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Archaeology Fieldwork in Southwest Enjoyable

Archaeology Fieldwork Good for Iron Bodied Daydreaming Travelers — I like my job every morning. I wake up early, go outside, watch the sun come up, feel the sun warm up, and walk, walk, walk. This is one of the best avenues of paying employment that I have yet experienced. If all work is said [...]

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Archaeology Fieldwork Good for Iron Bodied Daydreaming Travelers —

I like my job every morning. I wake up early, go outside, watch the sun come up, feel the sun warm up, and walk, walk, walk. This is one of the best avenues of paying employment that I have yet experienced. If all work is said to suck, then at least the felatting aspects of archaeology field work are given out in doses, rather than a constant barrage.

In the morning I seldom dread going to work, I think this is the best thing that can be said for any profession.

I look for artifacts, cultural features, and ancient sites of human habitation. I find flakes, projectile points, field houses, and prehistoric fire pits.

I find the discarded and left behind remnants of people and communities that we now know very little about. We look for clues — a flashlight in a dark forest — as to what may have happened right here thousands of years ago. And, like shining a flashlight through a dark forest, the only things that come to light are those which fall within the slim tunnel vision of the flashlight’s beam: we see one part for every million pieces of the story. And we try to redraw an entire puzzle from the one or two pieces that we have been fortunate enough to recover.

The crew in Tonto recovered nearly a half dozen projectile points in one morning of surveying. One archaeologists asked the question that was on all of our minds, “How much stuff do you think we miss?” Her inquiry was purely rhetorical, but the crew chief answered her anyway: “Maybe we find 1 in 10,000.”

Needless to say, archaeology is a detective tale of a frustrated sleuth who can never be fully confident in his conclusions, and whatever evidence he does obtain can seldom be used towards a conviction. The archaeologists of the past are the idiots of today, and the archaeologists of today will be the idiots of tomorrow. This is a science without the security of natural laws. Archaeologists, forever, have been speaking dust in the wind — as the words of tomorrow will surely blow away the statements of today. We record our field notes in pencil for a reason.

“One thing I’ve learn is that all of us are full of shit,” spoke a young field archaeology crew chief, “the only thing that you can do is believe your own bullshit.”

Tonto Forest

Tonto Forest


I walk along predetermined straight lines that are designed without regard to vegetation or landscape. I walk where other people don’t. I spend my days going to places on foot where only a fool would dare venture to. Who the hell is going to walk directly through an eight foot high, 30 foot wide wall of Manzanita bushes? I am. What fool is going to walk straight up the broad side of a mountain? I am. What sort of idiot do you have to be to walk directly through prickery Cat’s Claw, cacti, tree branches, down rocky ravines, and up loose scrabble slopes? I am not sure, but I do it for 10 hours each day.

I like my job. I like it because it forces me to go to places where all semblance of common sense tells me to avoid. And when I find the site of an ancient habitation — complete with evidence of structures — on a level area on top of a hill that few people (perhaps maybe only a hunter or two or a previous archaeology survey team) have stepped for hundreds of years, the battle to get there becomes worth the scars.

Vegetation in Tonto Forest

Vegetation in Tonto Forest


“I like my job. The pay is generous; I might even say munificent: $1.95 per hour, earned or not, backed solidly by the world’s most powerful Air Force, biggest national debt, and grossest national product. The fringe benefits are priceless: clean air to breathe . . . stillness, solitude and space; an unobstructed view every day and every night of sun, sky, stars, clouds, mountains, moon, cliffrock and canyons; a sense of time enough to let thought and feeling range from here to the end of the world and back; the [and on and on and on]. . . The work is simple and requires almost no mental effort, a good thing in more ways than one. What little thinking I do is my own and I do it on government time.”
– Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

This could be an accurate description of my job. I like it, too. I am working as an archaeologist contracted out by the forest service. I watch the mornings rise up over the Tonto National Forest, I watch the heat of day win out over the cold of night, and I watch all of the little things that live in the bushes and undergrowth of the mountains, valleys, and meadows that lay within the bounds of the archaeology survey.

I too, am doing a borderline mindless job — “I do my thinking on government time” — I walk in a straight line and look for artifacts underfoot. The learning curve for this brand of employment was either satisfied years ago at some long gone field school in Ecuador or I learned it on the fly:

“What does a solder strip on an old rusted tin can mean?”

“It means that it is old.”

Ok, check.

“What sort of material is this drill made out of?”

“Hard scrabble daycite.”

Ok, check.

