The passion for human history, prehistory and unearthing past remains, is the crux of the role of an archaeologist. Archaeologists are curious, big-thinkers and strongly interested in all things history.
The role of an archaeologist is a continuous journey of knowledge, learning all about the past by studying sites, and recording and preserving objects. It has a significant physical role as well as theory-focused practices.
What is an archaeologist?
An archaeologist studies everything to do with human beings. From their origin, development, and behaviour to society in the past and present. You’ll look at human languages, cultures, physical characteristics worldwide and archaeological remains.
Archaeology unearths history to help piece together cultures and people that make us who we are today. Archaeologists examine artefacts ranging from animal bones to buildings to help aid the past study of human life and prove many of their theories about evolution.
Archaeologists record and preserve remains for future generations. You can be involved in various settings for excavations (or digs) such as museums, universities or local authorities.
Many professional archaeologists also have postgraduate archaeologist qualifications.
Archaeology is split into two disciplines: prehistory and history. Historic archaeology looks at artefacts and records of ancient civilisations. Prehistoric archaeology focuses on before there were any historical records.
Archaeology covers a vast selection of job titles and doesn’t always involve going on digs to unearth artefacts. It can depend on the type of archaeology you’re working in and the area of expertise. Responsibilities can involve:
- Working usually as part of a team on field excavations, with a range of equipment.
- Project manage excavations, including looking after the team.
- Record any site results with drawings, photography and notes.
- Survey sites by aerial photography, light detection and ranging technology and field walking.
- Analyse your findings by identifying and organising them.
- Use various computer applications to record and interpret finds.
- Clean and preserve finds in a laboratory.
- Use computers to create simulations of what a site artefact would have looked like.
- Conduct laboratory tests like carbon-dating.
- Create excavation and site reports.
- Check planning applications and the impact on various sites.
- Ensure significant sites are protected and preserved.
- Provide educational talks and presentations of your work.
- Assist in the display process of artefacts.
- Offer advice on artefacts conservation.
- Create articles of your research, site interpretations or digs.
An archaeologist's salary ranges, depending on the level of experience, qualifications and location. The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) guides an archaeologist's salary in the UK. A practitioner (PCifA) level salary is around £21,100. An associate (AClfA) level is around £24,600. The member (MClfA) level is £31,600. These salaries could increase depending on who you’re working for. As an archaeologist many employers will offer a range of benefits, adding to your overall salary.
A degree in archaeology or a similar subject is the recommended route to becoming an archaeologist.
Other useful subjects include:
- Archaeological science degrees
- Forensic archaeology degrees
- Ancient history degrees
- Anthropology degrees
Archaeology is a broad subject, involving history, social science and geography. Some specialisms in the archaeological field mean science degrees are more appropriate than purely an archaeological qualification. Subjects including medicine degrees, biology degrees and environmental science degrees, for example, are great choices.
Many professional archaeologists also have postgraduate archaeologist qualifications. These are particularly useful if you want to teach archaeology in higher education or specialise in a specific area of archaeology. You can study a postgraduate qualification in various courses including artefact studies.
Training and development
Training and development are crucial in the archaeology sector. Typically, continuing professional development (CPD) takes place on the job but it’s your responsibility to ensure you make time for it. CPD helps you with research and scientific breakthroughs. You can work on your CPD by reading various books and up-to-date industry news, furthering your knowledge overall.
Apprenticeships are a way to enter the archaeological field without gaining an archaeology degree.
CIfA membership is essential to further your development in your archaeological career. They provide numerous training courses and workshops, and opportunities to network with professional archaeologists. Applying for the CIfA offers the opportunity to gain professional accreditation at the Practitioner, Associate or Member level depending on your experience.
If you don’t already have a postgraduate degree, you can also study this alongside your job to gain further insight into the archaeological industry.
The role of an archaeologist varies from working onsite as a digger to using the computer and drawing up plans and collaborating with various team members and clients. These are the skills an archaeologist requires:
- Strong written, presentation and communication skills.
- Computer literate and knowledge of data management.
- Strong research skills to use historical records.
- Confidence in working and leading a team.
- Practical skills to use for excavating, surveying and drawing.
- Be able to work independently and as a team player, mainly during fieldwork.
- Great attention to detail and a patient nature.
- Great social skills in talking to various people including clients and the general public.
- The ability to use archaeology-related tools and instruments.
- Analytical mind, with a strong ability to solve problems.
- Drivers licence to get to and from sites.
- Organised yet flexible approach to be able to react and adapt to unexpected situations.
- Ability to self-motivate.
- Strong negotiation and project management skills.
- Interest in staying up to date with archaeological developments.
- Understanding of onsite health and safety.
- Knowledge of history, sociology and anthropology.
- Persistence and determination to see a project through until the end.
- Strong ability to work well with your hands.
- Aspiration to continue your learning and development.
Apprenticeships are a way to enter the archaeological field without gaining an archaeology degree. You can gain your NVQ in Archaeological Practice through paid or voluntary work, including an apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships are available at all levels. From the Level 3 archaeological technician advanced apprenticeship to the Level 7 archaeological specialist degree apprenticeship. Level 7 takes longer, around 3 years to complete with a combination of learning in the workplace, and off-the-job studying as well.
The archaeological industry is competitive and it is recommended to gain practical experience. Archaeology work experience outside of your degree (if you’re taking one), shows your commitment and interest in working within this line of work. It’s useful to gain experience on sites, handling and identifying finds, and working with suitable equipment.
An archaeologist studies everything to do with human beings. From their origin, development, and behaviour to society in the past and present.
When volunteering, you’ll start with digging which can help you gain hands-on experience to see how the role works from professional archaeologists around you. These opportunities can be found via the Council for British Archaeology (CBA).
Archaeology jobs have increasingly grown over the last few years across areas of academic and commercial archaeology. However, it’s still a tough industry to crack with competition high - which is why the more experience you gain beforehand can help you in the long run.
As it’s a popular profession, your archaeologist career path can vary depending on the type of sector and specialist area you work within the archaeological sector. Typically, many newbie archaeologists begin as a digger, move into site supervisor roles and then take on managerial roles or project management positions.
There’s the option to undertake further study and move to the educational side of the sector, into a lecturing or academic research position. Alternatively, with additional experience, consultancy work can be another option for you.
For those with specialist skills, opportunities can vary even more. You can move down different routes including conservation, heritage management and as a forensic archaeologist.
Although most archaeological work is under an employer, with experience, you can go down the route as a freelance archaeological consultant. This allows you to have a more flexible schedule.
- Current salary recommendations — Archaeologists.net Retrieved 9 September 2022.