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What does an Archaeologist do?

Updated on November 7, 2013
Southern Muse profile image

I hold a Masters in Public History and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

Howard Carter gently brushes dust from the sarcophagus of King Tut.
Howard Carter gently brushes dust from the sarcophagus of King Tut. | Source

Our Jeep rumbled through the rough terrain, jerking as it twisted back and forth. The jungle branches ducked low to watch us, swaying gently as we passed. The heat sank into our bones, a reminder to keep our water bottles close at hand, and the mosquitoes hummed by us. At times, an animal was spotted scurrying away or carefully watching us from a distance as we passed.

Finally, we emerged from the brush to a wide clearing, awestruck at the site before us. Various square pits littered the grounds, arranged precisely in tune with the findings of our site studies. Various volunteers, mostly students, squatted low in the pits, carefully digging or brushing away the dirt. Overshadowing them was a massive height of weathered rock, looming over us like a chieftain watching his laborers. Its secrets were yet to be told, and it seemed to communicate the humor in our efforts to the other, smaller buildings which were scattered about the site. This complex of temples was my treasure chest, though it may not yield gold or silver. It may, however, hold the clues to language, culture, religion, and war. It may recite a love poem or a tragic tale of self-destruction. Or it may simply lead to more questions and less answers.

This was my paradise, away from the tourists' beaches and margaritas. Among the hum of the forest, ever watchful for gangs of robbers or revolutionaries, I made my way to the foot of the great pyramid-like temple. Beneath the shadow of the ancients, I found myself and my team still in awe of the scale and permanence of the site, even after five years of returning here.

Who Am I?

The tale seems to come from an Indiana Jones movie, rumbling through the woods or caverns to an unexpected and wondrous site from another time.  The glitz and glam of Hollywood, however, do not belong in archaeological sites except for in the memory of those who work there, those who consider the sweat on one's brow and dirt under the fingernails to be signs of success.  Rather, sites like this - people like this - work every day in sometimes grueling conditions to discover, catalog, and interpret our past.  They are archaeologists.  

Professor Donald Johnson, the discoverer of "Lucy".
Professor Donald Johnson, the discoverer of "Lucy". | Source

Discovery and Excavation

The most important role of the archaeologist is the discovery and excavation of sites, whether those sites are fifty years old or thousands of years old. This role was pioneered by Howard Carter.

We've all heard the tales of Howard Carter and the pharaoh's curse, charming us into fascination with the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. Howard Carter did not know these stories when he began as an excavator under Flinders Petrie in 1892, as all would-be-famous archaeologists must start as the field workers of another archaeologist.

Carter eventually became captivated by the search for the boy-king Tutankhamun and Ancient Egypt. He was sponsored by Lord Carnarvon in 1907, whose sponsorship continued when Carter began excavations in the Valley of the Kings in 1914. Most, if not all, archaeologists must have a sponsor - as excavations take time and money. In the early days of archaeology, most sponsors were wealthy Lords or other high-ranking nobles of European society, although there was occasionally the rich pioneer.

Carter's excavations yielded very few artifacts or clues for the first thirty years of his career. As with most archaeologists, excavations take time and must be done in tune with the seasons and local government laws. Bad weather, inaccurate data, local and national laws, and "grave robbers" all pose threats to the discovery and excavation of new sites. Archaeologists must be ever mindful of where they are, who they must seek permission from, and protection of themselves, their crew, and the site. Carter's team was interrupted by World War I until 1917, when the team was able to resume its work in the Valley.

Carter, despite these odds, prevailed. During his last year of funding from Lord Carnarvon (who by now was getting very annoyed on his "non-profit" donation), on November 4, 1922, Carter's team discovered the top of a staircase in the Valley of the Kings. Three weeks later, after digging bucket upon bucket of sand from the site, the entire staircase had been excavated to reveal the full side of two plaster blocks. Throughout the day of November 26, Carter and his team removed the plaster blocks and peered into the darkness by the light of a single candle. The musty air and Egyptian heat did not sway him from peering as far as possible into the void. When his eyes finally adjusted, Carter beheld treasures no man had seen for over 3,000 years. Several months of excavation and cataloging occurred to document the various treasures found in the tomb, all the while unsure of to whom the tomb belonged.

