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Archaeologist Career Guide

What is an archaeologist?

An archaeologist is a specialist dedicated to studying the past and preserving historical artifacts. Their role is pivotal in understanding and interpreting the lives of people from ancient cultures through the examination of their physical remains, such as artifacts, structures, and landscapes. These professionals play an important part in helping society comprehend how past civilizations lived and evolved and preserving the history and heritage of humanity for future generations.

Archaeologists contribute significantly to the field of history and anthropology by decoding the signs and symbols of the past, thereby adding to our understanding of historical events and civilizations. Their research and findings hold great potential for enriching our knowledge of cultural identity, societal development, and human evolution. The value they bring is academic and practical, as they often assess and conserve heritage sites, contributing to the preservation of our global cultural heritage.

Duties and responsibilities

Generally, an archaeologist is responsible for investigating past human activity by excavating, analyzing, and interpreting historical artifacts and geographic features. This process often involves meticulous fieldwork, including careful excavation and documentation of artifacts. They may also participate in laboratory analysis, cataloging, and conservation of artifacts.

Another integral part of their work involves writing reports and research papers detailing their findings and interpretations. For those involved in academic archaeology, teaching at universities, presenting lectures, and supervising student research may also feature prominently in their roles. There may also be a need to lobby for the preservation of archaeological sites considered to be under threat.

Work environment

An archaeologist’s work environment is unique, encompassing both indoor and outdoor settings. A significant portion of their time is spent outdoors at excavation sites, which can be located in various environments ranging from urban developments to remote landscapes. Fieldwork can be physically demanding and may involve working in unfavorable weather conditions and sometimes in locations with basic living conditions.

Indoor work primarily includes laboratory analysis, research, report writing, and, potentially, teaching. Some archaeologists also work in museums, where they may be involved in curating exhibitions, cataloging artifacts, and engaging in public education activities.

Typical work hours

The working hours for an archaeologist will depend on the nature of their current projects. During active fieldwork or excavations, they may work long hours, including weekends, to make the most of the season. This is particularly true when dealing with sites that are threatened by construction or natural disasters where there is a limited time for excavation.

When not conducting fieldwork, they typically work during standard office hours, conducting research, analyzing findings, and preparing reports or academic materials. For those in academic roles, their schedules may also include teaching classes or supervising student research, which can occur both during daytime and evening hours.

How to become an archaeologist

This career guide section outlines the steps to becoming an archaeologist. Entering the vast and diverse field of archaeology comprises a series of academic, practical, and fieldwork-based steps.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Acquiring a bachelor’s degree in archaeology or a related field such as anthropology or history is the first step in pursuing an archaeological career. This degree provides a foundation in human history and culture and often includes courses on field methods and laboratory techniques.

Step 2: Gain field experience

Most archaeology programs offer field schools or internships that provide students with an opportunity to be hands-on in archaeological excavation methods. Such experience is often a prerequisite for graduate programs and is invaluable in building practical skills and establishing professional connections.

Step 3: Earn a master’s degree

After earning a bachelor’s degree and gaining field experience, many aspiring archaeologists pursue a master’s degree. Specialization within archaeology often begins at this level, with students focusing on specific areas like cultural archaeology, archaeobiology, or underwater archaeology. Practical field and lab skills are further developed during this stage of education.

Step 4: Acquire post-graduate experience

Especially if one aims for a position outside of academia, acquiring additional field experience after graduation is vital. This can be done by participating in archaeological digs, working on conservation projects, or being involved in public archaeology initiatives.

Step 5: Complete a Ph.D. degree

A Ph.D. in archaeology is often required for those aiming to work in academic or high-level research positions. It involves several years of research, culminating in a dissertation that contributes original knowledge to the field of archaeology.

Step 6: Publish and present research

Archaeology is a field that thrives on shared knowledge. Therefore, aspiring archaeologists should aim to publish their research in peer-reviewed academic journals and present at conferences. Doing so can lead to recognition within the professional community and potentially open the doors to job opportunities.

Step 7: Apply for jobs

With the proper education, hands-on experience, and a body of published research, the final step is to apply for open positions. Depending on their specific area of focus, archaeologists can work for cultural resource management firms, governmental bodies, museums, historical societies, universities, and more.

