, England, Portugal, and the Azores which prepared me for some of the rigors of fieldwork. Once I graduated with my M.A., I knocked on a lot of doors and bounced around as a contract archaeologist (someone who works on one project for one company then moves on to another project at another company; typically for fieldwork only) with a few firms, doing a project here and a project there (both marine and terrestrial archaeology). It took a lot longer to get hired full time than I'd expected, to be honest. Eventually, I was taken on full time with an environmental consulting company and have been permanent staff ever since.

Working as a professional archaeologist requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree, preferably in a related subject (anthropology, classics, etc.). With that degree, people can work as a contract archaeologist and be hired on as a salaried staff member at a consulting firm. There is, though, a pretty firm ceiling for advancement if you don't have an advanced degree (masters or doctorate), too. As an example, in Texas you often have to have a permit to do field survey and the law requires permit applicants have a minimum of a Master's degree. Without that you'll never be able to get permits and you'll never be able to lead investigations. While that isn't set in stone and there are ways to work within this system, it does tend to separate the career tracks as a result.

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

Pictured: Mason recording components of a Great Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp at Mother Neff State Park (outside of Waco, Texas) with a ground-penetrating radar.

What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?

Out in the field, we spend the majority of our time digging empty holes in the ground or finding nothing on our marine survey remote sensing screens.

We spend a good bit more time in the office than one might expect. For every day in the field, we may spend 3-5 days doing analysis and writing. Often more than that, really. The rest of the time is often spent preparing proposals. We have to feed the beast, as it were, so we're always on the lookout for opportunities to work on different projects. Often, responding to these requests for proposals (RFPs) set out by engineering firms or state or federal agencies takes a great deal of work, particularly at the higher levels of the company.

Like so many of us out there, I spend a LOT of time writing and answering emails and talking on the phone with clients.

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

To get the most common one out of the way: we don't look for dinosaurs; we look for the stuff that people made and left. I always say, "If we are finding dinosaurs, we are digging waaaaay too deep." The things that we look for don't actually have to be that old. The legal cutoff for "archaeological sites" (remember, our work is done to comply with state and federal laws), is generally 50 years of age or older. My company recently documented some Cold War-era missile test facility archaeological sites in Utah and New Mexico from the '60s.

Next I'd say that people tend to think that archaeology is exotic and exciting all the time. It's certainly interesting, but most of the time it's hardly the swashbuckling adventure you'd expect. Admitting that what we archaeologists do isn't typical, it is still very much a business like many others. We fill out time-sheets, we send/receive email, we have staff meetings and conference calls. We are providing a professional service and our expertise is our product. 75 per cent of the time you'd be hard pressed to tell if we were talking about a Middle Archaic campsite or running a real estate office.

In that same vein, one last misconception that people tend to have is that all we do is work with sites and amazing artefacts all the time. I can't tell you how many empty holes I've dug across the countryside... thousands (I'm really good at it though!). There are a lot of surveys where we don't find anything. Working with actual sites is a relatively small part of our surveys but those parts are certainly the most important. The big excavations are even more rare. I'd say in my 15 years in the industry, I've participated in full excavations on about 8-10 sites. Something like that.

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

Pictured: An assortment of Gary projectile points from an excavation in northeast Texas. These are roughly 1000-3000 years old.

What are your average work hours?

My work week is pretty standard most of the time: 40-50 hours/week, Monday through Friday. A field project may require some work over the weekends with longer days. We usually have 5/2 or 10/4 (days on/off) field commitments for fieldwork (depending on the size of the project), but I'm not in the field as much as I used to be.

What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?

I would say that one of the biggest personal tips I try to adhere to is to fully understand what I am writing about. I try to always take a step back and know specifically why I am writing a letter (for example) from a legal standpoint. There's a lot of information I could write about, but if it doesn't help a project get through the legal proceedings, it's a waste. So I always try to view what I'm writing from the perspective of the person who is reading it to answer all their questions before they ask them. That's helped me out a lot over the years.

