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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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