guide book

#202 Field Archaeologist's Survival Guide


As many of my readers know, I've had a long running series of posts called the Shovelbum's Guide. The posts are designed for field archaeologists and cover a variety of topics. Well, I've blogged earlier about Left Coast Press publishing those posts into a book. For the last several months I've been editing, adding to, and revising my posts. I'm glad to announce that the book is now available for pre-order, in paperback and eBook, on the Left Coast Press site for $24.95! It won't be out until about April, but, now is a great time to tell friends and family to get you a copy for the holidays.

The book's sections are designed to take you from college, to getting a job, to living on the road, to unemployment, and to coming back after a long break. I've also included a few helpful appendices. My goal is to see people using this book in the field. I'd love to see someone with a copy that is dog-eared, has notes written inside of it, and has coffee and dirt stains on the cover! That means it's getting used and that people are getting something out of it!

So, pre-order a copy before your holiday comes up. If you're into autographs for books, like I am, I'll sign your copy in Austin at the 2014 SAAs!

Here is the table of contents:

Section 1: Getting A Job
1. Education
2. The Curriculum Vitae And The Résumé
3. Cover Letter
4. Job Hunting
5. The Interview

Section 2: Shovelbumming
6. Essential Gear
7. Types Of Projects
8. Job Positions
9. Lodging
10. Hotels
11. Cooking On The Road
12. Camping

Section 3: Location, Location, Location
13. The UTM Grid
14. Township And Range
15. Smithsonian Trinomials
16. Mapping

Section 4: Good To Know
17. Dimensional Lumber
18. Munsell Book Of Color

Section 5: The End, For Now
19. Unemployment
20. Preparing For The Winter
21. Coming Back

Example CVs And Resumes
Cover Letters
Interview Questions
Dimensional Lumber
Fieldwork Checklist
Winter Checklist

That's it! I'll remind you later, but, I expect harsh criticism so, together, we can make the second edition even more helpful.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you in the field!

#58 Shovelbums Guide Part 10: Unemployment

(Brief may have noted ads on the right side of this page.  I started a Google Adsense account in an attempt to help pay for this site and to make it better.  Squarespace charges for bandwidth limits, which I haven’t hit yet, and hit count limits, which I also haven’t hit yet.  Of course, it would be wonderful to promote archaeology full time but this isn’t going to do it.  A few clicks on the site and telling your friends, however, can make it better.  Thanks and on to the post).

Throughout my career I’ve heard of people working through the season and going on unemployment for the winter.  The smart field tech will have saved enough money to live for three or four months during the off season but sometimes you need that little government bump that you earned anyway.  In twenty years of paying taxes I’ve never collected unemployment.  Since I’m currently out of work, a bit earlier than I thought I would be, I figured I’d get the unemployment ball rolling and report back for those that might be interested.

I’ve always been a bit too lazy to file for unemployment in the past.  I figured that working in several different states throughout the year would just make it way too complicated.  Also, the unemployment procedures are different for every state.  This post will discuss filing for and collecting unemployment in the state of Nevada.

The first thing I did was Googled “nevada unemployment”.  It pretty much brought me right to the page that I needed to use to start a new claim.  There are a lot of pages that try to confuse you and that have way too much information on them.  Once you sort through all of that it’s pretty easy. online filing system asked me a few questions to assess whether I could even file online or if I had to use the phone system.  The question that stopped we was whether I had worked solely in the state of Nevada for the past 18 months.  That is the period they use to assess how much you will qualify for.  I decided to test the system because I had one two-week job in Georgia at the beginning of the 18 month period.  I thought that I could just forget that part.  That was my first mistake.

Since I answered the test questions satisfactorily the website directed me to the online filing system.  I answered a bunch of questions and made it down to my work history.  That’s when I backed out of my plan to forget about the little Georgia job.  Once I admitted that I’d worked in Georgia the system immediately kicked me out and told me to use the phone filing system.  Damn.

The phone system is automated and asks the same questions as the online system.  It never even asked me about the Georgia job because this is when you find out that they are only looking about nine months back.  Nice.  It took about 15 minutes to complete the filing process by phone.  At that point I thought I was done.  The automated system told me that my claim would be evaluated and that I’d be contacted.

