What is an Archaeologist?

Most people’s understanding of archaeology comes from TV shows like Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, there is very little Indiana Jones style adventure in archaeology. Although archaeologists do get to travel to cool places, what they are really looking for is information, not treasure.

Archaeology is one of the main sources we have to unearth history and to piece together the people and cultures that make us who we are today. It is the scientific study of the human past, and is one of the four sub-fields of anthropology.

Archaeologists study the origin, development, and behaviour of human beings and their societies, both past and present. They examine cultures, languages, behaviours, archaeological remains, and physical characteristics of people in many parts of the world. They ask questions and develop theories.

What does an Archaeologist do?

Archaeologists use scientific sampling techniques to guide them as to where they need to dig on the site. They observe, record, categorize, and interpret what they find, then share their findings with other scientists and the public.

An archaeologist unearthing some remains.

Drawing and building on knowledge from the humanities and social, physical, and biological sciences, archaeologists examine the ways of prehistoric societies in various parts of the world. They also examine the customs, values, and social patterns of different cultures.

To the archaeologist, history is separated into eight distinct time periods. Each time period can also be sub-divided into more specific periods. Many archaeologists have committed their lives to studying only one branch:

Stone Age: before 4000 BC
Chalolithic: 4000 - 3150 BC
Bronze Age: 3150 - 1200 BC
Iron Age:1200 - 300 BC
Hellenistic: 330 - 37 BC
Roman: 37 BC - AD 324
Byzantine: AD 324 - 636
Islamic: AD 636 - today

Many archaeologists use sophisticated tools and technologies in their work. Although tasks vary by specialty, materials often include excavating tools, laboratory equipment, statistical and database software, and geographic information systems (GIS).

An archaeologist will typically do the following:

  • Plan research projects to answer questions and test hypotheses about human activity through environmental data left behind
  • Develop data collection methods tailored to a particular specialty, project, or culture
  • Collect information from observations, interviews, and documents
  • Record and manage records of observations taken in the field
  • Analyze data, laboratory samples, and other sources to uncover patterns about human life, culture, and origins
  • Write reports and give presentations on research findings
  • Advise organizations on the cultural impact of proposed plans, policies, and programs

There are different kinds of archaeologists:

Landscape archaeologists - search for traces of ancient sites

Archaeological surveyors - plan and record earthworks, buildings, and excavated sites

Field technicians - do the hard work of excavation and extraction of relics

Archaeological photographers - take photos of the site before, during, and after excavation; and of individual relics

Archaeological conservators - preserve the artifacts for future generations

Finds specialists - date, analyze, identify, and interpret artifacts

Archaeological illustrators - complete drawings of objects, work on publication plans, and design and typeset archaeological books and publications

Environmental scientists - study and reconstruct the relationships between past societies and the environments they lived in. They work to identify the diet, health and living conditions of these societies

Human bones experts - identify and interpret human skeletal remains

Finds curators - organize the long-term storage and aftercare of artifacts

Are you suited to be an archaeologist?

Archaeologists have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also artistic, meaning they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive.

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What is the workplace of an Archaeologist like?

Although some archaeologists work in a typical office setting, many work in laboratories or in the field. Fieldwork sometimes requires workers to travel. Most work full-time during regular business hours.

Archaeologists work for research organizations, colleges and universities, museums, consulting firms, private corporations, and in all levels of government. They can also work for cultural resource management (CRM) firms. CRM firms identify, assess, and preserve archaeological sites and ensure that organizations, such as developers and builders, comply with regulations regarding archaeological sites.

Archaeologists often do fieldwork, either in their own country or in foreign countries. This may involve learning foreign languages, living in remote villages, or examining and excavating archaeological sites. This profession often requires travel for extended periods of time and may involve work in remote areas. Archaeologists may work under rugged conditions, and their work may involve strenuous physical exertion.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are a few disciplines of archaeology?

Archaeology pieces together the past, little by little, in an attempt to complete our history's jigsaw puzzle. Because it is such a broad subject, it has many disciplines and specializations based on the time period studied, the civilization studied, or the types of artifacts and features studied. And because of the slow nature of the recovery of historical artifacts and remains from archaeological sites, it is common for archaeologists to devote their lives to only one branch of study.

The following are a few areas of specialization:

Prehistoric Archaeology
Prehistoric archaeology focuses on all the pre-urban societies of the world - the civilizations that had not developed writing yet nor kept any historical records. In Western Europe the prehistoric period ends in 43 AD. However, with some non-Romanized areas the period does not end until the 5th Century AD.

This branch of archeology has very close links with biology, biological anthropology, and geology.

Without written history to provide evidence for names and places, prehistoric archaeologists often give arbitrary modern names to cultures, which directly relate to the location of where artifacts are found.

