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Questions about becoming an archaeologist

Many Dig readers tell us that they want to pursue a career in archaeology. We asked Dr. Dig for her advice to all those interested in becoming archaeologists:

Dr. dig responds:
First of all congratulations! Archaeology is a fascinating subject, and one that I am sure you will enjoy for the rest of your life. Even if you donít end up a professional or full-time archaeologist, you will never regret the time spent in archaeological study. Archaeology, with its multidisciplinary approach, makes a good background to other professions; many successful lawyers, accountants, government officials, teachers and businesspeople start out as archaeology students.

Now down to practicalities. It is important to realize that there is not one, correct route towards becoming a successful archaeologist as there is for, say, a doctor or a lawyer. However, most archaeologists get a college degree; some go further and study for a master's degree or a doctorate in their chosen area. Because colleges and courses differ from country to country, I cannot outline a precise career path, nor can I give exact details of expected salary etc, as these vary greatly. I can, however, offer general guidelines.

Let's get the money question out of the way first. As a general rule archaeologists who work for universities or for local government (this usually includes museums and government / state / authority funded excavations) will be on a fixed salary scale. Freelance archaeologists, those employed by private archaeological companies and by the tourist industry, will have a variable income depending on local conditions and rates of pay. Although there are a few who make a great deal of money from the subject - principally those who feature regularly on television, or who write best-selling books - the vast majority of archaeologists do not make vast sums of money and some are even forced to supplement their archaeological earnings with part-time work. Archaeology definitely brings its own rewards, but these rewards are not necessarily financial.

Employment opportunities differ widely from country to country, and even from state to state or county to county so it is hard for me to be specific here. University / college posts are prestigious, and everywhere very scarce; they almost invariably require a Ph.D. Museum positions are becoming increasingly rare, and usually require specialist or post degree museum training. Field archaeology posts are more widely available and tend to be dependent upon experience rather than academic qualifications, but are not particularly well-paid. In some countries, tourism offers an opening for qualified archaeologists. However, as a general rule, while no one can guarantee that an archaeological training will lead to full-time employment, those who have expertise in a specific area stand a better chance of obtaining a well-paid post.

How to become an archaeologist? No age is too young to start preparing. Read as much about the subject as you can, search the Web for information and visit museums and exhibitions whenever you get the chance. Many regions have archaeology societies that offer regular lecture schedules, weekend schools, and even the opportunity to experience life on a dig. The American Institute of Archaeology Web site (www.archaeological.org) and the Society of American Archaeology Web site (www.saa.org) are very helpful for those who live in the USA and Canada; you will find listings of events, programmes, etc. If there is no local archaeology society in your area, perhaps you could set one up at school, with the help of a friendly teacher? All experience is valuable - even if you have set your heart on becoming an Egyptologist, learning about prehistory, or ancient China, will never be wasted.

The choice of subjects in pre-college is a difficult one. Do not think too narrowly. These days archaeology is increasingly scientific. Chemistry, biology and physics will always prove useful; mathematics will be helpful for statistical analysis; English is important (You must be able to write reports and maybe even books.), geography and geology are an advantage; practical skills such as pottery, textiles, or woodwork are useful for studying ancient technologies; languages will enable you to read excavation reports written by non-English speakers (This is particularly important for those wishing to study archaeology outside their own region; Egyptology, for example, requires an ability to read publications in French and German.); anthropology is an excellent background subject; diving skills are a must for those who wish to become underwater archaeologists.

How to chose a college or university? Those who have already chosen a particular branch of archaeology, such as Egyptology, should chose a specialist course and will be able to obtain advice from school college counselors / careers services and from the colleges themselves. Those who are interested in archaeological science (which can include a vast array of specific areas, ranging from dating methods to bone analysis) would do best studying the relevant science (e.g. chemistry, or anatomy) with, if possible, a subsidiary archaeology subject. If this is impossible, stick with the science. It is far easier for a scientist to pick up archaeology training, than it is for a general archaeologist to pick up in-depth scientific training. Those who have a non-specific interest in the archaeology should try to find a course with a wide range of options that will allow you to experience as many aspects of archaeology as possible. You can then start to narrow your interests.

Hands-on experience is also a must. Try, if you can, to get experience of working on an excavation, or perhaps in a museum as a vacation job.

Good luck with the archaeological career!

Want to know even more?

For further information on undergraduate and graduate programs in archaeology in the United States, consult the programs provided in publications or on the web sites of the following societies and organizations:


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