Job descriptions and industry overviews

Archaeologist: job description

21 Jun 2023, 15:37

Archaeologists study human history by examining artefacts found at sites of historical interest. Finds can range from prehistoric tools and buildings to animal bones and tiny organisms.

An archaeological dig where archaeolgists work

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

Archaeologists excavate, date and interpret objects found at historical sites. They implement excavation projects, informally known as digs, preserve archaeological remains and collect data that informs their understanding of the past.

Typical duties include:

  • using a variety of methods, including surveys and aerial photography, to locate suitable excavation sites
  • excavating sites using specialist equipment, and supervising the work of others involved in excavation
  • cleaning, sorting and cataloguing finds
  • carrying out tests on artefacts to understand more about them
  • using computer-aided design (CAD), geographical information systems (GIS) and similar software to record and interpret sites and findings
  • using specialist software to produce simulations of how sites might have looked in the past
  • producing, compiling and maintaining written, photographic and drawn records and electronic databases
  • documenting and preserving artefacts
  • collecting, analysing and interpreting data
  • carrying out research on artefacts
  • writing reports, papers and other articles for publication
  • mathematical, statistical and computational modelling
  • assessing planning applications for building developers.

Archaeologists tend to specialise based on their practical expertise and study of particular periods of the past. For example, you could focus on underwater archaeology or management of artefacts. Teaching opportunities are also available, both at universities and local archaeological groups.

Due to the nature of the work, it’s common to work on temporary contracts .The job is likely to involve spending a lot of time outside, potentially in bad weather. You’re likely to need to work unsociable hours if a dig needs to be completed to a deadline (for example, if a housing developer is working to a schedule). You may also have to travel to sites (which may be difficult to access) and stay away from home.

Graduate salaries

Starting salaries for archaeologists tend to be around £18,000, according to Glassdoor, a job comparison site, depending on location and the exact nature of the work. Your salary will rise as you gain experience: average salaries for archaeologists are around £22,000 and can increase to £28,00.

Typical employers of archaeologists

  • Local authorities seeking advice on the archaeological impact of planning applications
  • National heritage 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
  • Construction firms
  • Educational or research institutions
  • Archaeological field units or trusts, which could be attached to universities, local authorities or commercial organisations
  • Archaeological societies and organisations
  • Government agencies such as the Highways Agency.

Excavations, job vacancies and volunteer roles are advertised by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) and the Council for British Archaeology, and on specialist job sites such as British Archaeological Jobs and Resources. Look for jobs in government agencies on and for work at local authorities at

Although archaeological fieldwork usually takes place in teams, it is possible to work as a consultant on a self-employed basis.

Qualifications and training required

Most paid employees have an archaeology degree or one in a closely related field such as history. Many careers in archaeology lead to academia, for which outstanding undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications are usually necessary due to the fierce level of competition.

If you don’t have a relevant degree, you can complete a postgraduate qualification. Postgrad courses are also available 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.

Whatever area of archaeology you’re interested in, archaeological experience is essential. This is often voluntary or you may need to pay a fee to take part to cover accommodation. Look for details on the Council for British Archaeology’s website.

It’s a good idea to become a member of a professional archaeological body, such as the British Archaeological Association. As well as providing grants and prize funds that could help with work experience and research costs, they also allow access to research centres.

If you’re a school leaver considering a career in archaeology, aim to gain as much experience as possible by joining the Young Archaeologists Club or a local archaeology society. Also look for archaeology apprenticeships.

Key skills for archaeologists

Successful archaeologists will usually have:

  • meticulous attention to detail
  • excellent written communication skills
  • accurate recording and reporting skills, including writing, drawing and photography skills
  • an ability to extract and analyse data
  • presentation skills
  • specialist IT skills (or the ability to learn) such as computer-aided design
  • good time management
  • teamwork skills.

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