For example, arrowheads (or projectile points) and stone tools that were found in Clovis, New Mexico have given prehistoric archaeologists clues as to how the people in that area lived their lives. Because these artifacts were found in Clovis, the culture was named after the town, and are known as the Clovis people. The Clovis people are now known as one of North America's first inhabitants, dating back 13,000 years ago.

Archaeologist holds in his hand several different ancient arrowheads.

Historical Archaeology
Historical archaeology is a mix of history and anthropology. It focuses on the cultural processes and human experiences of everyday people in recent history. These experiences have produced the world we live in today, and through studying the writings and recordings of information by past societies, we are able to understand the emergence and transformation of today's modern world.

In a nutshell, historical archaeology involves the study of literate, historical societies as opposed to the non-literate prehistoric societies. It is the study of past societies that also left behind historical documentary evidence.

An example of this is the Rosetta Stone that was discovered in Egypt in 1799. The stone was inscribed with a decree in three different languages (hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek) and has become an important tool in historical archaeology and has contributed to our understanding of Egyptian history.

Another example is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of approximately 900 documents that were found between 1947 and 1956. These writings date from between the third century BCE to the first century CE and are the oldest versions of Biblical texts ever found. Discovery of the scrolls has increased our knowledge of the development of Judaism and Christianity.

Historical archaeologists are particularly interested in books, engravings, manuscripts, seals, drawings etc. These types of archaeologists often work closely with historians.

Biblical Archaeology
Biblical archaeology focuses on the recovery and scientific study of the material remains of the Holy Lands (in the Middle East) in order to shed light on the periods and descriptions in the Bible. These types of discoveries have assisted to illustrate and corroborate biblical texts from the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) or from the New Testament, as well as the history of Judaism and Christianity.

Note that Near Eastern archaeology deals with the Ancient Near East, or Middle East, without specifically focusing on whether discoveries have any relationship with the Bible. The scientific techniques used by biblical archaeologists are the same as those used in general archaeology, such as excavation and radiocarbon dating.

Paleopathology
Paleopathology is a subdiscipline of prehistoric and historic archaeology, and plays an important part in understanding past populations. It is the study of disease in ancient cultures, and contributes to our understanding of how modern diseases progress.

From the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, there was more of an interest in learning and understanding ancient diseases, therefore the importance of studying the history of human disease began to be emphasized.

Paleopathologists may study how different communities in the past reacted to disease, what areas lacked certain diseases, and how healthy certain communities were. By studying the teeth of ancient people, paleopathologists can decipher how often they ate, what types of food they ate, and the nutrients those foods contained.

Paleopathologists also analyze the condition of bones to determine what sort of diseases individuals may have had. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy, and syphilis can be found inside bones. By looking at the paleopathology of certain diseases, one can determine if the disease has carried through and is still present over time, or if this disease is no longer, and why it does not exist today.

Ethno-Archaeology
Ethno-archaeology is a branch of archaeology that focuses on understanding the hunting and gathering activities of today's living groups of hunter-gatherers in Australia, Central Africa and the Arctic.

Ethno-archaeologists observe these living cultures in their natural environment and compare their characteristics and behaviour to their ancestors (such as those who lived during the Neolithic period) to see if they perhaps share some aspects of each other's ways of life.

These types of archaeologists spend a lot of time amongst the hunter-gatherer groups they are studying. They study their daily activities, behaviours, artifacts, hunting tools, discarded food, rubbish pits, and abandoned settlements and keep detailed records so as to compare them with patterns observed in excavated archaeological sites from the past.

They hope that by studying how these people use and organize objects today, they can better understand how people used tools in the past. They also hope to understand the accumulation of artefacts found at excavations sites, and the associations between tool making and the slaughtering of animals.

Environmental Archaeology
Environmental archaeology is a discipline that has grown very quickly in the past 50 years and is an important part of most excavation projects.

Environmental archaeology (sometimes called human paleoecology) focuses on the environmental conditions that had an effect on people in the past, and attempts to put together the relationships between past societies and the environments they lived in. Doing this provides environmental archaeologists with a look into the origin and evolution of environments, prehistoric adaptations, and economic ways of life.

Environmental archaeologists often work closely with paleoecologists and anthropologists, studying plant and animal remains so as to uncover what types of plant and animal species were living at the time of prehistoric habitations, and how people living during those times managed them.

For example, it's been discovered that the growth of the Brazilian highlands people (the Taquara/Itararé people) is closely tied with the growth of the evergreen forest in that area. As the forest grew, the people were provided with more resources (plants, animals, and timber), hence the growth of the people and their territory.