Carter became infamous on February 16, 1923, when he opened the sealed doorway to the burial chamber. Before him lay the sarcophagus of the boy-king. He had found the tomb of Tutankhamun, untouched by man since the boy-king's burial in 1323 B.C.

Carter's discovery changed the world. Over the next decade, archaeology would be at the forefront of world news as Carter explored, excavated, and catalogued the treasures yielded by King Tut. He would work on (despite the alleged curse) to contribute a vast wealth of information on burial procedures, tomb treasures, and Ancient Egyptian ways of life to the historical record.

Today, archaeologists still discover and excavate sites around the world - from the Mayan temples in Central America to ancient Buddhist temples in the Middle East. Like Carter, archaeologists today face enormous dangers, including compliance with local laws, tomb raiders and grave robbers, lack of funding and support for their work, environmental conditions, extreme weather and natural disasters, and war zones which damage sites.

A curator at a natural history museum.
A curator at a natural history museum. | Source

Other Roles

Archaeologists, however, do not just work in the field.  Many hold other positions throughout their lifetimes, enriching their field work or interpreting the discoveries of others.  

Once a discovery has been made, archaeologists must publish their findings to the academic communities and the public, in order to gain recognition for their contributions and contribute to the historical record.  Publishing also yields greater interest in an archaeologist's work and may help secure funding for future excavations.  Thomas Bateman, noted for his excavations of barrows in England, published two books about his work that helped other archaeologists understand his methods and discoveries: Vestiges of the Antiquities of Derbyshire (1847) united his findings in the barrows with the work of earlier archaeologists, and Ten Years' Diggings in Celtic and Saxon Grave Hills in the Counties of Derby, Stafford, and York (1861).

Archaeologists also join archaeological societies in order to meet and collaborate with other professionals. Being a member of these societies helps to establish an archaeologist as a professional in the field, which helps his/her work gain recognition and support from across the globe.  Societies may also help to fund or publish an archaeologist's work, especially in society-run publications.  Fundraising and/or educational events are also great opportunities for archaeologists to assemble teams, meet potential sponsors, and share their findings.

Other roles inhabited by archaeologists include a range of professions.  Some become professors at universities, which may help to fund summer expeditions and connects students with established professionals.  Many archaeological field schools are run by universities during the summer months, providing volunteer labor for the archaeologists and valuable experience for interested students. 

Other archaeologists may become curators at museums and historical sites, conducting field work on the site and helping to interpret the site for the public.  Additionally, archaeologists may work with - or even become - private antiquities collectors, contributing to the preservation and cataloging of private collections.  

If you could, would you become an Archaeologist?

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Are you the next Howard Carter?

Archaeology is a tough job, but for those who are dedicated to it, it can also be very rewarding. Imagine holding an object that no one has touched in hundreds or even thousands of years. Imagine introducing a crowd of students to a 13th-century religious text that is heavier than a full cooler at a football game, with elaborate calligraphy and jewel-toned illustrations. Imagine staring into the face of our prehistoric ancestors, holding the skull in the light of the sun and knowing that this was once a person, someone who lived and died in a similar manner (albeit under harsher circumstances) as you.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Howard Carter, peering into the musky darkness of a tomb that had not been touched in over 3,000 years. There are still many discoveries to be made - from Ancient Egypt and Greece, to Native American burials and prehistoric cave paintings, to medieval forts and Norse ships lying in wait at the bottom of the oceans. Each discovery is a treasure, and for those who are the first to see it, a memory that will last a lifetime.


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    • Lucky Cats profile image


      10 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

      Southern Muse, I am becoming more and more impressed with your incredible writing ability as well as your command of knowledge on this subject and earlier pieces of yours I've enjoyed. You are an amazing talent! Your enthusiam is contageous and descriptive skills make the reader feel as if peering over the shoulder of the archaeologist as he/she discovers a new historically significant artifact! Again, I wonder, is this your field of study? If not, it certainly SHOULD be as you impart such excitement about this subject and the discoveries which have been made and which await our probing curiosity. PLUS, you started this hub w/an introduction which rivals most best sellers...the unexpected and expected experiences as you drove to the site. UP Awesome Beautiful and Useful.


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