By Katherine Hodge, Public Education Coordinator
Over the past few weeks, we have interviewed several archaeologists in a variety of positions all at different stages in their careers. Though their experiences are all very different, a few qualities remained the same, no matter the chosen specialty, age, or position.
This series on How to be an Archaeologist illustrated that while archaeology can look very homogenous, it is a very diverse profession. Photographs of digs can look very similar with dusty and tired archaeologists pointing at artifacts or a computer. Documentaries focus on the long days and hopeful triumph of a discovery at the end of the excavation season. Museums show off finds but not the many people behind their discovery. All of this is further emphasized by movies like Indiana Jones that show one man in one costume doing the same general thing across four movies. It’s easy to think that we are all the same, we all do the same things, and that our paths are identical.
Within archaeology itself, this stereotype is very prevalent. There is an emphasized idea that you go and get a Bachelor’s degree, then and Masters, then a Ph.D. with field-work during the summers, and after that you teach at university. Many do this path, but that does not mean it is the only one to take.
Thanks to our interviewees, we have shown how very many ways an archaeologist can be an archaeologist. The discipline, contrary to popular belief, is a kaleidoscope of possibilities.
Within the category of “I’m an archaeologist” you can get a museum educator, a professor at a university, a curator at a museum, a surveyor with a Cultural Resource Management firm, a map creator for the government, a recorder of oral history, a diver of slave trade shipwrecks, an analyzer of Neanderthal bones, and much more. Thankfully, the women I was lucky enough to interview said it best, so below I’ve gone through and collected their thoughts into a few conclusions to take away from this series.
1. The skills you learn as an archaeologist can be applied to much more than just archaeology.
There was one time I applied for a job at an athletic apparel store. In the interview, they asked if I had any retail experience, stating that they would only hire someone who knew what they were doing. I had no experience selling leggings or pants, but I knew I wouldn’t get the job if I said that. I told the manager that while I didn’t have experience explaining leggings to customers, I had a lot of experience explaining what artifacts were made of to museum goers. If I could teach ten-year-olds how to mummify someone, I could explain the difference between yoga mats to curious athletes. I think the only reason I got the job was that the manager found my answer so audacious it was comical, but it worked! Archaeology had taught me to break down lots of information into important takeaways, and the same skill would work in that job. The skills I learned on digs or in museums were applicable to things outside the world of anthropology. I just had to look at it with a more creative mindset.
The same can be said of a lot of training archaeologists and anthropologists receive. The skills of creative thinking and problem-solving can be applied to many different jobs. The ability to work long hours in difficult situations is a useful skill to have. Breaking down how thousands of years of history has a very real effect on modern-day issues is helpful context. It may just look like digging, brushing, or reading, but Ms. Natalie Clark was very right when she said archaeologists learn skills on the job that apply to so much more than that in the profession. Archaeologists often put themselves in these boxes, but breaking out of them could add huge contributions.
2. Do not be afraid to ask for things.
This is good advice for everyone, but especially for young students who feel intimidated speaking with established professionals. Asking for things like internship or research opportunities from professors or other reputable specialists can be very intimidating. Sylvia Cheever explained it best by expressing how important this is to gain mentors. Cold emailing and putting yourself out there, as hard as it may be, can lead to incredible opportunities that you may not get otherwise. Usually, the people you are reaching out to love to hear from young, passionate, and excited students. They also probably did the same thing early on in their careers or are still doing it! Going after opportunities and trying to gain all the experience you can is hard, but absolutely worth it. You never know what doors it could open, what you could learn from it, or who you will get to meet along the way.
3. For all the cool stuff you get to see and experience, it is not an easy profession.
All the archaeologists we interviewed expressed a deep love for their job, but also acknowledged the realities of their working life. Excavations in the field can take you away for months at a time, often to remote locations where communication with home can be difficult or impossible. Conditions out in the field can be very comfortable, can also be difficult due to intense heat, high altitude, wet and damp conditions, or dusty environments. The remoteness of some sites can also lead to a lack of amenities like running water or toilets, and sometimes local wildlife can be unforgiving like with mosquitos, snakes, or spiders.
In addition to physical difficulties, there are a lot of mental challenges. Archaeology requires a lot of school, at least an undergraduate degree with many jobs asking for a Masters or even a Ph.D. All that school takes time, money, and hard work. Learning the theory behind archaeology, historical context of the profession and your chosen specialty, and then coming up with ideas for your own research and securing grants to do it.
On top of the physical and mental difficulties, there is also a heavy financial burden. Training to become an archaeologist can be expensive. Field schools can come with a hefty price tag, and traveling out to them via car, bus, train, or even plane can add to the cost. School within the U.S. can also be very pricy, especially when fees for books and other study materials are added on.
It takes time and overall dedication. It takes a long time to get your education and training. It takes a lot of time to work your way up professionally. There are also not many jobs, so getting one takes some time as well.
So overall, hard? Yes. Worth it? Yes.
4. There are so many different types of archaeology.
There are a lot of different things you can do within the field itself. You don’t have to worry about digging if you don’t like it—there is survey, mapping, teaching, archival research, you can be an archaeologist and never pick up a trowel if you want.
Archaeology can be combined with many other professions or specialties, like technology, biology, chemistry, and others. In her interview, Sylvia Cheever mentioned that she originally was interested in biology and thought she would do that professionally. However, she realized that she could pursue that interest and archaeology in the field of bioarchaeology. Dr. Mel Zabecki mentioned that she was originally interested in geology and then became interested in anatomy. Geology introduced her to archaeology, and then she went on to take classes in anatomy and osteology that led to studying mummies in Egypt. Erika mentioned an initial interest in wildlife biology, but archaeology and the technology used to visualize data showed her new skills she didn’t even know she had.
Archaeology as a profession is especially unique because it allows you to take your passion for archaeology and combine it with other skills or interests you may have.
Archaeology takes passion, hard work, and patience. One of the common themes from these interviews is the joy that archaeology invokes in all of us. It is something that makes challenges worth it as well as inspires movement forward. We hope that these interviews encourage you to pursue archaeology!
We have a new book coming up for our next blog series! The book is Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits by Dr. Chip Colwell. More on him and this deeply insightful book in the coming weeks.
Today is our last day with the autobiography Pathway to a Ph.D. by Dr. Jose Jones about his incredible and inspiring journey from enthusiastic student and animal collector to a marine biologist and the founder of Diving With a Purpose.
Through this series, we’ve collected lots of different stories, pieces of advice, and musings on what makes archaeology different from other jobs. Dr. Jones mentions the personal impact he feels when diving on slave trade shipwrecks at the very end of his book.
After reading the book and hearing from the different archaeologists, how has it made you think about your own job and career path? What motivated you to stick with it when things got difficult? What are the parts of your job and journey that you love? Or perhaps ones you’d like to change?