A Career in Archaeology

A Career in Archaeology

Andrea M. Berlin, James R. Wiseman Chair in Classical Archaeology, Boston University

You may wonder what being an archaeologist is really like. Hot sun, long days, hard manual labor? Dark caves, high mounds, stone citadels? Uncovering houses and graves, palaces and storerooms? Finding broken bits of pottery and metal – and occasionally glamorous and amazing objects that no one has seen since they were last used, perhaps thousands of years ago?

The answer is: YES! All of these things really are part of an archaeologist’s life. Could that life be for you? For a better idea, here are answers to questions that students often ask when they want to know what being an archaeologist is really like.

1) What is a “dig”? Do you really dig?

It’s not just an expression: when you go on a dig, then you can expect to dig! Archaeology is, first and basically, manual labor. The idea is to remove dirt carefully enough that we can tell exactly how things came to be situated as they were, and to record it carefully enough that we can reconstruct what happened in the past. We dig carefully because we want to know the context of every find – that’s actually the single most important piece of information we are after. Knowing the context of something can make all the difference in how we understand it. For example, how differently would you interpret the meaning and use of an ancient oil lamp if you found it in a temple vs. in a grave?

Actual digging can be both taxing and tedious. We break up dirt with pick-axes, shovel it into buckets, and haul it away with wheelbarrows. As soon as we find something, however, we turn to smaller tools, such as trowels, small picks, whisk brooms and dust pans, and even toothbrushes and dental picks. Often there is a back-and-forth: hard digging with larger tools followed by careful, slow cleaning. This means that an archaeologist should be in good physical condition, have stamina, and be able to move and bend easily. Of course you must also not mind getting dirty and hot, and should enjoy being outside.

2) Where and when do digs take place? How long does a dig last?

Archaeologists conduct excavations all over the world, from the Arctic to tropical jungles to modern cities. When they dig depends on various factors, including academic calendars, local weather conditions, and national holidays. Since these vary so much all over the world, it is really the case that on any given day, there are archaeologists digging somewhere.

Digging is slow, and most sites are big – so a dig can take many seasons. A single season can be anywhere from one week to a couple of months; it’s rare for an excavation season to last longer than that. But projects can go on for several years, and in some cases for longer than that (for example, the excavations in the Agora of ancient Athens have been going on every year since 1931, and excavations at Pompeii began in 1748!). Even with very long-term projects, however, there is always a lot left un-excavated. It’s important to leave enough untouched so that future archaeologists, with better techniques and more knowledge, can have their turn.

3) What’s a typical day on a dig?

On a typical work day, we get up pretty early, usually by 5 a.m.  This is for two reasons. First is weather. In most places, it is too hot to work outside in the afternoon, so if we start as soon as the sun comes up, we can put in a good day’s work by noon.

The second reason is that after that first stretch of work, we do another round. We come in from the field, eat lunch, and maybe shower and rest for an hour or so. By the mid-afternoon, we start working again. Afternoon work usually consists of cleaning, studying, and writing about the artifacts that were found in the morning. Sometimes we return to the site to draw or map architecture (e.g., walls and floors). Afternoon work lasts until dinner time, and sometimes continues after that through the evening. Finally, it’s lights out, and a good night’s sleep, so that we can get up early again the next day. Most projects run on a six-day work week; on the “off day” we do laundry, maybe go on a local field trip – or just catch up on sleep.

An excavation is an intense experience, and it can also be a little dangerous, since there are various potential hazards. These include the usual challenges that come from spending lots of time outdoors, such as insects, sunburn, sunstroke, and dehydration. And there are some hazards specific to digs, such as blisters, injury from tools or large rocks, or even falling into one of the deep holes created on the site.

4)  Positions/job availability/salary and benefits

Excavating is only one part of an archaeologist’s job. Especially for most archaeologists who live in the United States and Canada (and also much of Europe and Australia) the usual position is as a professor in a university. That means that digging happens during the summer break, and the rest of the year is devoted to teaching and research. Depending on the specialty, archaeologists can work in one of several university departments:

  • those who study the archaeology of ancient Greece and Rome usually belong to a Department of Classics (sometimes called Classical Studies) or History of Art.
  • those who study the archaeology of ancient Israel often belong to a Department of Religious Studies.
  • those who study ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia often belong to a Department of Near Eastern Studies, or sometimes Anthropology.
  • those who study the archaeology of Mesoamerica (e.g., Maya or Aztec) or South America (e.g., Inca), or the archaeology of most other places in the world, such as Africa, Europe, China, India, Oceania, and the early Americas usually belong to a Department of Anthropology.

The availability of teaching positions in colleges and universities varies from year to year, but in general it is tough to land a job; there are always more people applying than there are positions. In a given year, there are usually somewhere between five to ten positions across the United States and Canada, which means that competition is quite fierce.

