How to Become an Archaeologist

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of a close-up of a pair of hands cleaning an artefact with a brush

Archaeology is a fascinating field to get into. However, unlike what a certain Indiana Jones would have you believe, archaeologists don’t spend their time hunting lost treasures and trying to escape terrifying snake pits.

Indeed, while archaeologists do work on excavation sites in various locations around the world, their main purpose is to find, research and analyse the cultures of prehistoric humans through ancient artefacts and physical remains.

If you have a sense of adventure, a passion for research and an unquenching curiosity about human history and ancient civilisations, this might just be the right career path for you.

So, if you’re set on becoming an archaeologist, these steps will help you be on your way.

1. Explore Your Options

A good first step for you as an aspiring archaeologist would be to expose yourself to this endlessly exciting field. It’s important to become familiar with the daily undertakings of an archaeologist, especially if your only point of reference is the Indiana Jones movies!

You could start by visiting local museums and taking guided tours around ancient sites or partaking in archaeological events and seminars. If you find that this is in fact something you’re truly interested in, you could then look into joining local groups or organisations as a member.

The more you explore the archaeology field, the easier it will be for you to form meaningful connections with like-minded individuals and get hands-on experience!

2. Seek Out Volunteering Opportunities

Speaking of hands-on experience, another great way to get involved in archaeology is by volunteering. By doing so, you’ll quite literally get your hands dirty and acquire important fieldwork experience which could also look great on your CV.

There’s a plethora of available opportunities that will allow you to gain invaluable experience as a budding archaeologist. The easiest way to do this is to seek out volunteering opportunities for local archaeology projects or history societies in your area. You may also be able to volunteer with national organisations, colleges and universities that may also be offering such opportunities.

If you want to go one step further, applying for internships is also a good course of action, as this will allow you to work closely with seasoned scholars and researchers while sharpening your practical and professional skills.

From the excavation process to artefact preservation and project planning, you will have the chance to expand your skillset and gain essential knowledge as an archaeologist. But fieldwork isn’t the only volunteer work you can do. You could also write for archaeology blogs and journals, organise events or even edit newsletters, among other things!

There are numerous prominent organisations, museums and research centres offering volunteering and internship opportunities, including the American Museum of Natural History, the Council for British Archaeology and the Center for American Archeology.

3. Build Yourself a Network

An indispensable benefit of work experience and volunteering, regardless of what form it comes in, is the ability to build a network of contacts. Indeed, forming lasting connections with industry experts, researchers and academics will prove very useful for you down the road.

Archaeology is a highly competitive sector, and beyond your experience and passion for the field, you’ll need a strong list of recommendations and contacts that can point you into the right direction: employment!

Whether it’s a lecture, an event or a volunteer job, seize the chance to network with your peers, and spend some time developing those connections!

4. Use Learning Resources

Archaeologists are naturally curious and inquisitive individuals who are always in pursuit of knowledge. Regardless of which stage you’re at in your archaeology career, there are plenty of learning resources to help you brush up on your knowledge and stay up to date with new findings and discoveries.

For instance, you could subscribe to archaeological magazines, read online blogs, watch interesting documentaries or listen to podcasts. Not only are these resources highly accessible, but you can learn a lot from them, too, especially if you’re a novice.

You could also sign up for training programmes with universities, organisations or associations. Meanwhile, if you have a membership with a regional or national archaeology organisation, then join various events, talks and lectures. These will help you enrich your knowledge as an aspiring archaeologist.

5. Plan Your Next Steps

As you gain more experience in the field as an archaeology enthusiast, you’ll gradually have to decide what the next step is for you.

As already mentioned, archaeology can be a tough sector to tap into; there’s a slim job pool, extensive training involved and a relatively low-income margin. On the other hand, it’s a fascinating way to make a living. So, as you spend more of your time in this field, you will have to determine whether this is something you want to pursue full time and make a career out of or if it’s merely an interest you can enjoy on the side.

It’s crucial that you weigh in all the factors and consider other aspirations you may have. You may also want to explore similar paths, such as palaeontology or anthropology, to find out which areas you’re keen on pursuing.

6. Train as an Archaeologist

Inevitably, to build a career as an archaeologist, you’ll need to receive official training and qualifications. The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a subject such as history, anthropology, sociology or, naturally, archaeology. As it shares common ground with numerous sciences, you could also pursue degrees in biology, geography or even botany.

From there on, you can train as a graduate archaeologist or pursue further qualifications such as a master’s degree and a PhD. Indeed, with most job openings requiring a postgraduate degree in archaeology or anthropology, you will be able to tap into a wider market in your field. Undoubtedly, the more experience and expertise you have, the better are your chances of landing a steady role.

From heritage managers to principal investigators and education officers to collection curators and archivists, there’s a diverse list of paths you could follow. At entry level, however, most archaeologists start their careers by working as field assistants. Depending on your qualifications and experience, you may also be eligible for other junior roles such as research assistant, lab technician or site excavation technician.

7. Discover Your Areas of Interests

Archaeology is a multi-faceted field. Archaeologists spend their days studying and researching ancient civilisations across different historical periods. Their work ranges from recovering material artefacts to analysing archives and studying monuments and landscapes to uncover bygone human cultures. And while some choose to carry out their work through field research, others conduct their studies in labs and offices.

As you gain more knowledge and experience in the field, you will also discover which areas you are truly interested in, as well as develop specialised skills and curate your expertise as a professional archaeologist. For example, you could hone your knowledge in specific eras, develop your own research methodology or focus on a specific type of archaeology such as ethnoarchaeology, bioarchaeology or heritage management.

8. Sharpen Your Skills

As you make your way through different stages of your career, you need to ensure that your skills, both archaeology-related and otherwise, are in tip-top shape. Professional development is an essential aspect of any career and is vital for opening up new job opportunities.

For example, you could sharpen your skills with relevant tools and qualifications such as computer aided design (CAD) software, illustration and geographical information systems (GIS), GPS and satellite imagery.

You could also join professional accredited bodies like the Register of Professional Archaeologists in the US and the Chartered Institute of Archaeologists in the UK. These memberships will show that you’re interested in furthering your career and will make great additions to your CV.

9. Keep Going

You probably already got the message: archaeology is a difficult field to get into due to its lack of job prospects. However, there’s still hope! In fact, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics predicts a 10% growth in employment by 2028.

So, while the competition remains fierce, you shouldn’t throw in the towel and call it quits. If you’re serious about pursuing a career in archaeology, you’ll have to become a lot more resilient; part of an archaeologist’s lifestyle is the uncertainty that you might face every now and again, whether it’s in the form of a rejected job application or a research grant. After all, if you’re truly passionate about your career, nothing will get in your way.

Archaeology is a challenging yet highly rewarding path to pursue. In order to succeed, you need to be passionate about this field and to persevere as your career progresses.

So, if conducting research, preserving artefacts for future generations and mapping out the lives of lost civilisations sounds like your dream job, then this career path could be the perfect match for you!

Are you an archaeologist? Got any useful tips? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!