“I couldn’t find a job to save my life,” he said.
After seven months, he finally landed one in the United Arab Emirates, which led to jobs in Virginia and Colorado.
That’s a common path for archaeologists. Most jobs are short lived and are limited by either budget or scope. The profession is nomadic for many starting out, requiring frequent moves over long distances. The pay is low, the benefits few.
Unlike his previous positions, the oil-patch jobs were with larger companies for higher salaries. Last year, he headed to Bismarck to join KLJ, an engineering and planning firm that also does cultural resource management.
The work has little of the romance evoked by Hollywood’s Indiana Jones or pith-helmeted archaeologists unearthing mystical secrets of the distant past. Instead, it involves lot of walking around and supervising construction.
When a site needs to be surveyed, teams of archaeologists walk across the area scanning the ground for historic objects, which are defined as anything more than 50 years old. When team members come across something, they mark its location on GPS and photograph it.
One such survey was conducted on a battlefield where U.S. soldiers clashed with American Indians in 1864. A utility company wanted to run new power lines through the Killdeer Mountain site, but Indian tribes feared the project could disturb the remains of native people who were killed there. A spokesman for the Basin Electric Power Cooperative said archaeologists found “nothing of consequence” along a 150-foot right of way.
When something of value does emerge, companies often choose to go around the site or move their project slightly. At the frenetic pace that drives many drilling projects, there is little patience to wait for — or willingness to pay for — a full excavation.
At the heart of the work is a natural friction between the experts doing archaeological surveys and the companies that hire them, Rothaus said.
“While I’m out there looking for things, I know if I find them, it’s a problem for the person who signs my paycheck. And there’s a tension there.”
“I think we all try to be professional,” he added. “But I think it would be naive to ignore that.”