How to become an archaeologist: career tips for your dream job



How to become an archaeologist: Want to be a real-life Lara Croft? Archaeology may not live up to those expectations but it’s rewarding, satisfying and (sometimes) exciting! It’s also physically tough, dirty and very often cold…

Archaeology is an outdoors thing

If you want to be an archaeologist you need to enjoy – or at least not complain about – working outside in all conditions. I’’ve had to work in blazing hot and below freezing temperatures, torrential rain, lightening and snow. You’ll be working in all kinds of locations, too. That includes being the middle of nowhere, up hills, in city centres, underground –and sometimes even underwater if you have a diving qualification.

How do you feel about camping? Even in the worst weather/living conditions – you may need to live in a tent for a few months. If you’re a happy camper – it can be a huge amount of fun! Some of the best experiences of my life have been on excavations; you’ll meet some really top-notch folks that remain your friends even after you’’ve seen the best and the worst of each other. You’ll always find a really eclectic mix of people but it helps to be a little bit out there!

And the best thing? Wild hair and piercings are expected. It’s a perfect example of rewarding jobs that let you have piercings.

Oh, and “what happens on digs, stays on digs”…

What types of archaeology are there?

There are many types of archaeology. Here’s just a few to think about:

  • prehistoric
  • classical
  • Roman
  • medieval
  • historical
  • Marxist
  • industrial
  • environmental
  • forensic (also called physical anthropology or human bio-archaeology – everything to do with skeletons, really)
  • field
  • theoretical
  • battlefield
  • feminist
  • contemporary

Yep, there really is an archaeology of everything that can fit in with any interest. Seriously. In fact, friends of mine are working on the archaeology of body-modification and the archaeology of alcohol consumption!

You can also specialise in technical skills like surveying, illustration, geo-physics, GIS, artefact identification and all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

Archaeology careers

There are two broad categories of career: academic and professional.

Academic archaeologists work in the hallowed halls of universities across the world, venturing outside periodically to conduct fieldwork (often taking select groups of students along with them) in the name of important research.

They will generally have a PhD (doctorate) and either have a permanent staff position or be on a temporary fellowship.

It is notoriously difficult, but not impossible, to succeed in an academic career.

Professional archaeologists work for places like English Heritage, various government departments, museums, consultancy groups and the like. Big employers are fieldwork contact units who hire full-time staff and temporary trowel monkeys (archaeologists working on short-term contracts). For this type of career you will need a CSCS card (Construction Skills Certification Scheme), as field archaeologists often find themselves working on building sites as the deep excavations can throw up unexpected archaeology.

Useful qualifications for an archaeology career

Traditionally, the route to becoming an archaeologist involves studying at university for a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree. Times may be getting harder in higher education, but there are alternatives for those who want to study for a career in archaeology without the level of debt associated with university education.

You can now study for a range of archaeology qualifications from home. The University of Leicester currently offers two courses (the Certificate in Archaeology and the Diploma in Archaeology) which take around two years to complete. A successful student can then continue to study for a full BA.

Another attractive option is the NVQ in Archaeological Practice, awarded through Education Development International. This can be studied from Entry Level (NVQ Level 1) all the way up to Experienced Professional (NVQ Level 4). The NVQ programme is aimed at archaeology professionals or amateurs with no formal qualifications in the field. Entry requirements to the project are therefore based on fieldwork experience. This includes enrolling on field schools and volunteering!

For a traditional, campus-based degree entry requirements depend entirely on the university, but are usually based around 3 A2 Levels at high grades. However, if you don’t have these kinds of grades don’t let this put you off! Many archaeology courses are undersubscribed (it takes a special kind of person to want to become an archaeologist!), and can be available through clearing each year.

Mature student? Not a problem! Archaeology courses are popular with mature students, and if you left school in the days of O-Levels, or without any kind of formal qualification, this can make less of an impact on your application as you might think: get some fieldwork experience and use the personal statement section of your UCAS application to best effect: show you have a genuine interest and an enthusiasm for the subject. This speaks volumes!

Getting archaeological work experience

There are loads of opportunities in the UK and abroad, too for people with no experience whatsoever to get archaeological experience.

You can check out local archaeology societies, community fieldwork projects and field schools, for example. Field schools are usually run by universities, or affiliated with them. Field school experience can help you get your foot in the academic door!

The best place to find out about fieldwork opportunities, and any other aspect of British archaeology, is through the Council for British Archaeology.