A Day in the Life of a Archaeologist

Archaeologists study artifacts of the near and distant past to develop a picture of how people lived in earlier cultures and societies. Many in the profession are also involved in the preservation of archaeological sites. Though a popular conception of the archeologist involves a khaki-clad individual in an exotic locale, who cleans sand off ancient crockery with a toothbrush, real-life archaeologists spend as little time as possible in the field. Because fieldwork is both expensive and destructive to the site, the majority of archaeological study takes place in the lab. In the lab, archeologists analyze data, write reports, and interpret findings for the public. An archaeologist’s natural curiosity about the past and the secrets it holds make the profession a fascinating one. However, the work can be slow and exacting. It may take months to examine thousands of tiny, nearly identical chipped stone axes. Some archaeologists work under the aegis of a major research institution, such as a university or a museum. Many more people in the field, however, are employed by private-sector companies that assist the government and private developers in complying with federal laws aimed at protecting archaeological sites.

Paying Your Dues

A master’s degree in anthropology and several years of fieldwork—experience as a site or project supervisor doesn’t hurt—will qualify you for most jobs in the field. Coursework valuable to a career as an archaeologist includes ancient history, geology, geography, English composition, and human physiology. Sign up to work on your professors’ archaeological digs during your vacations. Only the most distinguished (or fortunate) archaeologists become prominent in the field, and there are fewer positions available than there are qualified archaeologists to fill them. One way to draw attention to your work is by publishing articles in academic journals.

Present and Future

Since the eighteenth century, with the chance rediscovery of Pompei’s well-preserved ruins, the systematic study of lost communities has gripped our imaginations. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was inspired in part by a desire to explore the remnants of the remarkable culture that once thrived there, and it led directly to the discovery of the Rosetta stone. In the nineteenth century,Heinrich Schliemann fixed the location of Troy’s ancient ruins as well as the ruins of Mycenae. Although it has come to light that many of Schliemann’s “discoveries” had been made by others and that his excavations often destroyed as much as they unearthed, his work reminded historians that the mythology of the distant past had more than a grain of truth to it. Hoping to avoid Schliemann’s errors, Howard Carter approached his work with a careful eye for procedure and detail. Not only did his discovery of King Tut’s tomb cause a worldwide sensation, but it also involved one of the first uses of modern archaeological techniques. Later in the twentieth century, discoveries made in Mexico led to a complete reappraisal of ancient Mayan culture, and dispelled many long-standing myths. Today’s broad interest in the history of disparate and distant regions has opened up new avenues of opportunity for archaeologists everywhere. Contemporary archaeologists pursue these avenues eagerly, in an effort to outpace the encroachment of modern industrial society and prevent the secrets of the past from being lost forever.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Halfway through your undergraduate years, be prepared to plunge into the study of archaeology. Because of the profession’s numerous requirements, it will take at least two years of specific and related courses to generate a transcript that will get you into the archaeology department of a well-known graduate school. Since entry into the field is very competitive, your graduate school’s reputation and its involvement in current archaeological exploration are important. Obtain as much field experience as you can.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Master’s and doctoral candidates in archaeology pursue their studies while they try to gain as much work experience as possible. Hours are long because students must complete their studies and work at the same time. Remuneration is slight, and graduate students rely on grants and other financial aid.

TEN YEARS OUT

Archaeologists add the role of manager to their many duties. Archaeologists staff and operate their excavations, which often involves coping with the business practices of distant countries, where customs may be quite different. Respected archaeologists have greater opportunity to select and develop their own projects and follow their own curiosity. Those in academia are expected to publish regularly.