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What Archaeology Is and How to Become an Archaeologist

What Is the Life of an Archaeologist Like?

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

This FAQ for beginners answers the following questions: Is there still work in archaeology? What’s the best part about being an archaeologist? What’s the worst? What’s a typical day like? Can you make a decent living? What kind of skills do you need? What kind of education do you need? Where do archaeologists work in the world?

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Where Does an Archaeologist Work?

Professional archaeologists work for universities, museums, governments, private companies, and as consultants. Archaeological work is conducted either outdoors during field work or in an office environment when writing reports or research papers. The most hazardous aspect of Archaeology is the occupational health and safety risk involved in outdoor work.

Archaeologists may work in either a full time capacity, part time capacity, on individual field work projects, or in a freelance capacity. Field work generally requires extensive hours of work in hot and sunny conditions. Often Archaeologists work away from home but opportunities such as those in Museums can be found locally.

The United Kingdom, Cambodia, Rome and Egypt are some of the top 2013 archaeological hotspots around the world. Just last year, King Richard III’s remains were found in a parking lot in Leicester, United Kingdom.

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4 Key Archaeology Skills (and how you can practice at home)

Top left: objects from the Wrest Park Archaeologic

Top left: objects from the Wrest Park Archaeological Store next to a scale; top right and bottom left: members of the Saturday Archaeology Club; bottom right: the Bronze Age layer of the Club’s ‘archaeology dustbin’

1. Digging up objects

The first thing to think about is how archaeologists look at objects, and the process of excavation. Everyone considered historical timelines by looking at the layers of our archaeological dustbin. Followed by the opportunity to excavate ice cubes and record their findings.

What you need
  • Some objects to excavate – anything from small plastic toys to coins
  • a container big enough to hold your ‘finds’
  • Warm water
  • A tray
  • Salt
  • A spoon
  • A toothpick
  • A freezer
How you do it

Fill the container with water and freeze it with your objects inside. Leave it overnight and, once frozen you will be ready to excavate your own block. You can make this as simple or complex as you like. For example, if you want to create finds on different layers, freeze an object in a small amount  of water then repeat the process.

To excavate, you will need some warm water, a tray, some salt, a spoon and a tooth pick. Carefully excavate your object by melting the ice with salt and warm water, and pick away the ice with your spoon and toothpick.

2. Looking at landscapes

Archaeologists need to look at landscapes for clues. They also need to be able to accurately record landscapes and where objects sit in it.

Activity 1: Map a play-dough hill-fort

A topographical map shows the details of a landscape, often using contour lines to describe the shape of a hill or valley. You can make your own topographical map and you start by making a hill out of dough. Pierce through the centre with a pencil and then place the dough on a piece of paper and draw around it.

Use some thread pulled tightly to slice off a layer from the bottom (you want to get four to five slices out of the hill). Take this away and draw around your small hill making sure to mark the centre on the paper to line up the next slices. Repeat the process until you reach the very top.

Activity 2: Draw a map of your room

At the Saturday Archaeology Club, we mapped the sculptures from the Dairy, and plotted their positions on a scaled drawing. You can do this at home. You will need some A3 squared/graph paper and a large tape-measure.

To accurately measure the furniture you will need to measure the longest and widest points of the room, and scale down the measurements to fit on the paper. Once you have done this you can use your tape to measure and plot the furniture in the room.

3. Recognising Bones and Burials

Archaeologists need to be able to identify and record different types of burials and bones – both animal and human. This is trickier to practice at home – so come along to one of our events!

In previous Saturday Archaeology Club sessions we have discussed the types of burial positions of the past, looked at grave goods and re-enacted burials. We then looked at excavated animal bone, got them to identify, draw and record these bones.

4. Thinking About Conservation

To think like a conservator, you need to carefully consider the objects you handle. Is it delicate? What is it made from? What could you use to clean it? Does it need special conditions to store them? Will working on the object damage it further?