The next day I received a call from a person at the unemployment division.  He asked me almost all of the same questions, including the names and addresses of my last employers (during the last 9-12 months).  He was able to instantly pulled my financial data from those employers and determined that I had made about $33K during the last four quarters.  That qualified me for the maximum unemployment benefit of $396 a week for a maximum of 26 weeks (or $10,296).  I was told that there might be federal taxes assessed on this “income” (Nevada doesn’t have a state tax) and I was given the option to hold 10% of the disbursement each week.  I elected to do that because I don’t need the headache of dealing with pulling taxes out of savings in April.

So, now I have to file each week and keep a log of the jobs that I apply for.  They say you should apply to at least 3-4 jobs each week but that it is almost impossible to enforce that if you have a job that doesn’t have many open positions (such as archaeology in the winter).  I could be asked to show my job log at any time.  If I don’t satisfy the unemployment division they could take back all of the money they have given me.

There is one more complication because I’m a veteran.  Veterans are supposed to go to Nevada Job Connect to see if they can assist in the job search.  I don’t know why and they could’t give me a good answer.  Last week I went there for the first time and the representative that I talked to had a contact for a local company and was going to send my information to them.  The only downside to using Nevada Job Connect is that if they refer you to a job and you are offered that job, regardless of the conditions of the job, you have to take it.  If you are offered an interview, you have to take it.  If you don’t do these things they can submit your case for adjudication and you could lose your benefits.

Now, every Sunday I can file for the previous week.  You can file starting at 12:01 am on Saturday night.  The sooner you file the sooner they pay you.  I filed online at about 9 am on Sunday morning and by Monday the money was in my account.  Not a bad turn around.  I said the money was in my account.  That’s not entirely accurate.

The way they pay you is by putting the money into a Wells Fargo savings account accessible with a very restricted debit card.  You get charged for too many withdrawals, too many balance inquiries, for trying to take out money that isn’t there, and for calling customer service.  You can avoid fees by going into the bank, so there’s that at least.  I just took out $340 (increments of twenty) and put it in my checking account.  You can elect to have paper checks sent but for most people there is too much of a lag between filing and receiving the check.

That’s my unemployment experience.  I’m using the money and the time to blog, read, and learn how to program iOS applications.  I’d love to start a company that is completely digital someday but I need the apps first (and a large pile of money).  Baby steps.  Maybe I’ll get the Jeopardy call soon and I can jumpstart this thing!

Good luck during the winter months.  Stay warm, use the time to better yourself and your skill set, and stay active. 


2008  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (iPad App), Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.   Developed by Handmark, Inc.

Shovel Pit Testing An extensive survey technique to sample the content of topsoil within a defined area by taking a fixed volume of soil (usually a shovelful) out of the ground and sieving/screening it to separate out and quantify the artifact population.  Widely used in the field evaluation of large areas in order to identify buried sites and define their approximate extent.

(My thoughts...There are usually at least two commonly used sizes of shovel test pit (STP).  Some are 30 cm in diameter and some are 50 cm square.  It depends upon the state you are working in.  Unless a sterile soil level has been identified STPs often go as deep as either the water table or the deepest you can reach with a shovel.  Occasionally you will continue with an auger.)

#57 Shovelbums Guide Part 9.1: Holiday Wish List

I listen to a lot of science and skepticism podcasts that often do a “Holiday Wish-List” episode about this time.  While I’m a pretty hardcore atheist, I still love Christmas.  I think it’s more a love of the time of year and the festive attitude.  Actually, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  It’s Christmas without the pressure of giving presents.

Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t what they used to be for me.  I’m sure a lot of people have this experience as they grow up.  You start to have fewer family gatherings as families grow in size and you create a family of your own.  My family was never all that big and I don’t have a family of my own (aside from my lovely wife!) but nevertheless our gatherings have dropped off.  That being said, I still love the two holidays.

So, here is the first part of my “Holiday Wish List”.  I’ll include examples from the web of each product.  I understand that there could be any number of things added to this list and I encourage people to comment to that fact at the bottom of this post.  I also understand that there are likely better brands of certain products that I’m not aware of.  The point of this list is for new and experienced archaeologists to show to family members and loved ones so they have an idea of what to get them for their jobs.  If you’re like me, archaeology is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle and a passion.  I received my compass and my metal clipboard as Christmas presents and I’ve used them ever since.

Again, to keep the post from getting out of hand, this is the first part of several.

