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How to Become an Archaeologist

Updated on June 5, 2017

So, you want to be an archaeologist! Read on and explore:

  • What is Archeology?
  • Why Become an Archaeologist?
  • Types of Archaeology.
  • Types of Archaeologists.
  • And for those still interested in pursuing a career path in this field: Educational Requirements to Become an Archaeologist.

A number of theatrical productions have glamorized the profession of archaeology the most notable of which was the Indiana Jones series starring Harrison Ford. Countless young men were drawn to the profession with the hope of gaining fame, adventure and of course the beautiful girl. This discipline, however, is typically not much like portrayed on television and in film. It incorporates many methods all of which require

  • patience
  • dedication
  • an ability to perform tough physical work in extreme conditions and/or unfamiliar cultures
  • the skills to complete reports usually under strict deadlines
  • an ability to manage both research and teaching responsibilities if you are a professor

Months and often years of work are required to gain results and sometimes there is no payoff at all.

Two members of the Southwest Archaeology Team sort thru the matrix remaining after sifting was finishing. One holds in her left hand small artifacts which have been recovered using this process. Photo from the 2011 Annual Open House at Mesa Grande, h
Two members of the Southwest Archaeology Team sort thru the matrix remaining after sifting was finishing. One holds in her left hand small artifacts which have been recovered using this process. Photo from the 2011 Annual Open House at Mesa Grande, h | Source

For most people, archaeology brings to mind buried treasure and Indiana Jones. Fame and danger is not what archaeology is all about but rather it concerns learning about the past of humankind.[1]

Excavations at Hitcham 2 (case study)
Excavations at Hitcham 2 (case study) | Source

What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the scientific study of past human life and culture by the examination of physical remains, such as graves, tools, and pottery.[2] The word, archaeology comes from two Greek words:

· archaios – ancient or old;

· logia – learning or study.

Therefore, the word archaeologist means the study of ancient or old things. Through artifacts left behind, archaeologists interpret the human behavior and culture of past civilizations. They learn or attempt to learn who left these artifacts behind, what they ate, and their beliefs and how they may have affected the environment. Even differences in the ancestors of our recent past can be dissected and analyzed over time to give us a clearer picture of mankind’s collective past.

Why Become an Archaeologist?

Archaeology allows humankind to go back in time before written languages existed and examine the lives of people by analyzing the things they left behind. It is the only field of study which encompasses the entire span of human existence.[3] Even without the glamor and the girl, how cool is that!

Types of Archaeology

1. Prehistoric: focuses on cultures that existed prior to written language; relies soley on excavation to reveal evidence of these cultures

2. Historic: studies the cultures within recorded history and includes extinct cultures and those which may still exist; there are a number of subsets of historic archaeology including the following:

  • classical: focuses on ancient Greece and Rome
  • biblical: focuses on discovering evidence and explanations for Biblical events and therefore, centres primarily in the Middle East

3. Underwater: this is a new field made possible by the invention of SCUBA and deep sea and remote controlled salvage vehicles; it explores the shipwrecks of shallow seas and deep oceans and studies ancient civilizations buried underwater for centuries

4. Ethno-archaeology: it is thought that until relatively recently, human cultures lived by hunting and gathering; these archaeologists observe living cultures making deductions about the lifestyle and characteristics of their ancestors

5. Cultural Resource Management: [4]

  • involves the identification, evaluation, and conservation of cultural resources such as heritage sites, objects, landscapes, and traditions.
  • strives to identify, document, evaluate, and represent community values.
  • influences the policies and practices of law, business, planning, and community collaboration.
  • demands expertise in archaeology, ethnography, biological anthropology, and First Nations studies.

Snodland hoard being excavated by a fieldworker.
Snodland hoard being excavated by a fieldworker. | Source
Archaeological photographer and horse burial in re-cut ditch
Archaeological photographer and horse burial in re-cut ditch | Source

Types of Archaeologists

  1. Landscape: search for traces of ancient sites in the landscape
  2. Surveyor: plans and record earthworks, buildings and excavated sites
  3. Field Technician: does the hard work of excavation and extraction of relics
  4. Photographer: takes photographs of the site before, during and after excavation and photographs individual relics
  5. Conservator: preserves the artifacts for future generations
  6. Finds Specialist: date, analyse, identify and interpret artifacts
  7. Archaeological Illustrator: completes drawings of objects, works on publication plans,, design and typesetting of archaeological books and publications
  8. Environmental Scientist: provides information regarding diet, health and living conditions
  9. Human Bones Expert: identify and interpret human skeletal remains
  10. Finds Curator: organizes the long-term storage and aftercare of artifacts

Check out the Hungate excavation, which involves the uncovering of a 1700 year old Roman cemetery. It is the biggest archaeological dig in York in the UK

What to do to Become an Archaeologist

No age is too young to start thinking about a career in archaeology. Read all you can about archaeology through books and magazines. Keep your options open as the field of archaeology is becoming an increasingly scientific discipline.

  • Biology, physics and chemistry are increasingly important and math is useful in statistical analysis; therefore, in high school these should be important considerations.
  • English is necessary as report writing is usually a priority in the field and museum.
  • Geography is important for obvious reasons.
  • Second and third languages could be beneficial when studying linguistic patterns.
  • Even hobbies and other interests can play a vital role in a career in archaeology as knowledge of textiles, pottery and woodwork can be important in the analysis of artifacts.
  • Anthropology is often offered at the high school level and as archaeology is a subset of this discipline, knowledge in this area is necessary.
  • If underwater archaeology is a consideration, then diving skills are an absolute necessity.
  • Hands-on experience is always beneficial and can be in the form of part time work in a museum or volunteering in a local dig.
  • When entering into college or university, look for a program that focuses on the sciences.

