The Career of an Archaeologist

In my last post, I highlighted that archaeology’s importance lies in its ability to turn the narrative of history into an experience, which contributes to the heritage of global populations and the formation of a unifying world heritage. The natural followup is how we turn these slightly abstract and idealistic notions into real-world applications and ultimately a professional career. For those who’ve have hit me with some version of “how do you plan on making money doing archaeology?,” pay attention because this post is really for you.

Over the last century, archaeology has evolved from an aristocratic hobbyist’s means of enhancing his cabinet of curiosities with odds and ends from all over the globe to both a pedagogical tradition and a means of connecting us with the past. To that end, an extensively and professionally trained archaeologist has several options for making a living through this discipline.

Contract archaeology, professionally referred to as Cultural Resource Management (CRM), is a primary occupation for archaeologists in the non-academic world. Most countries have some governmental regulations that set a protocol for the discovery, study, and protection of the various aspects of heritage that comprise their country’s identity, thanks largely to the initiatives fostered by UNESCO. For the United States, this is initiated by legislation that preempts cultural and archaeological research and investigation for the majority of new development projects. In the United States, these priorities are set by legislation like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Archaeological & Historical Preservation Act. They ensure that any new building will not disturb any culturally significant material present at the proposed site. Depending on the significance of any finds made, contract archaeologists are responsible for making a full assessment of those remains so that, if it is determined those remains will not be preserved, the knowledge those resources present is not lost. Further, there is a redemptive element to this work, as many of the descendant communities of the individuals who left these materials have been severed from that heritage (Eg. Native Americans or the descendants of enslaved laborers). The standard workflow of a contract archaeologist is skewed for more fieldwork and less research and publication (beyond the requisite reporting of fieldwork).

Pictured: the mucky work of conducting an archaeological survey on a construction site.

Academic archaeology is the traditional profession for archaeologists. Typically teaching in higher education institutions, academic archaeologists take the interpretations from their research and fieldwork and apply them to learning environments for students. Typically an archaeologist teaches the methods and theory of archaeology and topics in history and are part of curricula that broadly explore human culture and the human experience. As a career, gaining tenure at a top-tier research university is challenging and competitive; the resources invested in hiring professors and sponsoring their research is extremely limited. Archaeologists are increasingly finding success in marketing the interdisciplinary applicability of their research, demonstrating their place in history, religion, anthropology, economics, natural sciences, etc. Institutions are also taking particular interest in those archaeologists who have specialized in more highly technical research avenues within archaeology like Osteology, Paleobotany, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) aided by satellite imaging, Archaeozoology, etc. These specific yet interdisciplinary focuses are seen as the “next step” for continuing the process of illuminating unexplored aspects of past human experiences, while sometimes minimizing the demand for full scale, long-term excavation projects. Workflow for the academic archaeologist is the inverse of a contract archaeologist, spending more time researching and writing and typically a limited annual period for returning to the field.

I talked about the pedagogical tradition of archaeology during last year’s field season. Here’s my co-supervisor, Justin, doing just that.

Finally, there is a place for archaeologists in museum institutions. Museums and archaeology are inextricable, as both modern museum institutions and the discipline of archaeology had parallel, if not directly correlative development. Museums can act both as a showcase of heritage as well as a venue for broadcasting and educating communities about that heritage. Given that an archaeologist’s mission is to study and disseminate that knowledge and they are experts in handling material culture, they are uniquely suited for a role in a museum institution. Perhaps the one downside is that, while there are several archaeological expeditions that are sponsored by museums, fieldwork isn’t a requisite component of the job. Often (although not always) the resources and demands of museum positions don’t exist to deploy a field archaeologist for full scale archaeological excavation and research. Instead, they might play the role of mouthpiece and interpreter of the material culture on display for a broader, non-academic audience.

There is also a place in the dark corners of a museum, behind closed doors, where one can endlessly do inventories of the museum’s collections.

Beyond academia, museums, and private sector contract work, a fully trained archaeologist has a broad range of skills and experience that make them competitive candidates for other, non-archaeological roles. Many non-profits and non-governmental organizations have use for an individual sensitive to the heritage of global populations and the nuances necessary in working with those populations because of their unique histories and relationships. To that end, archaeologists doing diplomatic and humanitarian work is not unheard of. Archaeologists are also often linguists, needing to know both ancient and modern languages to drive their research. Teaching those languages even to high school students is a viable career alternative. Finally, with the increasing popularity of social media and access to photojournalism, archaeologists (myself included) are broadcasting their work and research to broader audiences. The traditional and formal track would be gaining the role of correspondent for a prominent publication like National Geographic (another dream of mine).

I’ve done at least a little bit of everything listed (whether or not being paid was a part of those experiences is a different story) and, as I’ve stated before, my vision is to pursue the route of academia. Right now, I’m between my Master’s and PhD, waiting to get into a PhD program where I can continue my research and further develop my teaching skills. In the meantime, I wear many hats to fund my adventures and allow me to write here.

P.s. For those who may have missed my announcement on Instagram, I have the privilege of writing this from Prague, so it is safe to say my summer adventure has officially begun! I will be in the Czech Republic until the end of the week, then Justin (my co-supervisor from last year) and Veronika (our field director, Justin’s girlfriend, and all around archaeological badass), and I will be driving down to Naples to join the Apolline Project. At the very end of July, I’ll head to Cyprus to join one of my mentors, Dr. Pamela Gaber, at her site, Idalion. I’ll wrap up mid-August with a two day turnover in Rome before landing back in Baltimore. Keep your eyes peeled for my blog posts from the field!


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