What is an archaeologist?
Archaeology is the study of the human past, whether recent or ancient. Archaeologists find and study the bones, buildings, artifacts, and other remains of past civilizations in order to understand who they were and how they lived, which gives us a better understanding of human culture and the human record.
Archaeologists work in the field at archaeological dig sites, which are sites where evidence of old civilizations existed. They carefully extract artifacts, bones, and other items from the site so as not to damage them. They record, categorize, and date each of their findings and study and interpret them in a lab. They publish their findings for other scientists and the public to see.
An archaeologist attempts to piece together clues to determine how people lived in ancient societies. These professionals use sophisticated tools and technologies to help them find and excavate a dig site. They must be familiar with laboratory equipment as well as statistical and database software.
A typical day for an archeologist might include testing hypotheses about human activity by using data collected, developing or implementing different data collection methods for a specific project, or analyzing data to determine patterns about human life, culture, and origins. They also write reports and give presentations on research findings.
Qualifications and eligibility
Almost all entry-level archaeologist positions require a minimum of a 4-year college degree, typically in anthropology or archaeology. Most undergraduate programs offer internships where students can gain valuable experience in fieldwork and archaeological labs. To advance beyond an entry-level job, you’ll typically need a master’s or doctoral degree in a specific area of archaeological study.
Archaeologists also need to have excellent verbal and written communication skills to present findings both in presentations and in written articles and reports. They need to be critical thinkers and be able to solve problems and make decisions. Good research skills are also a must. These individuals must have perseverance as they can spend many hours in the field excavating sites, which can be a very slow process. Physical stamina is another trait an archaeologist needs as they often have to bend, kneel, stand, hike, and dig for extended periods, sometimes in harsh climates and conditions.
Archaeologists typically are either working in one of three different settings at any given time. They first work in the field, excavating an archaeological site, then in a laboratory, analyzing collected objects, and finally in an office setting, researching, drawing conclusions, and working on publishing their findings in scientific journals. They also can teach in classroom settings.
Archaeologists can often spend weeks or longer at an archaeological site, sometimes in remote locations. The environment changes with every new site they visit. They may travel to different countries and interact with people who speak foreign languages and live in remote settings. The work can be strenuous and the working conditions and weather are harsh at times, requiring a good amount of stamina and physical exertion.
Archaeologists work for a variety of organizations, including research firms, colleges and universities, museums, consulting firms, private corporations, and the government.
Typical work hours
Most archaeologists work a typical 40 hours a week. However, when onsite in the field, they generally have no set schedules and may work throughout the day and during weekends. When doing post-excavation work in laboratories, researching, and preparing articles and reports, these professionals usually work regular 40-hour weeks. Those who work as teachers and researchers typically work flexible hours.
Types of archaeologists
There are many different types of archaeologists. Most study a particular region of the world, a specific topic of study, or a specific archaeological period. Archaeologists can be categorized in various ways. Here are some common types by area of study:
- Bioarchaeology – the study of human remains
- Zooarchaeology – the study of animal remains
- Paleoethnobotany – the study of ancient pants
- Lithics – the study of stone tools and other implements
They can also be broken down by the type of work they do. Here are some common types of archaeologists:
- Field archaeologists – recover and analyze human material and culture through surveys and excavations
- Prehistoric archaeologists – study the human past before historical records began
- Underwater archaeologists – study shipwrecks and other submerged historical sites
- Environmental archaeologists – study how societies in the past interacted and modified their environment
- Classical archaeologists – study ancient Greek and Roman civilizations
- Landscape archaeologists – study changes that take place in different landscapes, both naturally as well as due to human intervention
- Archaeological photographers – take photos of the site before, during, and after excavation, as well as photographs of individual artifacts
The earning potential for an archaeologist can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and archaeological specialty.
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for anthropologists and archeologists was $61,910 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,870, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $99,830.
- The three top-paying cities for archaeologists are:
- Santa Clara, CA – $94,718
- San Francisco, CA – $91,634
- Fremont, CA – $89,490
- The top-paying states are:
- New York – $85,083
- California – $82,454
- Idaho – $82,044
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 7% market growth for archaeologists from 2020 to 2030, which is about the average for all occupations.
Your career path as an archaeologist depends on your education, experience, and area of specialization. Many work for colleges and universities, museums, federal or state governments (such as for the U.S. Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, or the National Park Service), private companies, and consulting firms.
Archaeologists generally start their careers as field technicians, and with an advanced degree and experience, they can become:
- Field crew chief
- Field supervisor
- Project archaeologist/manager
- Cultural resource management (CRM) manager
- Principal investigator
- College professor
- State historical preservation officer (SHPO) archaeologist
- Cultural resource lawyer
- Lab director
- CRM research librarian
- Geographic information systems (GIS) specialist
- Academic researcher
- Heritage manager
- Historic buildings inspector/conservation officer
- Museum education officer
- Museum curator
- Museum exhibitions officer
Steps to becoming an archaeologist
1. Get a bachelor’s degree
Without a bachelor’s degree, you will have almost no opportunity to work anywhere in the field of archaeology. Almost all entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, archaeology, or a related field. Laboratory classes and fieldwork programs as part of your undergraduate study help you gain hands-on experience.