Step 8: Further your knowledge and take online courses

Professional development and continuous learning, like taking online courses, are crucial for aspiring archaeologists. This field frequently adapts new technologies and methodologies, and online learning helps individuals stay updated with these advancements. These courses also allow specialization in specific archaeological areas and foster interdisciplinary connections with related fields, enriching their perspective. Continuous learning hones critical thinking, adaptability, and field-specific skills, thus playing a significant role in these professionals’ career growth.

Here are a few great courses you can take to enhance your skill set and knowledge of the ancient world:

How much do archaeologists make?

Compensation for archaeologists varies by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Additional factors impacting their pay include specialization and whether they work for private corporations or public institutions.

Highest paying industries

  • Federal Executive Branch – $73,480
  • Architectural and Engineering Services – $66,230
  • Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services – $63,500
  • Scientific Research and Development Services – $62,290
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools – $60,730

Highest paying states

  • Hawaii – $82,290
  • Massachusetts – $79,440
  • Connecticut – $77,220
  • Alaska – $76,850
  • Washington – $74,300

Browse archaeologist salary data by market

Types of archaeologists

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for archaeologists. This section aims to highlight the variability within the profession, detailing each role’s unique responsibilities and areas of expertise.

Field archaeologist

Known for their adventurers’ hats and dirt-dusted clothing, field archaeologists spend a fair amount of their working life in the great outdoors. Their work mainly involves the physical excavation of historical and prehistorical sites. They meticulously recover artifacts and document their findings. Field archaeologists provide the initial layer of information that other specializations build upon.

Environmental archaeologist

This specialty focuses on understanding how ancient societies interacted with their environment. Their studies often involve analysis of biological and geological artifacts such as plant remains, animal bones, and soil and water contents.

Underwater archaeologist

If you have a love for history and an affinity for water, the world of underwater archaeology may be your perfect fit. These archaeologists explore submerged sites such as shipwrecks and flooded cities. Not only does this role require expertise in historical analysis and artifact recovery, but it also necessitates competence in diving and underwater equipment.


The role of an ethnoarchaeologist bridges the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology. They observe and learn from contemporary societies, drawing parallels with archaeological findings. Their work helps contextualize archaeological data by considering cultural and societal elements, thereby providing a richer understanding of past civilizations.

Experimental archaeologist

An experimental archaeologist seeks to recreate the past by reproducing ancient techniques and artifacts. They aim to understand how objects were made and used and how structures were built by undertaking these activities themselves. This work provides valuable knowledge about the feasibility and function of historical techniques and items.

Digital archaeologist

The digital archaeologist utilizes modern technologies to investigate and analyze the past. They employ tools like geographical information systems (GIS), digital mapping, 3D modeling, and even virtual reality. This role brings the ancient world to life in a whole new way, fostering a more comprehensive and engaging exploration of our history.

Top skills for archaeologists

The skills and traits that an archaeologist must possess are varied, reflecting the broad nature and demands of the role.

Analytical skills

The ability to analyze data and make connections between different pieces of information is paramount in this role. From interpreting aerial photographs to studying soil samples, professionals in this field are routinely expected to draw meaningful conclusions from a variety of sources.

Attention to detail

Every artifact, no matter how small it might be, can be an essential clue about past human activities. Therefore, being meticulous and able to notice even the subtlest details is a crucial trait to possess. This also extends to careful record-keeping, which is vital for documenting and interpreting findings.

Physical stamina

Archaeologists often work in the field, performing excavations and surveys. These activities can be physically demanding, requiring good levels of health and fitness.

Communication skills

Being capable of communicating effectively is critical whether you’re sharing your findings with academic peers, stakeholders, or the general public. Clear and precise writing skills, high-quality public speaking, and proficient interpersonal skills are all essential.

Critical thinking

They need to be able to evaluate and interpret evidence critically, which means asking probing questions, testing out hypotheses, identifying potential biases in interpretations, and challenging existing theories when new evidence suggests alternatives.