Brunton Ecipse 8099 (I have this one and love it!)Compass A compass is one of the most basic tools that every archaeologist needs.  You typically use a compass for just about every phase of archaeology.  Some attributes to look for include the ability to adjust the declination, a sighting mirror (for the “hold in your palm types), a clinometer, liquid filled reservoir for the needle (faster and finer movement), and commonly used scales around the edges.  The link is to the compasses page on REI’s website.  I would recommend, if you are a member, getting as much of your equipment at REI as possible.  It might cost a bit more than some other sites but there is a lifetime guarantee on everything they sell.  If you are a member you can bring your broken compass back, even 20 years later, and get a new one.  We are hard on equipment and it’s worth it.

Trowel A trowel is something that the archaeologist in your life likely already has.  Trowels are more valuable than their children to most archaeologists.  Actually, most archaeologists don’t have children, but they have trowels.  That doesn’t make any sense but I’ll continue anyway.  There are two main types of trowels: the pointed trowel and the margin trowel.  Pointed trowels come in different sizes and shapes.  There are short ones, long ones, ones with curved edges and ones with straight edges.  Everyone has their preference as to which they prefer.  Margin trowels, or square trowels, are typically all the same.  The standard, smaller, size is adequate for most jobs.  I often prefer my margin trowel because I can excavate and clean up my walls and corners with it.

Square TrowelThe maker of the trowel is also important to a lot of archaeologists.  The name you mostly hear associated with trowels is “Marshalltown”.  Marshalltown is preferred because of it’s construction and durability.  The trowels are forged from a single piece of high carbon steel and can withstand just about anything.  You can get them with a hardwood or synthetic handle.  A popular trowel across the pond is the WHS trowel.  They are similar in construction to the Marshalltown line but have a more rounded handle.

Backpack I’m not going to link to any backpacks because there are just too many styles and options.  Key features to look for include MANY POCKETS, a water reservoir, a waist strap is nice for those long surveys, an included rain cover (the kind that is in it’s own pocket on the backpack), and sealed zippers.  There are different names for them but sealed zippers are generallyIndy's "Man Purse" is not adequate for most archaeologists. covered by a thick piece of nylon-type fabric.  That keeps the dust out and keeps the zippers working longer.  Some archaeologists prefer the messenger type leather bag for their dig kits.  These are sets of tools that they bring to excavations and don’t generally walk long distances with.  They also have that old, antiquey professor look that sometimes field techs mock but secretly desire.  The same rules apply with these bags.  They should have lots of pockets, be of sturdy construction, and have solid buckles or big zippers.

Brushes from StratiBrushes Many archaeologists have a cobbled together set of brushes that they’ve acquired over the years and modified to suit their needs.  A nice set of brushes with their own carrying case like these would be a welcome addition to any dig kit.  The brushes should be of good enough construction so they don’t leave fine hairs behind and they should be somewhat stiff so they can move dust and dirt efficiently.

Chopsticks These are probably the cheapest and easiest gift to give!  I have a set of different sizes of chopsticks that I’ve whittled down to different shapes that suit my needs.  Since you can grab a hand full of them at any Chinese restaurant they are easy to acquire.  They are also easy to shape quickly with a knife.  I have a few that are untouched that I can shape to whatever need I have in a few minutes.

As I said above, this is the first of what will probably be about three posts.  Feel free to suggest anything that you’d like me to cover.  I think I have most of what should be on the list covered in the next few posts but I’m sure I missed something.  Happy buying and digging!



2008  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (iPad App), Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.   Developed by Handmark, Inc.

Trowelling Excavation technique in which a mason’s pointed trowel is used to shave thin slices of material from the floor or face of an excavation unit.  At the start of an excavation the entire trench floor may be cleaned several times by trowelling in different directions in order to identify the position, extent, and nature of archaeological features and their relationships.

#22 Shovelbums Guide Part 7: The UTM Grid

I’ve surveyed a lot of land in the last few days and every day someone seems to have trouble with the UTM grid.  Admittedly, math is not usually a strong point with most archaeologists but knowing where you are and the ability to read and understand a map are important.  The UTM grid is a tool that, when used properly, can greatly simplify your surveying efforts.  What is the UTM grid and why do we use it?

For the five people that read this blog I’m going to cut to the chase and lay out exactly what the grid is in one paragraph without getting into the details.

The Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid divides the Earth into 60 vertical zones that are each 6° of longitude wide and are centered over a longitude line.  The zones are numbered 1 to 60 with zone one starting at 180° W longitude and zone numbering increasing to the east.  North America is covered by zones 10-19.  The zones are separated into 20 latitude bands lettered from C to X (south to north) with “I” and “O” omitted (I’ll say why in the detailed discussion).  Each zone is 1,000,000 meters wide with 500,000 in the center.  If you are walking in a UTM zone the northing will increase as you walk north and the easting will increase as you walk east.  The northing is your distance, in meters, from the equator an the easting is unique to the zone.  That’s the quick and dirty description of the UTM grid.  Now for the details.

Full UTM Grid.gif

Can you guess who designed the UTM grid?  That’s right, the military.  It was designed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 40s to better calculate distance between two points.  Calculating distance between points on a latitude-longitude grid required complicated trigonometric formulas (remember, no calculators in the 40s).  The UTM grid required only the Pythagorean theorem (a2+b2=c2) to calculate distance, which can be done on a piece of scratch paper.  I’ve done it many times to calculate distance when I didn’t have a GPS in front of me.

“Mercator” in Universal Transverse Mercator refers to the Mercator projection of the Earth developed in the 16th century.  It was designed to represent the Earth on a two-dimensional piece of paper while preserving angles and approximate shapes but distorts distance and area.  The transverse Mercator is similar but uses non-linear scaling to preserve distance and area.

As I stated above, the grid is divided into 60 zones which are each divided into 20 sections or “Latitude Bands”.  The bands run from 80°S to 84°N with the first band starting with “C” in the south and ending with “X” in the north.  The letters “I” and “O” are omitted because the military always eliminates them due to their similarity to numbers.  Most of the bands are 8° high with band “X” extended to 12° to cover all of the land on the earth.  The remaining letters, “A”, “B”, “Y”, and “Z” are also used.  They cover the western and eastern sides of the Antarctic and the Arctic regions respectively.

US UTM Zones.png

A typical coordinate in the UTM system needs to have four parts.  They are the zone, band, easting, and northing.  A coordinate in Nevada could be 11T 587563 4375648.  That translates to zone 11, band T, with an easting of 587563 and a northing of 4375648.  The easting indicates that the coordinate is just east of the center of grid zone 11T.  The northing translates to 4,375,648 meters north of the equator.  If you are in the southern hemisphere the northing still refers to a distance to the equator.  The grid was designed so that you never have a negative number.

We typically walk on a particular northing or easting when we are doing survey.  Whenever I’m walking an easting line (maintaining a constant northing) I like to think about the fact that I am walking parallel to the equator.  It’s a little amazing that this system is set up that way and that I can parallel a line that is over four million meters away.  Geometry is fun!

Hopefully this clears up a little confusion for some people.  There is a lot more information on map projections, datums, and the UTM grid online.  Take a minute to learn more about the tools that we use every day.  It will make us all better scientists.

See you in the field!

Written in Eureka, Nevada on Independence Day Eve.

(Independence Day festivities begin with cannon fire at 5:22 am, sunrise! Wish we didn't have to work during the parade and games)

#19 Shovelbums Guide Part 6: Types of Projects

Throughout the country there are quite a few variations on the four basic types of projects that you are likely to encounter. There are slightly different terms for the various phases of archaeology depending on the state and region you are working in. Generally, the four types of CRM archaeology are: survey, testing, mitigation, and monitoring. I'll discuss them in order since the development of a property will often involve all of these phases in that order.

Survey in some shape or form is usually the first phase of a project. It can be as simple as one person checking likely locations for archaeological sites (reconnaissance survey) and as complicated as a 300 mile 200-m wide corridor stretching across several mountain ranges (linear survey). There is also large block survey where you do long transects from one side to the other, turn around, and come back. In many areas there are very small surveys for cell tower locations or other types of antennas that can be as small as 30-m in diameter or less. There are surveys in many areas of the west that have very specific project area geometry for access roads and pads for geothermal wells and other types of wells (i.e. oil and natural gas). In small areas where a high amount of historical artifacts are expected a metal detecting survey is often performed.