Some of the top universities to receive an archaeology degree are:
2. Participate in an internship
Many schools offer undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in internship programs. Internships are also available to graduates. These programs are extremely beneficial in providing the fieldwork experience necessary for many archaeology jobs. You can also find internships in museums, government agencies, and archaeological organizations.
3. Get specialty certificates
The field of archaeology is extremely broad, but you can receive specialty certificates. Some specialty certificates include:
Bioarchaeology has an emphasis on skeletal bones, both human and non-human. To be eligible for this certificate, you’ll complete four courses. The four courses are Introduction to Archaeology, Human Osteology, Advanced Human Osteology, and Bioarchaeology.
For this certificate, you should be getting an undergraduate degree in archaeology. However, they also accept students on a special basis for those who just want the certificate. The certificate will include seven courses and 21 credits.
If you want to take free courses in archaeology, consider taking courses from edX, where they source courses from top universities, like Harvard, at no cost to you. There are optional upgrades available, but you can take these courses for free to further your education in archaeology.
4. Consider a master’s or doctorate degree
Even if you are fortunate to land an entry-level job with a bachelor’s degree, you will need to obtain at least a master’s degree to advance in your career. Master’s degrees allow students to focus on a particular specialty in archaeology and hone their technical skills. Programs usually take 2 years to complete and include four to six weeks in the field.
Positions in colleges and universities as professors of archaeology or lead archaeologist on projects normally require a Ph.D. in archaeology or a related field. Doctorate degrees typically take two to three years to complete and several months of field research related to a dissertation.
5. Find a job
Once you have your bachelor’s degree, you can seek entry-level employment. These jobs typically include site excavation technicians, research assistants, and archaeological laboratory technicians. With a master’s degree, you have many more opportunities and will typically look for work in your specialty. The availability of jobs can vary greatly depending on where you live.
6. Join a professional organization
You can find quite a few archaeological societies and professional organizations in many different countries. The two most important organizations that help promote career networking and the exchange of industry-specific ideas are:
Founded in 1879, it is the oldest and largest archaeological organization in the United States. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world. By becoming a member, you can be connected with thousands of other members who share a passion for archaeology.
The Council for British Archaeology helps people experience and take part in archaeology through their network of groups and members. Members can share ideas and opportunities and be inspired by archaeology.
Tips for becoming an archaeologist
If you are planning to become an archaeologist, there are a few things you can do to get ahead of the game. Here are some tips:
- Get your bachelor’s degree. It’s virtually a requirement if you want to work as an archaeologist.
- Find out why you’re interested in archaeology. What draws you to it? Research careers within archaeology and find out what appeals most to you. This can help tailor your efforts when developing the skills you’ll need to pursue your career.
- Decide if you want to teach at a university, work at a museum, or in cultural resource management. There are many facets of archaeology, and narrowing down your options will help you see which career path is right for you.
- Decide what education and experience you’ll need to get to where you want to go. Then make a plan as to how you’re going to get that education and experience.
- Talk to archaeologists in different fields. Find out exactly what an archaeobotanist does. Or an underwater archaeologist.
- Find an internship that fits your goals. This will help you gain the skills you need.
- Learn languages. Many work in regions where English isn’t going to do you much good. This will expand your opportunities to work on projects where English isn’t the first language. The languages you learn will depend on what type of archaeologist you want to be. If you are interested in the Old World, learn German and/or French. If your interest is the New World or the Americas, take Spanish courses. For those interested in the Classical World, Latin or Ancient Greek are beneficial to learn. Whatever area you are interested in, talk to an archaeologist in that area and find out what languages would be good to learn.
- Improve your writing skills. You have to be a good writer if you want to be an archaeologist. Work on improving your grammar as well. You can take a writing course or swap and critique papers with your friends.
- Get field experience. Gaining experience in the field is crucial, especially excavation experience. Even if your career path doesn’t require you to work in the field, you’ll want to have that experience. Many universities offer semester or summer programs where you can gain field experience while earning credits at school.
- Get research and artifact analysis experience. This will complement your excavation experience and make you more well-rounded when pursuing your career.
- Attend archaeology conferences at your university, such as those held by the Society for American Archaeology.
- Read archaeological publications such as the Journal of Archaeological Science. This will help you keep up-to-date on what’s happening in archaeology.
- Join archaeological associations. Here you’ll find archaeological resources, events, fieldwork opportunities, volunteer opportunities, career resources, and news. You’ll also be able to network and interact with members. Some of the best associations are:
- Archaeological Institute of America
- American Cultural Resources Association
- Register of Professional Archaeologists
- Society for Historical Archaeology
- Society for Industrial Archaeology
- Society for American Archaeology
- Nautical Archaeology Society
- American Anthropological Association
- World Archaeological Congress
- You can also find state and local and university archaeological societies where you live