I have, since starting this blog, received several emails from people asking how they can become archaeologists, or what to expect if they enter the field as professionals. It dawned on me that it would be useful to write up what I tell people so that I could just refer people here, and also it might let a few of the regular readers in on what professional archaeologists really do.
So, if you want to be an archaeologist, here's what you should probably know:
You Could've Been a Lawyer...or a CEO
One thing that I would say to would-be archaeologists is simply that they will spend alot of time training that could be spent pursuing better-paying careers. Now, this is not to dissuade these folks from getting into archaeology - I'm here, I spent the time and enjoy my career, so I definitely think that it's worth it - but the impression that I get from many people is that they think of archaeology as a field that can be easily entered, perhaps as a hobby, and it really isn't*.
A field technician is the "grunt worker" of archaeology (truth be told, they have to be intelligent and hard working, so they're hardly grunts, but this is often how they characterize themselves). Field technicians are responsible for carrying out the basic field tasks (walking survey transects, excavating units, screening dirt), as well as maintaining their own records for the project. Although some companies (and some projects) will allow field technicians who do not have a degree, you should expect that any field technician position will require a bachelors degree as well as field experience (at minimum a field school). Also, be aware that if you do an academic-oriented field school, you may not have gained the skills necessary to do CRM (cultural resource management) archaeology (consulting work and field/lab work geared towards keeping land developers in line with historic and archaeological preservation regulations), which is where the jobs are. Most field technicians work on a project-by-project basis, meaning that they should expect very little job stability, and you have to have a fair amount of experience before you should expect either a full-time job or a large number of employers keeping you busy as if you had a full-time job.
From field technician, you can work your way up to crew chief or field supervisor. On occasion, someone with only a bachelors degree and extensive experience will move up to field director or project manager. However, these jobs typically require someone with a Masters degree or a PhD (there are regulatory reasons for this, so it isn't just snobbishness). So, if you want stable, career-oriented employment in archaeology, you need to go to graduate school.
Myself, I attended a community college for two years, then transferred to the University of California, where I finished my BA. I then went to another University of California campus to get my MA. In between, I attended a field school and took other field and lab classes at Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA. All told, I was in college or graduate school for approximately nine years in order to get the credentials that I need for my job. Depending on the program that one attends, this could conceivably be done in six-to-seven years (I attended a research-oriented graduate school, so my MA thesis was a very different affair from those who attend CRM-oriented graduate schools). If you are an MA student, then there is not much funding available for you, so you should expect to take whatever jobs you can find while you attend school. Basically, don't expect to have a life outside of school and work.
This is comparable to (and very often exceeds) the education burdens on someone who is earning a law degree or an MBA. However, archaeologists should expect to make significantly less money than someone with a JD or MBA. So, bear that in mind while you rack up student loans.
You may have noticed that I focused here on CRM archaeologists and didn't talk much about becoming a professor. There's a reason for that...
Academics? Meet Consulting?
Although an increasingly large number of university anthropology programs are recognizing the necessity of CRM education, most remain academically-oriented. And by academically-oriented, I do not mean that they are geared towards education (though they are, and that is certainly appropriate), but rather that the majority of university programs are geared towards archaeology as a research discipline rather than an applied discipline, and many professors like to cast aspersions upon CRM (interestingly, the professors that I have met who are most likely to do this are the ones who are least likely to have had any CRM experience, and they are typically very much mistaken in their beliefs regarding CRM.
This is a problem because the vast majority of archaeologists in North America are CRM rather than academic archaeologists. Surveys of the field performed in 2009 indicate that at least 85% (and maybe more) of all archaeologists in the United States work in CRM, either for private companies or for government regulatory agencies. So, CRM is where the jobs are, and it's growing (that 85% includes an increase in numbers from a previous 2001 survey). By contrast, when last I checked (which was admittedly a few years ago, though there's little reason to think that matters have improved), there were 10 PhDs granted every year per academic job opening in archaeology. So, the odds are severely stacked against someone who wants to go into academics, and the number of unemployed PhDs that I know is truly staggering.
So, if you decide on a career in archaeology, expect to do CRM work, and don't plan on going into academics. What this means in practical terms is that the aspiring archaeology needs to learn more than just archaeological theory and practice. Someone wanting to become an archaeologist should study laws and regulations (Tom King's is a good place to start, but should not be where you stop), the standard phased approach to regulatory compliance (I recommend Neumann and Sanford's excellent books), and business skills including basic human resource management, budgeting, and project tracking.
Also, if you wish to become an archaeologist, avoid getting the "high and mighty" attitude that I have seen many people take with them out of the university. Talking down to construction workers and Native American representatives is a great way to not get hired for another project.
You'll Use That Shovel More Than That Trowel
Every time I bring a new person into the field, they are surprised at the methods that we employ. Owing to the way that archaeology is typically portrayed int he media (including portrayals by archaeologists), there is a perception that we always dig slowly using a trowel and a brush and nothing else.
You can imagine how surprised a newbie is when they see me pull out a shovel and a dig bar. And you should see the looks on their faces when backhoes show up.
