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

FAQ for a Career in Archaeology


Barn Foundation, Prairie Springs Site, Iowa

Barn Foundation, Prairie Springs Site, Iowa

John Doershuk (c) 2006

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

Yes indeed. Archaeological investigations are conducted every year because of cultural resource management laws which were written to protect, among other things, archaeological sites. According to the latest United States Department of Labor Statistics, jobs for archaeologists will continue to grow over the foreseeable future.

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 for sure I would say I've worked on hundreds of archaeological sites over my twenty year career. Archaeological projects vary a great deal. In some cases, excavations at a single site can last years or decades, while in others, a few hours is all that's required.

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 end up getting. If you plan to teach as a college professor, you will need a PhD. If you plan to run archaeological investigations as a Principal Investigator for a cultural resource management firm, you will 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, or doing research in a library someplace or calling someone on the phone. But once upon a time I did practice archaeology, and I talked other people into describing what their days are like. That collection of stories is called An Hour in the Life, and that can give you a taste of what the field is really like.

What is the worst part about your job?

When I was in the field, I hated being the first person to tell a farmer that the proposed new highway was going to take his farmstead.

How many hours a day do you work?

That really varies. If you're in the field, some days last as long as the sunlight does; but that is under unusual circumstances. Usually labor laws 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 (not in lightning storms or during flooding, for example), but that doesn't mean a little rain or 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, and then I found out some old friends had become archaeologists. So, 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.

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 the government 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 that it's best to keep your notes under a rock when working on the top of a 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 it 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.

I want to study a particular subject. How do I find the right school?

The Internet is the best resource in the world to begin your search for the right school and ideas on how to get started. Check out FAQ: I want to study Vikings! for some ideas.

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