The stream you take to reach your goal, either college or university, varies depending upon where your specific interest in this vast field lies. College would offer practical knowledge in surveying skills and field or dig skills whereas the more specialized areas such as bone analysis or artifact dating require a university degree and some areas require a further Master’s degree or Ph.D. If you are unsure, it is recommended that you take a college or university undergraduate degree in the sciences. It is much easier for a scientist to pick up archaeology skills than for a surveyor or archaeological field worker to pick up the science education.

Works Cited

[1] Jorvik Dig. March 4, 2012

[2] The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

[3] SAA Society for American Archaeology. 3, 20012.

[4] Simon Fraser University – Department of Archaeology. March 4, 2012

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, government economists estimate the average yearly earnings of anthropologists and archaeologists in 2009 as $57,230.1

If a career in archaeology still appeals to you check out and explore the following links to find out length of study and program outlines of various North American and United Kingdom institutions offering Archaeological Programs.

1 College Board. March 6, 2012.

Have you ever thought about becoming an Archeologist?

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    • hockey8mn profile image

      hockey8mn 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      The book can be a bit dry at times, but if you push through and get to the good parts, it is all worth it.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks again for another great reference. This person I am not familiar with but I will check out his book. Than-you hockey8mn.

    • hockey8mn profile image

      hockey8mn 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Another interesting hub. I will again refer you to a book for your reading pleasure: "Alfred Maudslay and the Maya" by Ian Graham. He was an archaeological illustrator who did do some excavating. He was a pioneer in the field of archaeology and was, in my opinion, one of the few people who lived the life of Indian Jones (minus the Nazi's). He was one of the first to venture into Mesoamerica. If you have an adventurous side, he will only further inspire you.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      natashalh, thanks for the feedback. All of my kids love science and history too. My middle child has been thinking of forensic archaeology or anthropology as a career choice.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks for the feedback. My own kids are getting to the point in life where they need to start making choices regarding a career. It's an important decision and getting as much information as possible is key to making those choices.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I am so happy you enjoyed this one. I too loved ancient history long before Indiana Jones but he did make the profession seem exciting and dangerous far from the reality of most archaeologists. As a historian I'm sure you benefit from the work of many archaeologists and can stay cool while you share your expertise with your students!

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 6 years ago from Hawaii

      I also thought archeology was super cool when I was a kid! Then I learned that most archeologists work for utility companies and the like doing compliance work, which didn't seem so exciting. But...because I have worked at historic sites for years, I know a lot of archeologists today who work at places like Montpelier, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and one guy I used to work with has been in Turkey for a long time on a dig.

      I think it's great you emphasize the science aspect and how science classes are necessary. Unless you get to go on a behind the scenes tour, or something like it, it's easy to not realize how much lab work and science are involved.

      Vote up and interesting!

    • Melis Ann profile image

      Melis Ann 6 years ago from Mom On A Health Hunt

      Such a fascinating profession and wonderful hub. Great info to share with kids as they explore options for a career. We can only share what we know and so it helps to know as much as possible for their sake!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      What a fabulously informative and detailed article. And so very well written, very impressive. I did think about archaeology as a profession in my teenage years, long before Indiana Jones, but even then I knew that I wasn't cut out for working in the heat... I don't mind hard work, but I really hate the heat. And it does seem like most excavations are either in the desert, or most of the work gets done in the summer. Alas, I had to give up my dream so I chose the next best thing - HISTORY. And I'm pretty happy with my choice. This is an excellent job. SHARING

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks alissa. I had a blast writing this one!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks Wib. It certainly is an extremely fascinating field of study. The historical background of the human race is added to daily by these scientists.

    • alissaroberts profile image

      Alissa Roberts 6 years ago from Normandy, TN

      Really interesting and useful hub! This is like a one stop shop for anyone interested in the archaeology field. Job well done - voted up!

    • Wib Magli profile image

      Wib Magli 6 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama

      Great article! It's amazing how a single find can illuminate, and change the course of, an entire field of study. Oxyrhynchus and it's impact on biblical studies, for example.

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 6 years ago from Michigan

      I used to want to be an archeologist. I changed my mind because I couldn't see that work allowing me to be the kind of mother that I wanted to be. However, my husband and I visited some archeological sites when we were on our honeymoon in Greece. It was fascinating. This is a very useful guide to those that are interested in this field.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I have often thought the same Pannonica! You never know what the future will hold however. Might be able to sneak a dig into the finished list of things to do!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Fairly large skill set is required for success in the field. Glad you enjoyed the hub.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thought I'd update and include a bit of that information on this hub. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 6 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      So many different disciplines in archaeology! State libraries (at least in Australia) often have knowledge of local dig sites and organisations where people can volunteer - great for getting a taste to see if it's a passion or a passing interest.

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Fascinating stuff! The listing in the "What to do to Become an Archaeologist" section is a bit overwhelming... on the money, but overwhelming nevertheless! Voted interesting and UP!

    • Pannonica profile image

      Pannonica 6 years ago

      Hi Teresa

      Like so many places once someone redevelops an area history pops it's head up. We have had some local dig sites and I find their discoveries fascinating.

      I would love to get more involved, why is it we always feel there is never the time to commit to another project.

      I wonder how different our lives could have been if we had known more when we chose our lives path at college time.

      Looking forward to hopefully reading more on this subject.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Glad you liked it Pannonica. Any dig sites to visit in your town?

    • Pannonica profile image

      Pannonica 6 years ago

      Thank you for a very informative insight to archaeology. I have always had a great interest in the past, I live in a town that is steeped in history.