The Job and What's Involved

Archaeologists learn about the past from material remains, including fragments of bone or pottery, buried structures or microscopic organisms.

As well as taking part in excavations ('digs'), archaeologists preserve, record, analyse and interpret archaeological remains, historic sites and monuments. They may also become involved in conservation, publicity and educational activities such as the interpretation and display of finds in museums, or teaching in universities, colleges or schools.

Archaeologists use a wide range of equipment, from basic pointing trowels (essential for excavations) to sophisticated laboratory instruments and computers. Computers are used to create films, simulations and virtual reality, and the use of computer-aided design (CAD) and geographical information systems (GIS) are increasingly common. They also use many investigative techniques such as:

  • Field walking, which involves searching ploughed fields for artefacts such as pieces of pottery or Roman coins.
  • Aerial photography, which helps to show up bumps or depressions in the ground which may indicate archaeological remains and features.
  • Geophysical surveying, using devices that detect remains of human activity buried underground.
  • Laboratory tests, such as radio carbon dating.

Sites are recorded using photography, detailed notes and drawings, and finds are analysed by grouping, identifying and classifying them, possibly involving research and desk-based assessment. Site reports are produced, detailing what was found and where, often using CAD and GIS to record and interpret finds.

Working hours vary, but many archaeologists work a standard 35 hours a week, Monday to Friday. On excavations, hours are more variable and overtime may be possible, particularly as the work is often away from home, sometimes overseas. Part-time work and short-term contracts are also common, especially when starting out. Many community and educational activities take place outside standard hours and might involve weekend and evening work.

The workplace and working conditions are also very varied. Some archaeologists (especially more senior personnel) work indoors, but excavations usually mean working outdoors in all weathers, often involving kneeling and working in cramped, muddy conditions. Protective clothing is usually needed. A driving licence may be an advantage.

Starting salaries are around £13,500 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

About 6000 people in the UK earn their living as archaeologists, with around 40 per cent working for small organisations such as planning consultancies or independent specialists carrying out field investigations and research. Other employers include:

University archaeology departments and research groups.

National or local government, including local authority museums.

Archaeological contractors, including contracting units attached to universities.

National bodies and heritage agencies such as English Heritage, Historic Scotland, CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments, The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, and the Environment and Heritage Service (Northern Ireland).

Charities such as the National Trust, and archaeological organisations such as the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) and the Institute of Field Archaeologists (IFA).

The number of professional archaeologists is increasing, and further growth is expected. Entry to this profession is highly competitive and recent growth in undergraduate intake is not matched by the number of jobs available.

Vacancies may be advertised in national papers such as The Guardian (in Wednesday's environmental section), in specialised periodicals such as Current Archaeology and on websites such as:

The IFA's Jobs Information Service

The British Archaeological Jobs Resource

Oxford Archaeology

Education and Training

Around 90 per cent of archaeologists are graduates.

Archaeology can be studied as a single honours degree (BA, BSc or Scottish MA) or combined with subjects such as ancient or medieval history, geography or anthropology.

Although a non-relevant degree, such as biology or geography, does not necessarily prevent entry to this profession, degrees in archaeology, history or heritage management are more likely to increase employment opportunities.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Archaeology is a popular subject, so entry to a degree course requires good GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) and high grades in three A levels/three to four H grades, or equivalent, although universities are usually flexible about subject requirements. It is important to check entry requirements carefully.

Entry without a degree is possible, although increasingly rare. A few institutions offer HNC/HND, Foundation degree or diploma courses in archaeology.

Pre-entry work experience, in addition to the fieldwork experience gained through a degree course, shows commitment and a genuine interest in becoming a professional archaeologist. This experience is most likely to be gained through voluntary work, and although it is getting increasingly difficult to find opportunities for volunteering on excavations, some archaeological organisations will take on volunteers to help with finds cataloguing or recording. There are a number of training excavations taking paying students, and the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) Briefing is the best source of information on these.

Training tends to be through short, specialist courses relevant to the particular job, and run by organisations such as English Heritage. The IFA is currently developing a process of Personal Development Planning (PDP).

Archaeologists need to continue to read around their chosen subject, as ongoing research and scientific breakthroughs mean that practitioners need to keep up to date with more than just their own specialist area.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An archaeologist should:

  • Be patient, persistent, determined and self-motivated.
  • Be able to work with absolute accuracy, paying attention to detail.
  • Have good computing and IT skills (because of the increasing use of CAD and GIS).
  • Be methodical and well organised, able to manage a variety of essential tasks and to keep on top of enquiries and preparatory work.
  • Have a passionate interest in archaeology, demonstrated for example by membership of a local archaeological society or branch of the Young Archaeologists' Club.
  • Have an enquiring and analytical mind.
  • Be capable of handling delicate and fragile objects with care.
  • Possess good written and oral communications skills.
  • Have good negotiating skills.
  • Be able to work as a member of a team (especially important in fieldwork).
  • Have a reasonable level of physical fitness (for fieldwork).

Your Long Term Prospects

Career progression can be slow in the profession because of the limited opportunities available. It can be difficult to become established, and the early years are likely to involve a series of short-term contracts.

A career in archaeology rarely follows a defined promotional ladder, but a typical career path might involve two years as a digger, five to ten years as a site supervisor, followed by a move into project management or a managerial role. Because there are so many specialisms, archaeology does provide opportunities to move into other areas with specialist skills.

Once experienced and well established, archaeologists may move into higher education teaching and research.

Get Further Information

Council for British Archaeology (CBA),
St Mary's House, 66 Bootham, York YO30 7BZ
Tel: 01904 671417

Creative and Cultural Skills, 4th Floor, Lafone House,
The Leathermarket, Weston Street, London SE1 3HN
Tel: 020 7015 1847

English Heritage, PO Box 569, Swindon SN2 2YP
Tel: 0870 333 1181

Northern Ireland Environment Agency,
Klondyke Building, Cromac Avenue, Gasworks Business Park,
Lower Ormeau Road, Belfast BT7 2JA
Tel: 028 9054 3145

Historic Scotland, Longmore House,
Salisbury Place, Edinburgh EH9 1SH
Tel: 0131 668 8600

Institute of Field Archaeologists (IFA), School of Human and Environmental Services,
University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 227, Reading RG6 6AB
Tel: 0118 378 6446

National Trust, Heelis, Kemble Drive, Swindon SN2 2NA
Tel: 01793 817400

Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland (RCAHMS),
John Sinclair House, 16 Bernard Terrace, Edinburgh EH8 9NX
Tel: 0131 662 1456

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