In areas with high amounts of soil deposition survey usually includes shovel testing or some other type of subsurface testing (i.e. post hole or auger testing). A typical shovel testing survey will include transects that are 30-m wide with shovel tests placed 30-m apart. Some states have low, medium, and high probability areas that will change the shovel testing interval depending on the priority. The size of the shovel test also varies by state. In some states the shovel tests are approximately 30-cm in diameter while other states prefer 50-cm square shovel tests. There is a lot of variation.

In places like the Great Basin where there is little to no soil deposition a pedestrian survey is performed. This generally entails a walkover of the area utilizing the 30-m transect interval. Some companies prefer to walkover the entire area prior to recording any sites so they can tell the client what to expect when site recording does begin. Other companies will record sites as they come to them. Like shovel testing, there is a lot of variation.

Occasionally sites will go straight into the excavation or mitigation phase, however, some will go into what's called Phase II in some parts of the southeastern U.S. and simply site testing in other parts. Site testing can include any number of excavation strategies. The chosen strategy depends upon the type of site that is being tested, the depositional context, and the goals of the research design.

There are several possible excavation types that are involved with site testing. The first step is usually some sort of intense sub-surface testing. That could include close interval shovel testing (5-m grid or less sometimes) or auger testing. The results of the close interval investigation can yield information that leads to test pit excavations. These are usually 1 x 1 m test units (they could be larger and trench-like as well). Site testing can also include backhoe trenches and block scrapes (backhoe or shovel) to look at the stratigraphy and to locate features.

If after the previous phases a site is still eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) then it will go to the mitigation phase. Mitigation does not always involve excavation. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably. Mitigation refers to the plan that will be used to address the preservation of the site. Preservation could include a reroute of the project area or a fence that would result in completely avoiding the site. It could also include simply paving over a deeply buried site. Data are not lost in that case. The site is simply preserved for a very long time. Often, though, mitigation does involve some sort of large-scale excavation.

Block excavation takes many forms but often has one goal: locate features. Sometimes an excavation will "chase" features by opening units in specific directions based on artifact quantities or some other notable criteria resulting in a crossword puzzle-like shape. Other times a block could be simply a large square or rectangle with 1 x 1 m units systematically excavated. The type of excavation and the depth of the excavation is determined by the type of site that is expected to be there, the types of features expected, and usually by the land form and soil stratigraphy.

The final phase of a project is usually monitoring. Monitoring is often performed by one person that works with the construction crews as they are disturbing the ground. Monitoring is done when sites are expected in an area but weren't found during the other phases. It can also take place when a large site is very near the area being disturbed to ensure that the construction doesn't uncover any additional material or destroy existing parts of the site. When you are monitoring you are on the schedule of the construction company so a lot of waiting is often involved. It's a good time to catch up on your reading.

I could certainly be taken to task for not mentioning terms like "class III" and "inventory" but like I said above, there is a lot of variation in terminology and methodology. It would be beyond the scope of this post to detail the specific terms used in every state and region. It would also be virtually impossible as a lot of states do not have that type of information online and would have to be contacted directly. My hope is that this post gives the novice field tech a brief introduction as to the types of projects they can expect as they travel around our diverse country this summer.

See you in the field!

Written on a winding section of U.S. 50 between Eureka and Ely, Nevada.

#18 Shovelbums Guide Part 5: Lodging

The following steps are complete on your journey to be a CRM archaeologist: You wrote a CV and a cover letter, you applied for a job(s), and you had your interview and accepted a position. Now the fine logistics of being a traveling archaeologist begin.

There are many ways in which people live and work while on the road. Some try to do it as cheaply as possible by camping or sleeping in their cars while others stay in various types of hotel/motels while still others have vans or RVs to travel and sleep in. The choice depends largely upon the company you are working for.

Companies approach the lodging question in a various ways. On the east coast I've generally seen companies chose and pay for a hotel for you. You have no choice of where to stay or whom to stay with. Sometimes you will get your own room and sometimes you will be paired up with a roommate of your choosing (especially couples) and sometimes you won't get a choice.

In New Mexico, my company rented a ranch house and also put single wide mobile homes on the property for techs to stay in. In North Carolina I stayed in a three-story beach house on Kure Beach (one street from the beach). On a project in Virginia the crew had an 18th century bed and breakfast on a lake rented out to us. Mostly, though, you will have the cheapest, bottom of the barrel, hotels rented for your lodging.