We gave everyone a bound soil lump filled with objects, and like an archaeological conservator they carefully removed the objects from the compacted soil, cleaned them and recorded them.

There are all sorts of English Heritage events to

There are all sorts of English Heritage events to appeal to budding archaeologists. This is Hands On History: Archaeology at Old Sarum

Want to voluneer on an Archaeological Dig?

  • Find a Dig | Excavate Ancient Sites as a VolunteerFind a Dig. Excavate ancient sites in Israel, Jordan. Volunteer at a dig. Brought to you by Biblical Archaeology Review magazine.
  • Archaeological DigsThere are archaeology field schools and research activities being conducted all over the world. This weblog serves as a gateway to up-to-date information about current archaeological digs and archaeological job opportunities throughout the world.
  • Volunteer Archaeological Dig Information CenterVolunteer dig information including how to find a dig, choose one, prepare to get the most out of it, what to expect on site, some travel tips and much more.

What Is the Job Demand for Archaeologists?

Archaeology is a competitive career option and the need for Archaeologists is not increasing. There are not a lot of jobs available for archaeologists in colleges and universities. Museum positions are also rare and difficult to obtain. The majority of jobs in archaeology today are in cultural resource management as there is a developing need for archaeological assessment of sites for development and other projects.

History of Archaeologists

An Italian Renaissance human historian Flavio Biondo is the earliest known archaeologist. He wrote a guide on the ruins and topography of earlier Rome in the early 15th century. Early archeologists were called antiquarians in the 17th and 18th centuries whose studies only concentrated on the history of historical sites, manuscripts, and ancient artifacts (antiquarianism). They focused on observable evidence to understand the past. Some of these antiquarians surveyed and explained the English countryside, drawings, and monuments. Also studied by the mid-18th century were the evolutions of handwritten text, utensils, shield-shapes, architecture, and different types of costumes among others. During this period, specialized excavations like stratification were not used. By the early 19th century, William Cunnington (the father of archaeological excavations) developed most of the terms and procedures used by archaeologists to date including stratigraphy (each overlapping strata trace back to a successive period in chronological order). By the 1920s, Sir Mortimer Wheeler developed the grid system of excavation. Most universities also started offering archaeology programs during this time. Today, almost all archaeologists are university graduates.

What are the benefits of being an archaeologist?

The benefits of a career in archaeology are:

Traveling: Everyone dreams of a job that will take you to different locations all over the world. … Opportunities: Since the number of archaeologists is not very high, lots of opportunities are there. … Skill improvement: The job is not at all easy.

Syllabus

To help you understand the subjects and specializations are offered in Archaeology courses in India, we have curated course wise break of the syllabus for PG Diploma, Bachelors, and Masters in Archaeology degree. Take a look at each one of the following for more clarity:

Syllabus for Post-Graduate Diploma in Archaeology

Semester-I Semester-II
Principles of ArchaeologyField Archaeology
Social & Economic Institutions of Ancient IndiaArchaeological Science
South Asian PrehistoryOptional (any two) • South Asian Protohistory• Introduction to Ethno archaeology• Earth Sciences in Archaeology• Dissertation • Open Paper
Epigraphical Records of Ancient India
Introduction to cultural Heritage Management
Research Methodology

*Candidates must note that field work is compulsory for students in Semester II.

Syllabus for Bachelors in Archaeology

Ist year2nd year
Political History of Ancient India (from c 600 BC to c 320 AD)Political History of Ancient India (from c 320 AD to c 750 AD)
Social, Economic & Religious Life in Ancient IndiaElements of Indian Archaeology
3rd year
Political History of Early Mediaeval India
Ancient Indian Art & Architecture
Ancient World Civilizations

