So You Want to Be an Archaeologist?
Welcome back, Xplorers!
Have you ever wondered what it takes to be an archaeologist?
Maybe you saw a movie and wondered how those guys with cool hats got to run around the world looking for cool artifacts (Looking at you, Indiana Jones). Or maybe history has always been your favorite subject in school and you’re looking for a way to turn your passion into a career. Or perhaps Have you read one of our posts — maybe our recent one about the Point Pleasant mitigation? — and thought, “Wow! That sounds really cool. I want to be an archaeologist! But… how do I get started?”
If that’s you, we’re especially glad you’re here! Today, we’re walking you all the way through the process to becoming a real, professional archaeologist. We’ll go step by step so you can start investing in your new career path — whether you’re just starting out or looking to make a change.
Keep in mind, though — there’s no one right way to become an archaeologist. Each of our staff members has taken a different path to get here, and they’re as valid as they are varied. However, there are definitely some solid steps you can take to start your journey toward a career as an archaeologist. Ready? Let’s dig deeper.
Step One: Invest in Your Curiosity
Let’s get one thing straight: No matter how old you are or where you are in life, the first and most important thing you can do on your way to a career in archaeology is stay curious.
The world of archaeology is full of curious, passionate people who dearly love what they do, but they all started with just a little spark of interest. Some discovered a passion for Native American history — for understanding the lives of America’s earliest inhabitants. Others are drawn to science, and they love the idea of testing artifacts and soil samples and piecing together the puzzle pieces to reveal a picture of the past. Whatever it is, every archaeologist started out by discovering something that fired them up.
What is that thing for you? What do you find yourself drawn toward? Are you a history nerd? Do you dream of digging for artifacts? What subject fires you up more than anything?
Whatever that spark of curiosity is for you, we encourage you to indulge it. Go after it, and see where it leads you! Let yourself enjoy being curious, and seek to learn more whenever you can. Have fun with it!
The cool thing is, there are plenty of ways to invest in your curiosity and learn more about your passion. Look for history or anthropology classes you could take in your school or community. Take a trip to your local library, and read books about your favorite historical periods and the archaeological work that has taught us about them. Find a workshop or event where you can interact with archaeology professionals in your area, and if you can, volunteer! Museums, nonprofits, state and federal government organizations, and other private organizations are always looking for volunteers to help out with projects — why not have a look around and see where you could lend a hand and start getting some real experience?
Step Two: Getting the Degree
Alright, here’s where the rubber meets the road: If you’re going to work as a professional archaeologist, you’re going to have to have at least a bachelor’s degree relevant to the field. The good news is there are MANY options for specific areas of study you can choose from!
It’s important to note that pretty much every facet of archaeology falls under the much wider umbrella of anthropology — the study of humans. Anthropologists do all kinds of incredible work from linguistics to history and beyond, so if you want to get into archaeology, anthropology is a great place to start. And from there, you can branch out however you like! You may decide to get your degree in anthropology alone, and that’s totally fine — you’ll have a great base to get started. However, you also might choose to do an archaeology focus and start getting training in field work and other aspects of working as an archaeologist.
From there, you can specialize even further, and place your emphasis on history, biology, osteology (the study of bones), or something else entirely. All of the above will help you on your path to becoming an archaeologist — it’s all about what you find most interesting.
If you love the idea of digging in the dirt and doing the actual field work that archaeology requires, then an archaeology degree where you can get some field and lab training would be perfect! If you’re more interested in the history side of things, consider taking classes in history and narrowing down your expertise to your favorite time period or location. If you can’t get enough of animal bones and learning all about how humans have interacted with animals throughout our history, you’re going to want to look into zooarchaeology, biology, and ecology, and if you’re more into bones, osteology is going to be your jam. Whatever your interest, this is the time to learn, discover, and start to narrow your focus so that you can get the training you need to find a job in your niche of this wide and wonderful field.
Step Two-A: Grad School
Once you have that bachelor’s degree, you can absolutely find a job in the archaeology world. However, there is an excellent bonus step that can give you a major boost and expand the range of job opportunities you’ll have when you finish school and move into the field. (Haha, see what we did there?)
Keep in mind — graduate school is generally for people who have a very specific niche that they’re ready to double down on. If you don’t have a tiny area of focus within archaeology that you’re passionate about, you can absolutely get highly fulfilling work with a B.A. or a B.S. However, if you know you want to make a career out of your excitement and expertise in one highly specific and nuanced part of the field, grad school might be the right place for you.
This is also an excellent time to double down on your efforts to get that all-important real-world experience. Remember how we said amateur volunteering is a great way to get into the field? Well, volunteering as a college or grad student is a fantastic way to expand on that experience. Be on the lookout for opportunities within your school or university, check with academics in the field, and take advantage of open jobs at museums, archives, etc. You may be able to participate in digs, research, or lab work alongside working archaeologists, giving you the chance to observe and learn from the expertise of the pros!
Step Three: Get to Work!
Once you’ve invested in your curiosity and gotten that degree, you’ll likely feel pretty confident about the kind of archaeology work you want to do. You’ll have some boots-on-the-ground (maybe literally!) experience, and you’ll be ready to launch out into the world as a professional archaeologist.
But rest assured, there are still endless possibilities! Some archaeologists work in academia, teaching classes and doing their own research. Others work for government agencies, performing surveys and helping clients stay compliant with state and federal regulations.
Still others work for firms like TerraX, performing cultural resource surveys. Even within both of those sectors of the field, there’s a whole variety of roles you can choose to take on. Just ask Liz Southard, one of our Principal Investigators, who manages entire projects from start to finish. Or perhaps you should talk to Raychel Durdin, our lab director, who oversees the handling of every artifact we find in the field. Maybe April Smith is more aligned with your interests — as a bioarchaeologist, April lends her expertise on all things living to the TerraX team. CRM firms have all kinds of people with all kinds of interests, educational backgrounds, and areas of expertise on their teams, so there’s definitely a place for you!
Keep in mind — one of the most important things you can do is maintain an up-to-date CV. Each time you do an internship, publish a paper, or take a job working in the field, add it to your CV! The more you can build up your experience, the better — future employers will be impressed by your qualifications. And remember, no experience is too trivial! Anything and everything you can do to build up your CV will make you a better candidate for your dream archaeology job.
And there you have it! A step-by-step guide to becoming an archaeologist. But remember — everyone’s path to the career is a little bit different, and the most important thing you can do is keep pursuing your interests. Grow your knowledge, gain experience, and network with other archaeologists!
While we’re talking about networking — it’s a great idea to look for a mentor or mentors in the field. There are plenty of professional, working archaeologists out there with years of experience who would love to share their wisdom with you! And for more advice and information, check out these website — they’re full of fantastic resources for archaeologists:
Finally, remember to keep having fun. Archaeology is an incredible field filled with passionate people! We made our favorite subjects our full-time jobs, and you can do the same. Keep striving for the opportunities and projects that fire you up, and you’ll be well on your way to a rewarding career in archaeology.
Thank you so much for joining us, Xplorers! We hope this article inspired you to find ways to get plugged in to the archaeology world. Do you have any other questions we haven’t addressed here? If so, feel free to reach out to us on the socials! You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We look forward to hearing from you!
Until next time, keep learning!
— The TerraX Team