The Art of CRM Field-Tech-ing Part 1, Fill in the Holes!

I had meant for this to be a short post full of information, and it well…bloomed. So this is all the things I wish someone had told me when I started, and all the things I’ve learned that I thought might be helpful to a budding CRM archaeologist. If you can think of questions you still have as this series progresses or think of things you might want to add, contact me or comment below. To read more visit How To Archaeology. Check out the tools you’re likely to use in the field so you’re prepared on your first day.

CRM tools- shovel and screen
Tools of the CRM trade- a shovel and screen.

It’s that time of year again. Bright eyed and bushy tailed archaeologists are graduating and throwing themselves into their work, about 80% of them going into Cultural Resource Management (CRM) and doing their first bout of CRM Fieldwork as Field Techs. I can tell you, this is a transition for many.

Unfortunately, most undergraduate programs are still not preparing students for CRM work, focusing solely on producing the next wave of academics. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, beyond, only about 10-15% of these students will actually go into academia. The rest are bound for CRM, and due to this unbalanced bias in their studies, most new field techs are not prepared, educationally or practically for their careers. Instead of going on a rant about this, I thought I might try to fill in some gaps here.

So here we go.

Dear New Field Tech,

I get it. You’re standing there with your first shovel and screen and all you have is a compass, probably the wrong kind, with a bearing you don’t understand, and you’ve just been told to start walking and digging. You’ve got questions, but are afraid to ask, because GDI you’re a graduate with your BA, you should know this stuff! So you gingerly march out to where you think your first hole should be, fight your way through the brambles and briars, only to find you’ve gone the wrong way, or that your pace is too short/long, or there’s a tree right where you want to dig, etc. Maybe you make it to your hole with no issues and you dig in and turn the cap over and….WTH dirt? Why does it look all strange, what color is it? Why is it wet? Red? Mottled? What the hell does ‘disturbed’ mean? Do you really have to cut through all those roots? When is the unit deep enough? What does subsoil look like?

Yes, most of us have been there in some scenario, and those that say otherwise, I give you shady side-eye.

My point is, you’re not alone.

So, how to fix this? How do you become a super CRM Goddess/God?
Practice, Practice, Practice…..

Education – Fill in those holes!

The first thing you’re going to want to do is educate yourself. Unfortunately, this is the step that takes the longest, and many of you will be worried I’m telling you to go back to school. I’m not…but I kinda am…

Several MA programs focus primarily on CRM. They’re rigorous like any other Masters Program, you will work your ass off to earn that degree, and possibly question your sanity in the process. Again, a topic for another post, BUT! There is a non-school option!


I’m not joking here, but there is a hierarchy to what you should read first.
If you are unfamiliar with the Section 106 Process, have a vague idea of what the National Historic Preservation Act does, or what the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is, you should read up on these.

“Are there books/things you can recommend for me? Because I still have no idea where to start.”

Why Yes!

Thomas King is my current favorite in this area. His books are packed full of information and his personality, which make them both fun and informative. I recommend making sure you have the most recent edition of his titles and that you read Cultural Resource Laws and Practice (on its 4th ed at the time of this blog). It’s a great overview of the How and Why of CRM Archaeology and Section 106.

Other titles that are excellent for reading are Cultural Resource Archaeology: An Introduction by Thomas W. Neumann, Robert M Sanford, and Karen G. Harry, and The Archaeology Survey Manual by Gregory G. White and Thomas F. King. Both of these are aimed at the Archaeologist as a CRM Field Worker and not necessarily as a project leader. Why am I picking these you ask? Because fresh out of school and fresh to the field, you probably aren’t going to be leading anything yet. Still, you need to know Why you’re digging those holes and Why CRM exists. This is more than just theory, this is a practical understanding of the purpose of our field. It may surprise a few folks.

Caveat here. Don’t let this be the end of you’re reading on CRM. Use these books as a jumping off point, look over their references, their recommended reading, and do more hunting for sources on your own. 1) You should know about your career if you ever want to do more than dig holes, and 2) this kind of thing will help prepare you if you do what to pursue one of those fancy CRM MAs. Also, there are so many topics in CRM, things like Women’s issues, Indigenous Issues, Time span issues, Tech issues, data issues, compliance issues, legal issues, and so on. Read up on these too and stay informed, I promise you these will affect you in some way later on down the road if they don’t already.

Other things you’re going to want to read before you go out:

Look up the archaeological standards for the state you’re working in. They can vary greatly as there are no Federal standards for things like STP size and depth or distance between units. Each state though has their standards posted, usually on their SHPO’s website or the DNR’s website. I have always found them by simply googling “*name of state* archaeological standards”. It’s usually a PDF you can download and peruse at your leisure.

You’re going to want to look up the archaeology and history of the area too. You’re not writing a book report here, just getting familiar with what you should expect to see. If you’re working in a new area than you are used to, like say moving from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic, you’re going to want to know there’s not as much chert in the Mid-Atlantic and that they used other stones, like Quartz and Argillite to make their PPK’s and scrapers from. You’ll want to know what soapstone looks like because there are bowls made out of it here.