Syllabus for Masters in Archaeology

Semester-ISemester-II
Political History of India (up to 1200 A.D.)Religious History of India
Social and Economic History of India (up to 1200 A.D.)Methods in Archaeology
Introduction to ArchaeologyProtohistory of South Asia
Prehistory of South Asia: Paleolithic and MesolithicScience in Archaeology
Semester-III (Any four electives)
Art and Architecture of India-I (300 B.C. to 600 A.D.)
Ancient Indian Iconography
Ancient Indian Paleography and Epigraphy
Archaeology and Literature
An Outline of World Prehistory
Environmental Archaeology (Bioarchaeology)
Biological Anthropology
Advanced Archaeological Theory and Research Methodology
History of Indian Archaeology
Harappan Civilization
Museology-I: Basic Principles and Practice
Cultural Heritage Management

Are you suited to be an archaeologist?

Archaeologists have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also artistic, meaning they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if archaeologist is one of your top career matches.

Take the free test now Learn more about the career test

There Is a Lot of Employment Growth

While a large part of being an archaeologist is excavating, it’s common for a significant chunk of the year to be devoted to other areas in the industry, such as teaching or research, or both. For many, a common step up the career ladder is becoming a professor in the field of archaeology at a university. University teaching is a rewarding way for individuals to pass on what they know to interested students.

Which department a professor in this field of study ends up is largely dependent on their speciality. For example, those who study the archaeology of ancient Israel often belong to a Department of Religious Studies, per the Archaeological Institute of America. They can also use this time to write research papers for books, journals and popular publications.

Becoming a university professor in the study of archaeology isn’t exactly easy. You would need a four-year bachelor’s degree (B.A. or B.S.), a master’s degree and a Ph.D., which can take many years. And, since there are only a handful of positions typically open throughout the United States and Canada, there is a lot of stiff competition.

Thankfully, there are additional sectors where archaeologists may find employment. These include federal and state government agencies, historic sites, museums and engineering firms. Some archaeologists even choose to go out on their own by forming their own companies or spending their time working as consultants.

Educational Institutions in North America offering Archaeology Programs

How Do I Choose a Field School?

West Point Foundry Project

There are hundreds of archaeological field schools held each year all over the world, and choosing the one for you may seem a little daunting. Fieldwork is conducted in many different places in the world, for different fees, from different universities, for different lengths of times. So, how do you choose one? 

First, find out: 

  • Where will it be held?
  • What culture/time period(s) it cover?
  • What kind of work will be conducted?
  • How much does it cost to attend? 
  • How many years has the work been going on?
  • What are the staff like?
  • Can you gain undergraduate or graduate credit from the university?
  • What are the accommodations like (food and shelter)?
  • What will the weather be like?
  • Will you go on tours on the weekends?
  • Is there a safety plan?
  • Is the field school certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists in the US (or other professional organization)?

All of those characteristics may be more or less important to you, but the best kind of field school is one in which the students actively participate in the research. As you're looking around for a field school, reach out to the professor leading the program and ask about how students participate in the excavations. Describe your special skills—Are you observant? Are you a good writer? Are you handy with a camera?—and tell them if you are interested in actively assisting with the research, and ask about opportunities for participation.

Even if you don't have a special skill, be open to opportunities to learn about the process of field work such as mapping, laboratory work, small finds analysis, faunal identification, soil study, remote sensing. Ask if there will be an independent study required for the field school and whether that study might become part of a symposium at a professional meeting or perhaps part of the report.

Field schools can be expensive—so don't treat it as a vacation, but rather an opportunity to gain quality experience in the field.

Archaeologists’ salary

It is hard to give an exact salary range for an archaeologist. In the United States and Canada, a junior field archaeologist (sometimes called a “technician”) who works with a small cultural resource management firm may earn a small amount of money, perhaps not much more than minimum wage.

On the high end, a tenured professor at a major research university may earn a salary that reaches over $100,000. An archaeologist who holds a senior management position at a university, government agency, large cultural resource management firm or large museum may also earn a salary that reaches into six figures. If an archaeologist succeeds in publishing a book that sells well (something that is difficult to do) that may raise their income further. Few, if any, archaeologists say that they went into the discipline for the money.