As for shortcuts, though not every state has one, online archaeological site databases make a HUGE difference in the work that we do. These databases are not accessible by the general public (interestingly, archaeological site locations are among the few information sets that are immune to the Freedom of Information Act) but professional archaeologists who have access (there's a whole background check process) can very quickly see the locations and types of sites in an area, the previous survey work conducted, and a lot of other really useful information. This helps in preparing proposals for projects, or understanding the best field methods to use, or to remember just what site it was that we recorded at some location. This used to require trips to specific archives and lots of extra time but now it's a couple clicks away. There are similar online databases for soils (the USDA's Web Soil Survey) and geology (the Geological Atlas of Texas layer on Google Maps is one) that are open to the public. Those make things much quicker as well.

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

Pictured: Co-worker Noel Steinle digging a shovel test in Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area in Northeast Texas. The wooden frame is the small survey screen used to sift shovel test dirt to find artefacts.

What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?

I find that I enjoy the client interactions and conferences more than many of my peers. Because I'm a bit of a people person, I actually prefer that side of the business over the more hardcore science. I think that stems from the fact that I studied shipwrecks but work mostly on land at this point.

Also, I think that one of the things that I do that is a bit different than my peers is that I'm a big try-er, particularly in the technology field. I'm the guy who reads about some new tool or program and will just give it a shot. A lot of the archaeologists in this profession tend to stick to the tried and true methods that have worked well for them. By all means, there are many tinkerers in the profession like me, but we are more the exception than the rule, I'd say. There's a good bit of risk if you're managing a field crew on a survey or an excavation and you decide to go a bit out on a limb to try something out. Is it going to waste a lot of time/money? Are you going to lose data? But for me the potential for upsides is worth the added stress. I've grown a lot of grey hairs when things didn't work out as well as I'd expected, but what the hey… it was worth a shot and I always wind up having learned something new in the process that I'll apply to the next project.

What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

I would have to say that it's the stress. Environmental consulting (archaeology included) is very competitive. Most often, much like a carpenter or plumber, numerous environmental firms all compete for a given project (e.g. fulfilling all archaeological compliance requirements for a new electrical transmission line) and price is usually a substantial factor. Shaving a budget down as low as possible to be competitive and sticking to it can be very difficult given all the unknowns of a project. If it doesn't go well in one way or another and a project goes over budget, it reflects on you as a project manager.

I also sometimes worry that we missed something during a survey. It does happen on occasion in the industry (we dig holes in the ground to try to find sites but there's nothing saying the important site is right next to the hole you dig...). If I'm being particularly paranoid, when the phone rings I worry that it's a phone call from our client saying the construction bulldozer pulled up half of the Ark of the Covenant in the area we'd said was all clear. Shudder... I haven't ever missed a biggie, but it does happen so it's always in the back of my mind.

I try to deal with the stress by running (very slowly... it's more like "plodding" really) during my lunch hour a few days a week. It's a great way for me to get outside and get some fresh air and let my mind wander. It really helps. I also have a five-year-old who forces me (sometimes unsuccessfully) to forget about work for a while and just play LEGOs or kick the soccer ball. And I try to throw in as many chances to be creative as I can.

Pictured above: Mason collecting a river sediment core sample in the San Marcos River.

What's the most enjoyable part of the job?

I'd say it would be the opportunity for creativity and the variety. Often in this career, you get to mentally stretch your legs in one way or another. For some, that involves being able to formulate a new analysis method to determine trade networks in certain regions. For others, it may be finding ways to project known site locations and types into a probability model to assist in planning the location of a new highway. I looked at ways to improve public access to the work that we do (after all, they paid for it in taxes). As a result, I was actually the lead author on an interactive digital book that's available free on iTunes and the Google Play store called "Peering Through the Sands of Time." To my knowledge, it's the first of it's kind in the industry (and it's pretty slick, if I do say so myself… 3D models, pop-up text, all kinds of fun stuff. You should check it out!

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

To do it, I had to learn some new programs to develop it, including 3D modelling and how to get the publication into these stores. Others here at AmaTerra learned silicone casting to make moulds of these amazing 3000-year-old stone axe blades they recovered on a survey recently. And right now, I'm in the middle of trying to figure out how to make an interactive display covering the history of instrumentation at White Sands Missile Range. It really is a science that is advanced by those who practise it. If you have new ideas and new ways to do things (and it fits in the budget), there's nothing stopping you because it's your project.