Starting salaries for assistant professors, which is the beginning rank, vary. At large mid-western universities, they range from about $60,000 to $70,000/year. At some schools on the east and west coasts, where the costs of living are higher, starting salaries may be a little higher. Full professors (a rank usually attained after 15-20 years) can earn between $90,000 to $130,000/year.  Benefits include health insurance, payment into a retirement fund, and some additional money to travel to conferences once or twice/year. In addition, some schools offer faculty reduced or free tuition for their children if they attend that same or an affiliated school.

5) Training and education

It takes a long time to learn all the things necessary to become an archaeologist. There are two kinds of learning: from books, and from experience on an excavation. The book learning comes from college, followed by graduate school, which is necessary: in order to teach in a university you must have the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Earning a PhD takes from seven to nine years after college. You can’t rush graduate school; many of the courses that you need depend on having first learned things in other courses. Graduate school has three main parts: three to four years of courses, a year of studying for and then taking exams, and finally, writing a dissertation, which is really a kind of book; this usually take another three to four years.

The summers are for getting excavation experience. This part of an archaeologist’s education can be hurried, in a way: you can work on a dig even when in high school, and continue in college. Lots of digs are happy to have student volunteers (though some charge money for room and board, and sometimes tuition). If you end up going on to graduate school, you will already have experience, which will help you advance faster.

There are also all sorts of extra skills that are useful on a dig and for archaeological research. These include technical drawing of objects, photography, mapping and surveying, and various computer applications. If you learn how to do one or more of these, you can make yourself even more useful on an excavation – and increase your chances of getting a job when you graduate.

6)  Satisfying? Stressful? What’s it really like?

I can honestly say that I’ve never had a day when I haven’t been delighted to be an archaeologist. I love all aspects of what I do, including the parts that I have no choice about (like getting up very early, and long airplane rides). All three parts of an archaeologist’s job are fun for me. Excavations are great, because I am outside, working with other people, and we are discovering new things together, which is very exciting and interesting. Research is great, because I am curious and like to learn all sorts of stuff, so I enjoy being in the library, trying to figure out things and write it down in a way that makes sense to others. And I love to teach, because students generally get very excited about this subject, and it’s fun to be involved in that excitement and help it along.

I suppose there is some stress involved in my job, in that I always have more things to do than time to do them in, so I am usually behind in something. But I am philosophical about this: most people in my position have the same problem, and we are all only human. I work as hard as I can, and try to do as well as I can, and after that I don’t worry. It’s true that some things don’t get done as well as others, or that at the end of a dig season more remains to be done. Some people get upset by these things. But archaeology is not a life-or-death kind of job: it’s more like a hobby that some people are lucky enough to get paid to do. So it’s not the stressful kind of job that medicine or law can be, since nobody’s health or freedom depends on it.

Probably the biggest drawback to this kind of job is that it can take over your life. All those satisfactions that come with being an archaeologist are important, because first of all, it doesn’t pay as well as many careers (especially considering how much schooling one needs), and second of all, you can end up devoting much or all of your time to it. That didn’t happen to me because I have two children, so I didn’t spend every minute of my time excavating, researching, or teaching. But I have known archaeologists who never married or had children, and who truly gave themselves over to their career – and they were very happy. Archaeology, for most of us, is a passion, maybe even a kind of obsession, one we are happy to give most of our time to.

7) What is the most important thing you have learned about life in the past?

I don’t know if this is the most important thing, but the most meaningful thing that I’ve experienced is the sensation of standing inside somebody’s house, picking up a pot they used to cook dinner in, holding the dishes they ate from, and feeling, at least a little, as though I were inside a life lived long ago. It’s a kind of time travel: magical, humbling, mysterious, and exciting. It makes the past feel real and alive – and it reminds me that it was filled with regular people going about their daily lives, just like today.

8) Does archaeology have a future?

I think so, for two reasons. First, we humans are a curious species, and we are especially curious about ourselves. We are kind of self-centered that way: we are interested in our own past, how we came to be who we are, and how things were for those who lived before us. The second reason is that people are generally fascinated by objects and places from the past. Even though we can’t go back in time, we can get close to the past by visiting an old place or holding an ancient object. When we walk into a house in Pompeii, or a Pharaoh’s tomb in Egypt, or hold a little pot from the time of Aristotle, we get a feel for the texture and shape of the past, and we can see it as something real and personal. So I think there will always be people who want to be archaeologists or learn from them.

9)  When can I start?

I began going on excavations the year that I graduated from high school (1973), and I have spent almost every summer since then doing just that. Not all of them were overseas; I have also worked in southern Illinois and around Chicago. If you are interested in archaeology as a career, the single best thing that you can do is find out about some excavations in your area. Two sources of information are the state highway department and local colleges and universities. Most states have a state archaeologist who works in the highway department; that person can let you know if there are any digs that you can volunteer for. There is always some “contract archaeology” (that’s archaeology being done on state or federal property and usually paid for by state or federal tax money) happening in every state, especially during the summer months; usually such work is administered through the anthropology department of a nearby university. Sometimes a professor will have a project purely for scientific purposes in the area as well. I have never heard of a project that didn’t happily accept volunteer workers, and high-school age students are definitely old enough (I once directed a crew of 10-12 year olds for two weeks, and they were terrific!).

Have fun, and good luck!


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