Archaeology FAQ: How do I get to be an Archaeologist?

FAQ for a Career in Archaeology

Shovel testing at Schlitterbahn Vacation Village Development Project in Kansas City, Kansas
Shovel testing in the cold at Schlitterbahn Vacation Village Development Project in Kansas City, Kansas. The Louis Berger Group Inc.

Is there still a lot of work in this field of work these days?

The main source for paid archaeological jobs is not at academic institutions, but rather associated with heritage or cultural resource management. Archaeological investigations are conducted in the developed world every year because of CRM laws which were written to protect, among other things, archaeological sites. Access the latest United States Department of Labor Statistics to see more about jobs for archaeologists, in academia and out of it.

What is the best part about being an archaeologist?

My favorite part about being an archaeologist has always been the people you meet, the travel involved, and the fact that one day is almost never like the next.

How many archaeological sites have you been on?

I'm not sure, but certainly I worked on hundreds of archaeological sites over my twenty year long career. Archaeological projects vary a great deal in scope. In some cases, excavations at a single site can last years or decades, while in others, a few hours is all that's required to record it and move on.

How much money can you make in this field?

If you get an advanced degree (MA or PhD), you can earn enough to have a house with a mortgage and raise a family, but archaeology has never been the place to get rich.

How many years of schooling does this job take?

That depends on what kind of job you aim for. If you plan to become a college professor, who teaches classes and conducts field schools in the summers, you will need a PhD.

If you plan to run archaeological investigations as a Principal Investigator for a cultural resource management firm, who writes proposals and leads survey and/or excavation projects year-round, you will at least need an MA. There are other career paths to explore as well.

What is a typical day like for an archaeologist?

I've retired from the field, so my typical day involves sitting in front of a computer, doing research in a library, or calling someone on the phone. But once upon a time I did practice archaeology, and as I recall there were no 'typical days'--it varied from season to season, and project to project. A collection of stories from other working archaeologists is called An Hour in the Life, and perhaps that can give you a taste of what the field experience is really like.

What is the worst part about your job?

In cultural resource management, you have to recognize that not everyone puts understanding the past ahead of everything else. When I was in the field, I hated having to talk with farmers about the proposed new highway that would take their farmsteads. What a new highway represented to me was an opportunity to study prehistoric and historic archaeology; but to the farmer whose family had lived on the ground for a century, it represented the end of their own personal heritage.

How many hours a day do you work?

If you're heading up an excavation, the days might last as long as the sunlight does, and in addition your day likely includes notes, meetings and lab studies in the evenings. Of course, labor laws typically restrict your crew from working more than eight hours in any one given day.

What type of weather do you work in?

We conduct field work in all kinds of weather, rain, snow, sun, too hot, too cold. Archaeologists do pay attention to safety issues (we don't work in lightning storms or during flooding, for example), but with precaution, that doesn't mean a little rain or a hot day will hurt us.

What advice would you give for someone interested in this career?

First, join your local archaeological society, to meet others with your same interest and learn about local opportunities. Then, I always tell people they should sign up for an archaeology training course called a field school. Many field opportunities are available--even for kids in high school, such as the Crow Canyon Project. I've also compiled some suggestions for high school and middle school students who are thinking about archaeology: Studying Archaeology in High School.

How did you become interested in this career?

I stumbled onto archaeology as a career after I'd tried a few other things. I'd read some books about Egyptology, and then I found out some old friends had become archaeologists. A field school came up the summer I turned 28 and I was hooked after that. More details about that decision can be found in the collection of files called How to Become an Archaeologist.

What skills do you need to become successful in this career?

I think you need to be able to adapt to change fairly rapidly, think on your feet, write well, and get along with lots of different people.

Do you need math to be an archaeologist?

Yes, you absolutely do. Archaeologists measure everything and calculate weights, and diameters and distances, and all kinds of estimates based on mathematical equations. In addition, from any one site, archaeologists could excavate thousands of artifacts. To be able to get a comprehensive understanding of that number of objects, archaeologists rely on statistics. To truly understand what you're doing, you must understand what statistics to use when.

What states do most archaeologists work in?

Archaeologists work everywhere in the world. In the US and most developed parts of world, much archaeology is conducted by firms contracted with the federal and state governments as part of cultural resource management. In terms of academic archaeological endeavors, nearly everywhere in the world (with the exception of Antarctica) is visited by some archaeologist from somewhere at sometime.

Are there online courses I can take?

Some universities around the world are developing online courses, and there is one PhD program that I'm aware of that is primarily online. Of course, archaeology has a large field component and that cannot be conducted online. See Distance Learning Opportunities for your options.

What's the most interesting thing you've ever found?

That is hard to say, because often the most interesting things are ideas rather than objects. I once found the remains of a 19th century brick kiln and learned that it was a part-time job for the farmer. I once found the ruins of what looked like a Maya ball court in the middle of Iowa. I once discovered thatit's best to keep your notes under a rockwhen working on the top of a windy hill. I once found that intuition and experience does pay off if you're patient enough.

What was your first dig like?

Like most people, my first excavation experience was at an archaeology field school. My first field school was at Plum Grove, the territorial home of the first governor of Iowa.

How long does it take to dig an average site?

There are no "average sites" in archaeology, nor average excavations. The time you spend on a site depends for the most part on what you intend to do with it: does it need to be recorded, tested, or fully excavated? You can record a site in as little as an hour; you can spend years excavating an archaeological site.

Is being an archaeologist fun?

Well, it doesn't pay very well, and there are distinct hardships to the life: so if you don't find lots of travel, hard work and dirt very fun, then it is not the job for you.

For those of us who love the fieldwork, then it is the best job on the planet.