On the west coast and in the Great Basin I've generally seen companies just give you a high per diem and let you choose your own lodging. On one of my last projects there were people camping from their cars, people in hotel rooms, a couple in an RV, and a guy that just slept in his van on BLM land.

There are some special considerations if you plan to camp. Camping in a lot of the west can be done for free on BLM land or in free BLM campgrounds. Often, there is no security and no camp host so you will likely have to pack up your campsite every morning. If you travel with few possessions and are an early riser then this might be an option for you. Finding a campground with a camp host or paying to camp in an RV park will provide the security (and often showers and internet) to leave your camp intact during the work day.

Living in an RV also has its challenges. My first impulse was that I'd save a lot of money traveling in an RV. This is not necessarily the case. I hope my friends that have done this can comment and leave an account of their experiences last fall. An RV can't just be parked anywhere. You can overnight in an RV park for $20-40 a night or you can park somewhere for free at night and find someplace to park during the day. There is also insurance and fuel costs to consider. It might be an option for those that can find a way to make it work.

Most of the time you will be looking for a hotel room. A lot of the small towns in America do not have hotels that are listed on the popular websites such as and A simple Google (or your search engine of choice) search of the town you need and the word "hotel" will usually provide a list of accommodations, some with reviews. When you call, be sure to have your list of things to ask about all ready to go. What should you ask about?

Before I even get to price I like to make sure the hotel has the amenities I need. For long term stays a microwave and a refrigerator are essential. You can do without a refrigerator if you have a cooler and an ice machine nearby but that is a hassle in the summer time. You can do without a microwave too but be prepared to bring a hot plate and cooking equipment or something equivalent. In this day and age having the internet is pretty important for most people. Ask the receptionist whether the internet is wireless or ethernet and whether you have to pay for it separately. Do they have breakfast? It might save you money if they do.

Some minor things I ask about include the types of beds (two doubles or one larger bed), type of TV (I can hook my computer to certain types), air conditioning, and whether they have an exercise room.

There are some things to think about when discussing the cost of the hotel room. Hotels often have a AAA discount. A lot of smaller chains will have discounts for people working in the area and most have weekly rates. If you get a weekly rate find out whether their week is five days or seven days. Also find out what the refund policy is. You may have to leave early for one reason or another and would probably like your money back.

At some point I'll have entries about what to bring for your hotel room and how to live in one and not go insane. This field has a pretty high turnover because people just can't handle being on the road for long periods of time. In my experience it's usually because they live a temporary existence and never really settle into the places they live. I always bring as many comforts of home as I can and treat the hotel room as my own house. I rearrange items in the room and put things where I want them. All of that goes to enhancing the illusion that you don't live in a hotel room.

See you in the field!

Written on the loneliest highway in the country: Highway 50, central Nevada portion.

#15 Shovelbums Guide Part 4: The Interview

Alright. You typed up a CV, had it checked by friends and colleagues, and looked for some job postings. The perfect job came up so you typed up a customized cover letter and sent off the email to your future employer. Now what?

Many people don’t realize when they get in to CRM that it’s not like other jobs. You likely won’t be called for an actual interview unless it is a higher leadership position. If you receive a phone call for a field technician position they are likely offering you the job. Companies are not all that discriminating when it comes to hiring field techs. Other jobs will read your CV or resume, check your references, and then call you in for an interview. CRM companies usually stop at the “read your CV” step. In my experience they don’t even really do that. Why is this?

Well, at other jobs you are probably planning on being there for a while. The companies want to see you and talk to you so they can have an idea as to what they are getting themselves into. When you get to the job there will probably be a 60-90 day probationary period where they can pretty much fire you at any time. Nearly every CRM job is a probationary period and at any point you can be fired or let go. You might finish out the project but you may not be called back if they have additional work.

This is a small field and everyone talks. Nearly every company I’ve worked for has asked my co-workers and I about possible new employees. They ask if we’ve ever worked with these people and whether we’d ever work with them again. I’ve seen CVs tossed in the trash with out a second thought. It’s brutal but a reality of our field.

So, how should you prepare for that phone call? For my first few jobs I didn’t ask many questions. I asked what my pay was going to be and where the job was taking place but that’s about it. Now when I receive that phone call I’ve got a list of questions that I’ve prepared ahead of time. The following is a list of some of the questions I ask and why I ask them.