Understanding of scientific methods and principles

To pursue a career in this profession, one must have a solid understanding of scientific methods and principles. This encompasses everything from knowledge of dating techniques to the practical application of statistics in data analysis.

Archaeologist career path options

As an archaeologist, there’s an array of future career paths for you to explore. Over time, you’ll have opportunities to evolve into specialized roles that align with your interests or specific field sectors.

Cultural resource management (CRM) is one area you might consider – working as a CRM specialist, helping organizations navigate the process of preserving and respecting the cultural resources on their prospective development sites. This role requires experience in archaeological methodologies and negotiating the legal and ethical surroundings of archeological sites, aspects of the job obtained from earlier career fieldwork.

Another path could lead you to museum work, serving as a curator, collection manager, or exhibit designer. In these roles, your primary tasks may involve cataloging findings, overseeing research, and designing educational displays and exhibits for the public.

If academia appeals to you, there are opportunities within universities as lecturers or researchers. As a lecturer, alongside your teaching responsibilities, you may also conduct independent research, write grants to secure funding, and contribute to the broader academic discourse by publishing your findings. On the other hand, as a researcher, you can dedicate most of your time to investigating specific aspects of the field, often collaborating with colleagues from various disciplines.

Lastly, if your skills lean toward analytical thinking and detail orientation, you might have a future as a lab director or a specialist. In these capacities, you’ll closely analyze artifacts, manage databases of findings, and often work directly with field teams to support their work with in-depth laboratory resources.

The archaeological world is increasingly becoming digitalized. Excavations and studies are more frequently using 3D imaging and GIS to reconstruct and analyze archaeological sites, artifacts, and landscapes. Therefore, professionals in this field are now expected to be tech-savvy with skills in digital methods in addition to conventional archaeological skills. This transformation has opened up new avenues in archaeological research and employment. Universities, governments, and even game development companies are hiring digital archeologists.

Recently, there has also been a growing emphasis on public archaeology, which strives to involve the public in archaeological matters. This trend is amplifying the roles of archaeologists, requiring them to have skills in public engagement and community partnerships. The trend for public archaeology reflects society’s growing interest in our past and archaeology’s role in unraveling it. This trend can also be seen in the rise of crowdfunded and community archaeology projects.

Employment projections for archaeologists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for archaeologists is projected to grow 6 percent through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is due to the increasing need for expertise in environmental conservation and historic preservation. Job opportunities for aspiring archaeologists are promising.

Archaeologist career tips

Understand the role

Your role is much more complex than just digging in the dirt. It requires a deep passion for history, an eye for detail, and an inquisitive mind. To achieve professional success, it’s important to genuinely understand and respect the significance of your work in preserving and interpreting our collective past.

Participate in fieldwork

Most archaeological jobs require practical fieldwork experience, so aside from your formal education, you should seek opportunities to participate in archaeological digs. This will allow you to gain hands-on experience, learn the practicalities of the job, and decide if this is the right profession for you.

Expand your knowledge base

While you must know a great deal about the period and culture you’re researching, understanding the technology tools and methods used in archaeology can be just as crucial. Expanding your knowledge base will certainly make you stand out in your field.

Build a professional network

Networking is an important part of any career. By connecting with other industry professionals, you’ll learn about new opportunities, share knowledge, and remain current on emerging trends in archaeology. Consider joining the following professional associations:

  • The Society for American Archaeology (SAA)
  • The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)
  • The World Archaeological Congress (WAC)
  • The Archaeological Society of British Columbia (ASBC)

Engage in continuous learning

Archaeology is a discipline that continually evolves with every discovery. As an archaeologist, it’s important to keep your knowledge updated and continue learning. This could include:

  • Attending seminars, lectures, and workshops
  • Subscribing to archaeology-related journals and magazines
  • Taking advanced courses in historical studies, anthropology, or earth sciences
  • Practicing new archaeological methodologies and technologies

Understand and comply with ethical norms

You must protect and preserve archaeological resources. Embracing ethical practices protects your reputation and ensures the preservation of historical resources for future generations. Know your professional code of ethics and comply with regulations concerning archaeological exploration and excavation.

