Archaeologists excavate sites and study historic objects in order to learn about the past
Archaeologists are employed to excavate sites and analyse objects and artefacts, piecing together strands of information in order to learn more about the past. Archaeologists split their time between on site excavations (or ‘digs’) where they usually work as part of a large team to take soil samples, locate and photograph objects etc and conduct independent desk-based research into a site or object as well as carry out soil analysis in a laboratory. Archaeologists use specialist equipment such as carbon dating technology in order to identify and assess findings.
Work for archaeologists is often unreliable so most archaeologists work all over the country on a project by project basis, requiring a flexible attitude and commitment to the job. Archaeologists usually begin working as a site assistant before taking on a more supervisory role or becoming a specialist in an aspect of archaeology such as conservation or archaeological science or in a particular period of history or type of object.
Archaeology is a low-waged profession, particularly in relation to the knowledge and skills required (most archaeologists have at least an undergraduate degree). Archaeologists usually begin as a site assistant or excavator, in which case their typical starting salary is £15,500 pro rata. With experience and specialist skills this can increase to £30,000 or above although it will usually take many years to start earning at this level.
- Undertake desk-based research and assessments in preparation for an excavation
- Participate in site excavations or ‘digs’
- Document sites, objects and artefacts through photography and note-writing
- Use specialist survey equipment to analyse findings
- Identify and classify historic objects
- Bag up, label and record artefacts
- Take and analyse soil samples
- Undertake flotation soil processing
- Locate possible sites for excavation
- Advise on the conservation and preservation of buildings and sites
- Use computer software to create images of how sites once looked
- Clean and preserve artefacts
- Prepare and protect objects in museum displays/ collections
- Advise on the impact of planning applications on archaeological sites
- Ensure the conservation and preservation of historic buildings
- Write up results and reports for clients
Archaeology is a competitive field requiring specialist knowledge and skills. Most archaeologists have a degree in archaeology or a relevant subject such as conservation. A full driving licence is often required by employers and a minibus licence can also come in handy.
- Excellent research skills
- A good knowledge of and interest in history
- The ability to work methodically
- Planning/ project management skills
- The ability to analyse artefacts and information
- A flexible approach
- Photography skills
- Strength and endurance (there is a lot of physical graft required throughout excavations)
- The ability to use survey equipment
- A good knowledge of IT including specialist software such as Adobe Illustrator, CAD and GIS
- Specialist knowledge e.g. in geophysics
- Knowledge of conservation
- Draughtsman skills
- Observance and the ability to pay close attention to detail
- The ability to problem solve
- The ability to work as part of a team (when taking part in excavations) and independently (in laboratories or at a desk)
- Patience and perseverance
- The ability to work to deadlines
- Good communication skills, both written and verbal
Finding work as an archaeologist is difficult as there are very few jobs for the number of qualified candidates. For this reason relevant experience is vital. The Young Archaeologists’ Club is a great way to experience digs from an early age and to develop the knowledge and skills required for the field. The Council for British Archaeology and The British Archaeological Jobs and Resources both list several opportunities for aspiring archaeologists to volunteer on digs across the country.
It is also worth getting office-based experience in a commercial archaeology unit, helping with desk-based tasks or simple practical duties such as cleaning pottery. Other relevant experience could include volunteering at a museum or heritage site working as a guide or in the conservation or collections department. Experience using specialist computer software such as Adobe Illustrator will also be highly advantageous when looking for work.
There are very few permanent archaeology positions with most qualified staff operating on short term supply contracts on a project by project basis. Archaeologists could work for a commercial archaeology company, heritage organisation such as English Heritage or the National Trust, private developers, local authorities, universities or museums. It is worth building links with a number of organisations as most contracts are short-term and it is useful to have as many contacts as possible to prevent work from drying up.
Archaeologists split their time between desk-based work (usually in an office) and field work. Field work requires substantial amounts of time undertaking physical work outside and archaeologists need to be willing to work in unpleasant weather conditions. Hard graft is required to wield mattocks (cross between an adze, which is a heavy deconstruction tool, and a pick axe), shovels and wheelbarrows in the initial removal of turf and topsoil and excavating large features such as ditches. Most archaeologists work on a project-to-project basis wherever the work is available so a flexible attitude to the job is essential.
With a certain amount of experience archaeologists can take on supervisory roles in an excavation or become specialists in a particular area of archaeology such as human archaeology or conservation. There are several postgraduate courses which allow archaeologists to gain knowledge in a particular period of history or geographical region. Many archaeologists choose to dedicate their time to a very specific period of research through a PhD which can also offer a certain amount of financial security.
Also known as…
- Site assistant
- Museum/ heritage guide
- Construction worker
What’s it really like?
Gavin Lindsay is 24 and has been working as an archaeologist since graduating from Durham University in 2006. He gives us the inside story …
I have had a fascination with the past since I was very young, visiting castles and museums all over Scotland. I remember doing a project at school on the Romans – we had a visit from the museum education officer who brought lots of exciting artefacts for us to look at and replica clothing to try on. We also did the Vikings which I found equally interesting and it was about this time that I joined the Young Archaeologists Club. I think I was 9 when I held my first trowel and dug my first trench as part of the Roman Gask Project! There was nothing in it but I absolutely loved it. From here my interest grew: I took Classical Studies at secondary school and then an undergraduate degree in Archaeology at university.
The nature of commercial archaeology is such that I have never been employed with a full time permanent contract since beginning my professional career after graduation in 2006. The longest supply contract I have had to date has been 5 months. I have been in my present position as a site assistant for the two week duration of an excavation in Orkney and I now have a three week lull in employment before my next excavation begins. In lean times I have worked as a heritage guide at a popular tourist attraction, one of the many transferable skill paths from an archaeology degree.
Sadly I have to dispel the popular myth that an archaeologist’s typical day is spent knee deep in a muddy trench looking for treasure left from the past! It is true that the job of an archaeologist involves excavation but it is a systematic and professional exercise in gathering and recording information from the material remains of the past and is just one of many jobs carried out by the archaeologist. There is certainly more time spent in the office than in the field. Prior to fieldwork, archives, databases and published literature are exhaustively searched to understand as much as possible about a site. Once the fieldwork is completed there is further work to be done as the artefacts, soil samples, illustrations, photographs and paper records are processed, analysed and interpreted before the results are written up into a report for the client.
Archaeology is highly varied and whether in the office or in the field is very rewarding. Fieldwork takes you into some wonderful remote parts of the countryside and you learn a lot about the history of many different places from many different time periods. If you enjoy problem solving, as I do, then the satisfaction of unravelling some of the mysteries of the past are tremendous. Also to gaze upon sights, unearth structures and hold items in your hands that have not seen the light of day for thousands of years is an incredible opportunity and privilege. It is also a humbling experience that makes you realise the scale of time and where you are placed in the vast scheme of the history of the world
On the downside permanent or regular work is very difficult to come by and owing to the recent financial crisis and slow down in the construction industry, there are fewer jobs available. Archaeology is possibly the only job that requires a post graduate degree to get a minimally waged manual labouring position.
Anyone thinking of working as an archaeologist should do it because they are passionate about the past, not for the pay or the security. If you are not worried about a good salary and are wanting a highly varied job in some incredible parts of the world then archaeology is for you. Experience and flexibility are key. Get as much experience as you can in as many different aspects of archaeology as possible, not just digging and recording.
The next stage in my career would be site supervisor or a more senior project officer post and for both of these positions I require more experience and crucially some experience at supervising excavations or areas of excavations. I am also looking at developing my academic skills further and undertaking a PhD, hopefully progressing to a research or lecturing post at a university.