Like this, I add on an additional sheen of knowledge to make me fully functional as a field archaeologist in the Southwest. I cannot say that it was too difficult. If I keep my ears open and listen and keep my eyes and watch, then, before long I will find myself repeating the same information to others. It is my impression that most job training works in this way.

It is my impression that my field archaeology skills are pretty worn in — I have found myself working in this profession for 9 years. I know this work well, and, as with any sort of job that a person feels they have mastered, it often seems mindless.

I either enjoy work that requires 100% of my mental attention (and it therefore becomes a game of sorts) or none at all. I like jobs that are either 100% mental or 100% physical. I like copy editing and writing because it is a completely cerebral game, I like gardening because it is all physical. I found organic farming a touch trying because it demanded 100% mental attention to be paid towards physical work.

This was a little too much for me to sell.

I love the point where a job can be done with a minimum of mental expenditure. As far as field archaeology goes, I have gotten passed the learning curve a long time ago, so I now willingly sell my body by the hour just so my mind remains free to roam.

I often try to learn jobs quickly, just so I do not need to think about them any more. I walk through the mountains here in Arizona and study the trees, shrubs, and that frigging cactus that keeps stabbing me, or I day dream down the long highways of the mind. If you want me to think about archaeology too, well, that will cost you extra.

Like Melville, when I go to sea, I go as an ordinary sailor. I have seldom found the additional responsibilities of leadership to be worth the additional pay. I have ran archaeology crews before. I am confident in my abilities. Though I keep these abilities shut up within a thick sea chest for fear that they will be discovered, and I would loose the precious daydreaming freedoms of an archaeology field tech.

I would much rather be a dummy than a man who obliges himself to think for other men. I take my ordinary sailor rank with a sense of pride — because I know that I enjoy my days at work. If called upon to act, I act. If not, I just float down through the days as though I am on a big blow up raft drifting with the current down a big river.

I look up at the sky and ponder the thunderstorm I see coming on, I look down at the ground and consider the crushed up and shattered limestone landscape that I am walking upon, I look in the Pinyon Pines and Junipers and see birds squawking the day away and daydreaming right along with me.

The crew chief is looking over maps, computing coordinates, writing up paperwork, and telling everybody what to do. I just find artifacts.

Life is good.

Rock ring structure feature

Rock ring structure feature

Vagabond Journey Series on Archaeology Fieldwork
[seriesposts orderby=date order=ASC name=”archaeology field work” ]


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Filed under: Archaeology, Arizona, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Rob October 23, 2009, 11:06 am

    Nice description of the Payson area, my hometown. Used to find alot of ancient sites by wandering around the brush and by working for the seismological observatory outside of Payson in the 1960’s 70’s. Watch out for old mine shafts.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 26, 2009, 10:29 am

      Good advice Rob,

      I will watch out for those mine shafts! This region of the state is incredibly beautiful. I must say that you are a wise man for living here.


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  • Brian November 20, 2010, 12:45 pm

    Hi. I’m 23 and have been very discouraged about finding a meaningful career that would satisfy my unique curiosity for travel and connection with the natural powers. I’ve also been trying to find a way to move to the southwest because of a certain calling to the desert and mountains. Suddenly I found this article out of the blue, and it sounds like you have been living the life I could only fantasize about, and getting paid to do it!
    Lately I’ve been spending all my free time getting in my car and exploring off the beaten path, trying to find anyplace I can that might have some hills or even walking trails (there are practically no trails and zero hills in Southwest Louisiana where I live). And I can’t stand my stale casino service industry job any longer.
    Can a daily career and life such as the one you’re describing exist for others like me as well? And what would be my first steps towards attaining this profession? I’ve been avoiding college for so long because I didn’t know what to major in, and I only want to go for something I feel interest and passion about. I’m also very passionate about walking outside, and it’s extremely hard to do that here. Before reading this, my only other career idea was storm-chasing, and I’m not so sure about that.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 21, 2010, 11:30 am


      It is totally possible to become a traveling archaeologist. All you have to do is go to university — anyone will do — and take a degree in anthropology, complete a field school, and then you are ready to go. Apart from archaeology, there are plenty of ways that you can work while traveling. I am in the process of compiling a complete guide on the subject, but only have links to pertinent pages up now on Travel 101. Also do a search on the site for “archaeology” and lots of pages will turn up.

      A couple of good index pages to consult are Archaeology on Travelogue, Archaeology on Travel Help, and the main Archaeology index.

      If you have any more questions, feel free to ask them on Travel Help.

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