Pay and per diem. This seems simple and obvious but unless you ask, the person on the other end of the call might not even tell you what you are getting paid and what the per diem is like. As for pay it varies depending on the region of the country in which you are working. On the east coast you can expect $10-13 per hour as a field tech and on the west coast you can expect $13-16 per hour. There is a lot of variation in those numbers but they are generally accurate.

Per diem is a whole other animal. Rates of per diem vary considerably. On the east coast I’ve generally only been paid food per diem with the hotel being covered by the company. I’ve been paid anywhere from $21 a day to $45 a day for food. On the west coast I’ve made from about $100-125 per diem which covers food and lodging. The nice thing about the high per diem is that you can stay where ever you want to. A lot of people camp at free campgrounds and bank all that money for the winter.

The per diem is paid out in different ways too. Some companies give it to you in cash at the beginning of the week or session while others will give it to you in a separate check when you get paid or include it in your paycheck. This is important for people with low credit card limits and no money in the bank. You might not get a pay check for two to four weeks and will have to pay for hotels, gas, and food out of pocket until then. Most companies don’t require you to turn in receipts for your per diem but some still do. I generally avoid these companies unless the archaeology is really interesting.

Lodging. On the east coast lodging is often, not always, but often double occupancy. Sometimes you can choose your roommate and sometimes you are randomly assigned. I generally avoided these situations when I was single because I felt that being treated like an adult and not a college student was key to my sanity.

The west coast usually leaves you to your own devices when it comes to lodging. Some companies still insist on direct billing the hotel, though. There is a great company in Reno that I’d likely be working for if they gave full per diem and let people stay where ever they’d like to. For some people the lodging situation is an important question to ask potential employers. Others don’t care. It might not really matter to you if the project is of a short duration.

Project Length and Future Work. Is the project slated to last two days, two weeks, or two months? Ask. It’s important. Is it worth it to drive 1000 miles for a two week project? Depends on the project. Find out how long it’s supposed to last and whether they have other projects lined up. Employers don’t want people to quit before the project is over and they don’t like hiring new people so they might inflate the duration of projects and tell you that they have a lot of work coming up. That might be true but they may not have permits in place and there could be delays. Always have a back up plan and/or some money in the bank.

Cultural Background. I like to find out what type of project I’m going on so I can look up information about the people and/or the area before I get there. It lets me know what I should be looking for and informs me of any unique archaeological features or artifacts I should be looking for. It’s just good science and professionalism to do so.

The Work Day. There is a lot of variation in what employers call a work day and what they pay you for. The most ideal situation from a field tech stand point is being paid hotel to hotel. That means you are on the clock from the time you leave the hotel to the time you return. Find out whether overtime is authorized or whether you are on salary. Some companies don’t start the clock until you get into the field or they will only pay drive-time one way. If the project area is an hour from the hotel you could be giving up two hours of your day or 20 hours during a 10-day session for free. Again, if the project is really awesome and interesting then it might be worth it.

Ask what the schedule is going to be. I’ve worked schedules that vary from ten days on, four days off to nine days on, five days off. There are Monday through Friday schedules and eight on, six off schedules. Some companies pay per diem on the days off but most don’t. Find out what your company’s policy is.

Rain Day Policy. This might seem trivial but in the spring time it could mean the difference between a full paycheck and half of a paycheck. Companies often have a policy for rain days. Some won’t pay you at all and might ask for your per diem back for that day. Others will pay you for two, four, or six hours and let you keep your per diem. Some companies will drive out to the project area to make a determination as a matter of policy and others will just check the radar. This may not be a factor in your decision to join the project but it’s good to know and usually doesn’t come up until it happens.

Sick Days. Some companies will ask for your per diem back if you call in sick. Find out what your company’s policy is. Do you get health benefits after a certain period of time? Goodwin and Berger give benefits after 90 days. You don’t often get on projects that last that long but it’s nice if you do.

There are likely many other questions that people ask. I encourage anyone to leave a comment and tell me what kinds of questions you ask. If you’re and employer and/or in charge of hiring what kind of questions do you wish people would ask? What is the craziest thing you’ve ever been asked?

Good luck on the job hunt.


Written in Sparks, Nevada: created by the Southern Pacific Railway Company!