I get to work with shipwrecks one week and 8,000 year old dart points the next. Every once in a while, you do take a mental step back and marvel that you're holding a tool that someone made thousands of years before you and hadn't seen the light of day since. In a lot of ways, it really is a privilege to work with a part of our human heritage like that.

Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

Engineering firms are most are our most frequent client. When they are handed a project to design for which archaeology is a component, it is very helpful for them to know exactly how much physical impact is expected for the construction (e.g. how wide will the highway be and how deep will they have to dig to build it?). It's essential to us knowing exactly what we are going to need to do. It is also important to know and convey what types of permits and funding sources are involved with a given project (they can trigger different levels of investigations).

Also, don't be afraid of us… people tend to think of archaeologists as these harbingers of doom for construction projects; that we're just itching to shut a project down because all of the sites out there are precious. We can't control what sites are out there, but more often than not, anything that we do find won't affect a project at all and at the most would cause a small delay and nothing more. Our job is to help you, the client, get through the process as effectively and quickly as possible. We really are on your side… honest!

Pictured above: Co-worker Rachel Feit monitoring a backhoe trench being excavated in downtown Austin. She was documenting some elements of Austin's late 19th century downtown area.

How do you move up in your field?

Bearing the educational requirements in mind (see above), the main way that you advance in this profession is to take on increasing levels of responsibility and do so in a professional manner.

An entry-level contract archaeologist who is on time and friendly and gives a good effort in the field (good field notes, accurate data collection and navigation) may be brought on as a crew chief on the next project. If they can handle guiding a few crew members as a crew chief, they may be brought on full time at some point down the road. If they do a good job in the office by writing a report chapter or doing a lot of accurate data entry (there is a lot of that in what we do), they may eventually work up to being a project archaeologist. These are the ones who are second in command (as it were) on a project. They oversee the day-to-day operations on a field project with possibly multiple crews. They may then write the whole report on that project. After that person has written a few reports and the reviewing agencies get to recognise the work that they are capable of, they may eventually move up to "Principal Investigator." That's the person who oversees the project as a whole from developing the research goals to making sure that sites are fully evaluated and presented accurately. On top of that, if that person then starts interacting directly with clients, they can eventually be project manager and so on.

There aren't really fixed steps or a set timeline for advancement. It's all about the work you put in and your aptitude and attitude. Though, as I'd mentioned above, without that advanced degree, your opportunities to be a PI and above are much rarer.

Specialisation is another avenue for advancement. You might be very good at computer-aided mapping, called Geographic Information Systems (GIS). That's a tool that everyone uses all the time and having proficiency in it is a big step up. You might have training in curation (preparing artefacts, photographs, notes, and other data for permanent storage at an archive of sorts) or be very good at looking at marks on stone tools to determine how they were made or what they were used for. While we all know a little bit of that, having someone who is a specialist can move them up. There are many specialists out there who have done well identifying plant fibres, or pollen, or animal bones, or the ways that soils form on top of sites…

Career Spotlight: What I Do as an Archaeologist

Pictured: Mason recording the cutbank of the Trinity River for a project southeast of Dallas.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?

First and foremost, I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in this profession to fully pursue an advanced degree before starting. Life may dictate otherwise, but if at all possible get that Master's Degree or even Ph.D. first. That opens a LOT of doors that will be firmly shut without it. There are many archaeologists who get their B.A. and get out "just for a little while" and wind up never going back to get the M.A. As a result, they will never qualify to direct projects and they won't advance as highly as they could otherwise. Try to let inertia carry you through to that advanced degree if it's at all feasible.

Beyond that, the Grade A Number One skill that will take you places is mentally active writing... I can't stress that enough. Take the time to learn why you are writing what you are writing. Don't just fill a page with text and random data that you think will fit the bill -- really think about it. I don't consider myself to be an excellent writer by any stretch, but I do actively think about what I'm writing all the time. I put myself in the reviewer's perspective and try to write to make their job easier. When I see new archaeologists show that they earnestly thought about what they were writing it is an immediate sign of potential and that person stands head and shoulders above the others. Anyone can dig a hole in the ground; it's those who can do something with the information that really make the difference.

Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about -- from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.


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