Historical structure
Also, you want to know what the Historical landscapes are going to look like. What kinds of things were being farmed and produced? Are you in a heavily industrial area or heavy agricultural? What did the outhouses and auxiliary buildings look like? What kind of shade trees where they planting? What kind of stones were they using for their foundations? Where were they getting those stones from? What were their foodways, storage strategies, and so on and so on.

Yeah I know, some projects are only a few days, so why are you bothering with all this? Couple reasons. 1) The more you learn about a region, like the Midwest, the more informed you are and the faster you can identify landscapes and artifacts in the field. And 2) the more you learn the more you can make productive comments to contribute to archaeological conversations in general.

Alright, basics covered, what next?

Well, we’ve got you reading, but reading doesn’t equal practical knowledge and actual practice. Both of these things you’re going to get in spades (hehe) in the field. So first things first…


It’s ok, you’re new. We get it. Unless whoever you’re working with is a complete jerk (which I hope will not be the case) they know you’re new and will expect you to be asking questions. Most of us would rather you ask questions then create a situation that could have been avoided by asking questions. And to be perfectly honest, most of the ‘old timers’ you’ll encounter like talking about the job and their experiences and they like teaching new people how to do things (it’s called “showing off”). So take advantage of that and ask away!

In that vein, ask about everything. Ask about the trees, the plants, the wildlife, the rocks, the typical soil profile, the push pile, the two track, the trash pile, the gley, the landscape. The more you learn, the more you will be able to put things together in the future. Very few of us entered the field fully formed and completely knowledgeable, we all went through this learning process too.

Also, Take notes. Keep a notebook (pen/pencil and paper, you can do it.) Write things down when you encounter them, or when a question gets answered. Trust me, this will be useful to Future You in the long run.

How else can you quickly grow your field skills in your own time?

Well, very basic stuff, Learn your pacing, ie, learn how many steps you will need to take to equal 5, 15, and 30 meters. Yes, all three of those. Don’t assume that half your 30-meter pace is equal to your 15-meter. It won’t be. Practice your pacing even when you don’t need to pace, do it with your gear on and equipment in hand. You’ll see your pace changes. Pace uphill, pace downhill, pace through brambles, and so on. Essentially, learn your pacing in all situations. You will not always have a GPS unit nearby and frankly, most of the time, it’s just faster to pace anyway. But if your not aware of what your uphill pace in the brambles while carrying all your gear and equipment is, you’re going to make a mistake that will either result in too many holes (wasted time) or too few holes (inadequate coverage for the survey).

Learn how to read a compass and learn the differences between the right kind of compass for the job. One of the most common issues I see with new Techs is they bring a mapping compass or try to use their phone in the field. Just don’t. It won’t help you and worse, it can get you lost.

The kind of compass you want is a folding sighting style compass with a mirror attached. Suunto makes a good one, as does Brunton. I’m currently rocking a $40 Brunton compass I got at REI. It’s worth it to spend a little more on your compass, but anything with a sighting mirror is going to be what you want. Brunton makes a $15 sighting compass, and it’ll get the job done.

Compass to avoid: Mapping compasses (the kinds without the mirrors), because they don’t have a sighting system. Also whatever you want to call these things,


because you can’t lock the bearing in (which is very important) and they’re really just more compass than you need for CRM. I’ll talk about compasses a lot more in the Gear section of this, but for now, just know you want a Folding Sighting Compass with a mirror.

On topic with compasses, learn what a bearing is, how you get one, and how to set it on your compass. You’ll need this when you are digging a line to keep you moving in the right direction and it’ll keep you from getting lost. Most of the time your crew chief will give you the bearing, but learning how to figure it out on your own is a life-saving skill.

Learn what the Munsell is and how it works. You don’t have to buy your own 10 YR and 5 YR sheets or your own Globe (though if you can, go for it). You do need to familiarize yourself with what expected color ranges are and how to record them so other people know what you’re describing. This is vital to being able to spot abnormalities in the soil, like buried ‘A horizons’ or what disturbed soils look like, or even when you finally hit subsoil. You don’t need to be able to recite the Munsell chit and chroma, but do get familiar with them.

It certainly won’t hurt for you to do basic research into the prehistory of the area you’ll be working in. This can range from simple Internet searches to reading whole papers. Look for examples of artifacts, chert types, pottery types, and other kinds of things you’ll find. You’ll want to know what historic structures will look like in the area too because you’re going to want to identify when you find the footprint of a structure, or when you wander into an abandoned homestead’s yard.

There are other things you’re going to learn, other things that you really just have to experience once you’re in the field. Again though, Ask questions! Take notes and practice when you can.

Videos I want to share.

Ah awkward teenage boys explaining bearings….love it!

If you want something more adult, here’s an informative and boring video from REI

How to Munsell soil, and how to take a sample of soil to Munsell.

This is just part one of a series on advice for beginning Filed Techs. Keep reading for tips on clothing, gear, and other field issues. To read more visit How To Archaeology

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