The reality is that the tools that we use are diverse, and vary depending on a number of conditions. If we are digging a site with a lot of features that are identifiable only by subtle soil changes, then we may very well dig with a trowel and a brush. If you are excavating human remains, you'll use tools even more gentle than the trowel. By contrast, if you are excavating a shell midden that lacks any clearly identifiable strata and is located on a sand dune, you are going to use a shovel. And if you are digging a light density flaked stone scatter in dense clay, you are going to pound it with a dig bar. And there are even situations that call for excavation by heavy equipment.
Although there will be a few people who assume that this is the "destructive excavation" of CRM work, each of these tools is also found in the tool rooms of university anthropology departments. We use the tool that is necessary, which sometimes means slow, careful peeling back of soils...and sometimes means pounding the shit out of dense clay so that you can actually find the buried archaeological materials.
How Do You Feel About Hiking?
Another thing that you should probably know about actual archaeology is that we don't dig as much as people think. And I don't mean that our field season is limited, or anything like that. I means that the majority of the projects on which we work are geared towards finding out where the sites are, rather than digging them up. Although this has long been true of CRM, it is also often true of academic archaeology.
The way that we determine the locations of sites is by performing surveys. We hike over a given area looking for evidence of archaeological sites. Survey methodology varies from place to place, due in large part to local geomorphic conditions. In California, we typically do surface pedestrian surveys - in most parts of California, if a site is present, there will be some evidence of it on the surface. Where we think that may not be the case, we will recommend buried site testing (where auger bores, backhoe excavation, or some other method is used to look under the surface). In other parts of the U.S., survey involves digging holes with a shovel at regular intervals looking for evidence of buried archaeological materials. While this method does involve digging, it should be noted that they are digging to look for sites, rather than digging within sites.
Get to Know Your Relevant Disciplines
In addition to the need to learn about business and regulations, you should also make sure that you either know your flora and fauna, or build up a library for looking things up. Most archaeological site records include information regarding local plants and animals, and it is also wise to get some training in how to use local historical archives (local historical society libraries, county assessor's records, library map and genealogy rooms, etc.). Again, academics will generally not train you to do this sort of work, but it is vital for a career in archaeology.
An Adventure in Paperwork
Another aspect of archaeology that tends to surprise people is that there is a lot of paperwork. Really, just a metric shit-ton of it.Get used to it.
On any given project, my paperwork consists of, at minimum, my field notes (kept in my personal notebook) and a daily work record (a form used specifically by my company, though many other companies have equivalent forms). I keep track of essentially the same things on both documents: where I am working, who is present, weather conditions, type of work, complications to doing work, anticipated and actual rate of work, and so on. I keep the notes because, after our forms have been put into cold storage, I will often be asked questions regarding something (especially if there is a complaint from a client or former employee, or if we find ourselves having to argue with a regulator or community group), and having my own notes is useful in order to save time. These notes also provide me a place to track information that is relevant to my job, but not appropriate to turn over to the client (for example: internal disputes between employees, musings on the nature of archaeological materials that are not directly relevant to the project, etc.).
Now, that's the bare minimum that I do. If I am performing survey, then I also fill out a survey form, which details the project area, where we surveyed, transect spacing, ground visibility, etc. If I am excavating a site, then each excavation unit will have a form or series of forms detailing depth of excavation, tools used, soils encountered, materials identified, etc. etc. If I am doing site condition assessments, then I will have forms related to that. If we are collecting artifact,s soils samples, or anything else, then there are forms for that as well. And when you get to the lab, you have forms detailing your lab work and the chain-of-custody of items.
And that is just talking about forms that vary from company to company. Every employer for which I have worked has required a photo log for all pictures taken, and if you are recording archaeological sites, you will have to fill out the appropriate forms (which vary from state to state).
Then of course, there's the basic administrative paperwork that you have to handle. If you're a field technician, get used to filling out time cards and expense reports. If you are a supervisor, you do the same, PLUS you review your crew's time cards and expense reports. If you are a project manager, you have all of this, plus you may have regular progress reports and budgeting paperwork.
If I am on a project for more than a week, it is not uncommon for me to return from the field with a binder (or multiple binders) filled with forms and records.
Is it Worth It?
This is, of course, subjective. I have seen people burn out quickly, and decide to go back to school to become lawyers, or take a job in the administration of a local tech company, etc. etc. etc. So, for them, it wasn't worth it.
For me, it has been worth it. For all of the frustrations that I have experienced, and I have had some severe frustrations, I have been fairly happy with my career choice. I have been able to go to some amazing places and see some wonderful things, and meet some interesting people. And if I sometimes spend too much time in a shithole, well, that's the trade off for the good times. While I don't get paid as well as my friends who work in the tech industry, I don't have the stability of the friends and family who have gone into law, and my life isn't as adventurous as a friend of mine who travels Africa doing rather important agricultural work, it still suits me rather well, and I enjoy my job more often than not.
But this line of work is not for everyone. I does have a low financial payoff, a lot of stresses, frequent instability (depending on the construction industry's activities), and a lot of areas of conflict. But every career has its downsides, and the upsides are sufficient to keep me satisfied.
*There is, of course, and exception to this. There are volunteer archaeology programs that will teach people how to perform basic fieldwork, and there are programs that allow people to pay archaeologists to accompany them on projects. These are of variable quality, and they can be an entry-point into archaeology, but none of them will carry you very far in and of themselves.