Archaeologist: job description

Archaeologist: job description

Archaeologists study human history by examining artefacts, which range from prehistoric tools and buildings to animal bones and tiny organisms.
Organised training excavations are a useful way of gaining experience. Details of these can be obtained from The Council for British Archaeology and Archaeology Abroad.

What does an archaeologist do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Archaeologists study past human activity by excavating, dating and interpreting objects and sites of historical interest. They implement excavation projects, informally known as digs, preserve archaelogical remains and collect data that informs their understanding of the past.

Major responsibilities of the job include:

  • using a variety of methods to locate suitable excavation sites, including geophysical surveys and aerial photography
  • examining, documenting and preserving artefacts
  • using computer applications such as computer-aided design (CAD) and geographical information systems (GIS) to record and interpret sites and findings, and to produce simulations of how they might have looked in the past
  • producing, compiling and maintaining written, photographic and drawn records and electronic databases
  • supervising and guiding staff
  • collecting, analysing and interpreting data
  • writing reports, papers and other articles for publication
  • dating and interpreting finds
  • mathematical, statistical and computational modelling
  • assessing planning applications for building developers

Excavations and job vacancies are advertised by the Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA), national newspapers and specialist publications such as Current Archaeology or those promoted by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA). You can find out more about opportunities for volunteering from the CBA or Current Archaeology. The Yearbook and directory published annually by CIfA is a useful source of information for networking and speculative applications.

Although archaeological fieldwork usually takes place in teams, it is possible to work on a self-employed basis. Temporary contracts are common. You could be based outdoors at an excavation or site inspection or indoors in an office, laboratory or museum, though you are increasingly likely to be based indoors as you progress.

With experience, there is scope for consultancy work. Opportunities for national and international travel may arise through different dig locations, consultancy work with international development organisations, or through attendance of professional conferences. 

Typical employers of archaeologists

  • Local authorities seeking advice on the archaeological impact of planning applications
  • National organisations such as English Heritage, National Trust, Historic Scotland and Cadw (the historic environment service of the Welsh Assembly)
  • Museums
  • Professional and commercial developers and consultancies
  • Educational or research institutions
  • Archaeological field units or trusts, which could be attached to universities, local authorities or commercial organisations
  • Archaeological societies and organisations

While the job can be physically tiring and may involve long periods of time working outdoors in all kinds of weather, most archaeologists are passionate about their work and enjoy the thrill of discovering more about past civilisations.

Archaeologists may work in many different roles and specialisations according to practical expertise or particular periods of the past. These specialisations may in turn allow archaeologists to work in other fields, such as forensic investigation of modern crimes or climate change research. Teaching opportunities are also available, as local archaeological groups are becoming increasingly popular.

Qualifications and training required

While academic qualifications are not always essential, most paid employees have an archaeology degree. Many careers in archaeology lead to academia, for which outstanding undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications are usually necessary due to the fierce level of competition. It is also worth noting than earning a good salary in archaeology without a degree may be difficult.

Graduates from degree disciplines other than archaeology will need to obtain a relevant postgraduate qualification, although qualifications in scientific and engineering subjects may be useful in laboratory analysis or reconstruction and restoration projects. Previous study in historical subjects will be helpful, while knowledge of modern or historical languages, such as Latin or ancient Greek, may be useful when interpreting finds or collaborating with foreign colleagues.

Whatever the role, archaeological experience is essential. Organised training excavations and field schools can offer excellent structured training programmes and practical experience. Details of these can be obtained from the Council for British Archaeology, but bear in mind that a fee may be charged for accommodation, food and tuition. You will also find a wealth of alternative opportunities available on a local, national and international scale. Details can be found in specialist publications and on relevant websites.

It is also advisable to become a member of a professional archaeological body, such as the British Archaeological Association. Student memberships allow access to research centres, journals and prize funds for research.

School leavers considering a career in archaeology should gain as much experience as possible by joining the Young Archaeologists Club or a local archaeology society. Although a degree is not always essential, an undergraduate degree will likely speed up progression in your career and is very often a requirement for employers. If you choose to study a subject other than archaeology, you will probably be expected to obtain a relevant postgraduate qualification. Previous study in historical subjects will also be helpful.

If you're attracted to a career in science but want to consider alternatives to university, see the science section of TARGETcareers, our website aimed at school leavers.

Key skills for archaeologists

Work on excavations can be physically demanding; it will help you to have a good level of fitness, as well as patience and enthusiasm. You will also need to make sure that your tetanus vaccinations are up to date. In addition, the following attributes are valued by archaeologists and their employers:

  • Meticulous attention to detail
  • Written communication skills
  • Accurate recording and reporting skills, including writing, drawing and photography skills
  • An inquisitive mind
  • Ability to extract and analyse data
  • Presentation skills
  • Good IT skills
  • Driving licence
  • Good time management
  • Flexibility in terms of location
  • Teamwork
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