Where the archaeologist jobs are

Top employers

  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management
  • National Park Service
  • The Archaeological Conservancy
  • New South Associates, Inc.
  • Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc.

Top states

  • Arizona
  • New Mexico
  • Utah
  • Florida
  • Colorado

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Archaeologyfieldwork.com
  • Shovelbums.org
  • USAjobs.gov


What educational background do I need to become an archaeologist?

An archaeologist usually requires a master’s or doctorate in archaeology, anthropology, or a closely related field, including substantial coursework in archaeology. Undergraduate studies usually involve learning about archaeological methods and the culture and history of people in areas they may wish to specialize in later. They often begin their fieldwork as undergraduates through internships or part-time jobs while they complete their studies.

What are some of the key skills required in archaeology?

Strong analytical and problem-solving skills are critical for archeologists. They must interpret, analyze, and link together pieces of information. Attention to detail is also crucial, as is patience, given that digs can be a slow, careful process. Good communication skills are necessary for writing reports and presenting findings. Physical stamina can also be important, as archaeologists often work outdoors and sometimes in remote locations.

What kind of work environment do archaeologists have?

Archaeologists often work in multiple environments. Some days are spent outdoors at archaeological sites, carrying out digs, which can involve physical activity in harsh weather conditions. Other days might be spent indoors in labs or offices, analyzing findings and writing reports. Travel may be involved, especially if they are specialized in a specific geographic area.

What type of archaeological research might I be involved in?

The types of archaeological research you might be involved in largely depends on your areas of interest and specialization. You might study everything from prehistoric societies that left no written records to contemporary cultures. This could involve studying artifacts, architecture, biofacts, landscapes, and/or cultural traditions. The goal is typically to learn about human history and prehistory through the excavation, analysis, and interpretation of these materials.

Could I specialize in a particular aspect of archaeology?

Yes, many archaeologists choose to specialize either geographically, methodologically, or temporally. Geo-specialization might involve focusing on a particular region, like ancient Greece or Mayan civilization. Methodological specialization might involve a focus on a particular type of research, such as lithic analysis or bioarchaeology. Temporal specialization might involve a focus on a specific time period, such as the bronze age or the medieval period.

How does archaeology differ from anthropology?

Archaeology is a subset of anthropology, which studies human societies and cultures and their development. While anthropology can involve studying modern cultures and societies, archaeology specifically focuses on studying past societies through their material culture (artifacts, architecture, landscapes, biofacts). While anthropology might involve participant observation and ethnography, archaeology mainly uses excavation and material analysis.

What ethical considerations do archaeologists have to keep in mind?

Archaeologists need to respect the cultural heritage of the societies they study, which includes managing and preserving artifacts so future generations can study and learn from them. They should aim to avoid harm to the sites they work on and consider the viewpoints of local and indigenous communities. They should also strive to disseminate their findings in an accessible way so the wider public can benefit from their research.

What opportunities for career advancement exist in the field of archaeology?

Archaeologists often begin their careers in assistant or field technician roles, gaining practical experience before moving on to more senior positions, such as field director or project manager. With further experience and specializations, they might become supervisors of certain digs or might lead their own research projects. Some move into academia, teaching archaeology and leading student research projects. Exceptional work or important discoveries can also boost their reputation, leading to greater recognition and career advancement.

What are some of the challenges an archaeologist might face?

Archaeologists might face numerous challenges, from the physical (inclement weather, difficult terrain) to the intellectual (interpreting complex data, analyzing historical context). Funding for digs can be competitive, and they may have to write grant applications to fund their projects. The nature of the work can also be unpredictable, with unexpected findings or site conditions leading to changes in plans or methods. Finally, working with artifacts and fragile or irreplaceable sites can pose significant responsibility and stress.

How is technology influencing the profession of archaeology?

Though archaeology fieldwork can remain quite hands-on, technology is increasingly used to assist in discovering, analyzing, and sharing archaeological findings. Techniques such as LiDAR and ground penetrating radar can be used to reveal possible sites before a single shovel is used. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data are being used to analyze and draw connections in large amounts of archaeological data. Online databases help disseminate findings, and 3D modeling and virtual reality tech can be used to recreate historical environments for study and public education.