Job Description of Archeologist

An archeologist researches the culture and past human life in history from remains, architectural features, artifacts, and structures found in excavation or underwater recovery or other discovery. They carefully record an object’s information and location then authenticate, date and identify the objects and structures that an excavation has recovered. Recordings would include an artifact’s function, shape, size, and decoration and can give descriptions based on an artifact’s attributes or physical properties, like the materials they were made of.

Archeologists answer specific questions about past societies and cultures according to their survey and research and write and/or publish reports that record site methodology, history and artifact analysis results. They would also give their recommendations and findings to colleagues and the general public for interpreting findings and conserving.

An archaeologist works very closely with anthropologist; they would draw and update maps of the site of features, stratum surfaces and unit profiles. A collection would be made of the artifacts of various materials and be placed and marked in bags identifying where they were discovered. An archeologist can work in museums, parks, historic sites, public education, or manage exhibits. Others work in laboratories studying samples or at archaeology field sites. Often times archeologist are traveling all over the world and to certain geographical locations.

Archeologist usually work full time and may work more than a traditional work schedule. At times they may work 7-10 days in a row consequently having to work on close deadlines or limited permits. Work hours in the field usually start in early mornings and end at noon, especially in hot climates. A technician or assistant may work in the evening processing data that has been found throughout the day. Archaeologists have a slow growth rate therefore employment opportunities are limited and can very be competitive.

Archeologist Job Posting

Let’s look at a job description posted by the Bureau of Land Management. This job announcement is looking for a person to perform the following physical demands and responsibilities:

The incumbent serves as an Archaeologist in the Carlsbad Field Office. The incumbent performs professional work in heritage resource management within the framework of BLM’s multiple use mission. The incumbent applies a professional knowledge of standard archeological principles, theories, concepts, methods, and techniques to perform recurring, well-precedented projects. Major duties include: curation, archeological inventories, consultation, heritage resources management, heritage and paleontological resources environmental analysis and planning documents, education and outreach.

Physical Demands: Field work routinely requires physical exertion such as long periods of standing or walking over rough, uneven, rocky surfaces or mountainous terrain; recurring bending, crouching, stooping or reaching; using hand tools such as shovels, trowels, or screening devices; and lifting of moderately heavy items such as equipment and samples.

Work Environment: The work regularly involves moderate risks or discomforts which may require special safety precautions, e.g., adverse weather conditions, hazardous driving conditions, irritating or occasionally hazardous chemicals; hostile wildlife; and travel in off-road vehicles. Incumbent will adhere to all safety rules and regulations as prescribed in manuals/supplements or by the designated Safety Officer.

This position was posted to run from 07/17/2019 to 07/31/2019 with starting salary range of $51,440 to $80,912 per year pending on experience on USAjobs.gov (link opens in a new tab). USAjobs.gov is an official website of the United States government and part of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Archaeology career prospects

  • For people who are driven by knowledge and curiosity, the sky is the limit. A career in Archaeology is for those passionate enough to go on about history and ancient culture, research on topics that drive them that gives them enough motivation to pursue a prospective career in Archaeology.
  • Archaeology career offers a plethora of opportunities to those passionate in this subject area. They may find work in:
    • Colleges/ Universities as an Associate Professor, Junior Research Fellow, or Research Fellow;
    • Indian Council of Historical Research, Archaeological Survey of India, Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), National Archives of India, Private & Public Museums of India, etc. as Archeologist, Heritage Manager, Historian, Document Specialist, Museum education officer, among many others.
  • As advancement in technology can be seen almost in every sphere of our lives, the field of archaeology is no far behind. There are now newer and more digitally advanced devices that have made an archaeologist degree worth having. The use of drones, digital photography, photogrammetry, and three-dimensional imaging software is rapidly changing the way archaeologists do their research. The field of archaeology is bound to witness more such advancements in the times to come.

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