Underwater Archaeology
Underwater archaeology is a fairly new discipline that explores and examines shipwrecks and materials at the bottom of both shallow bodies of water (such as lakes and rivers) as well as deep oceans. Underwater archaeology also uncovers and studies water-buried cities (caused by sea levels rising or by earthquakes) such as portions of the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt.

Both prehistoric and historic periods are studied in this discipline. By using sophisticated equipment (such as sonar, remote controlled cameras, and remote controlled salvage vehicles), ancient civilizations that have been underwater for centuries can be discovered. Special methods to preserve perishable materials are used, involving the latest synthetic processes, in order to conserve the artifacts.

In ancient times, ships were the main mode of transport, especially for trade. Many ships carrying full cargo and crew have been lost at sea due to storms and rocky shallow waters. These shallow water shipwrecks reap a plethora of sunken treasures in the form of food items, weapons, cups, plates etc., which helps to piece together the puzzle pieces of past cultures.

One of the most famous shipwrecks, the Titanic (which sunk in 1912 and killed 1500 people), was located in 1985 using remote-controlled cameras. Hundreds of artifacts (toys, furniture, lighting etc.,) were found, as well as discovering that the ship had broken into two pieces as it sank.

It goes without saying that there is a high level of danger that is involved with this type of work. Using robotic divers that have strong lights and cameras attached to them helps greatly when working at low depths and with little visibility.

Forensic Archaeology
Forensic archaeology involves applying archaeological methods in order to investigate and reconstruct a crime, usually a murder. Forensic archaeologists, or forensic anthropologists, help to identify human remains. Archaeological methods are sometimes used to assist in the excavation of human remains - the process is very similar to that used by traditional archaeologists when recovering remains from the past.

Forensic archaeologists are sometimes commissioned by organizations such as the UN to investigate mass graves in order to gather incriminating evidence for war crimes.

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How long does it take to become an Archaeologist?

Becoming an archaeologist can take between four and twelve years, depending on the level of degree pursued. Job opportunities exist for all degree holders; the majority of positions, however, call for a Master’s.

Bachelor’s Degree – Four Years
Master’s Degree – One to Two Years
Doctoral Degree – Five to Six Years

Are Archaeologists happy?

Archaeologists rank highly among careers. Overall they rank in the 82nd percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

Reaching down into the dirt and picking up an arrowhead that hasn’t been held in eight hundred years or more is exhilarating. There is an instant connection to the person that left it there so long ago. Without doubt, these kinds of experiences contribute to archaeologists’ job satisfaction and happiness.

What are Archaeologists like?

Based on our pool of users, archaeologists tend to be predominately investigative people.

Investigation: the search for and examination of facts about something hidden, unique, or complex.

Archaeology may, in fact, be the most investigative of disciplines. Its practitioners are charged with the study of human cultures and ancient human settlements, and the analysis of data to develop new hypotheses or contribute to existing theories.

Should I become an Archaeologist?

Before committing to a career in archaeology, it is important to consider both the personal characteristics of a typical archaeologist and the skills commonly required in most positions.

Patience and ability to persevere
Archaeological studies often move forward at glacial pace.

An eye for detail
Successful archaeologists possess an inquisitiveness about the subject matter under investigation and the capacity to piece together facts based upon incomplete evidence.

Ability to remain objective / Critical; logical thinking skills
The work of archaeologist involves constantly drawing conclusions from observations, research, and laboratory experiments.

Strong writing skills
Archaeologists need exemplary writing skills to create research reports and journal articles on findings.

Organizational and project management abilities
Archaeological digs are multi-faceted operations that demand careful planning and organization.

Capacity to work in teams
The vast majority of archaeological digs and other work are carried out by teams of specialists.

An appreciation of science and history
Archaeologists must have a vast knowledge of scientific data and methods, which are typically applied to their research, digs, and analysis of artifacts, time periods, and geographic areas.

Computer skills
The work of archaeologists calls for information technology (IT) literacy and the ability to adapt to new software.

Willingness to endure time away from family and potentially isolated living conditions for extended periods while conducting fieldwork

Manual dexterity

Interest in traveling to remote locations and working closely with people from other regions

Enthusiasm for learning and research

Fundraising and negotiation skills


When looking for work in the archaeological field, candidates should be sure to look at positions with less obvious job titles, as jobs in archaeology may have titles such as Consultant, Field Assistant, Cultural Heritage Officer, and Heritage Consultant.

Archaeologists work in a diverse profession and engage in a wide variety of activities, from finding and excavating archaeological sites, to performing scientific laboratory analysis of finds and writing papers and books related to findings. The following are examples of some of the business, organizational, and government sectors that create jobs for archaeologists:

Archaeological consulting firms identify, assess, and preserve archaeological sites and ensure that developers comply with regulations regarding sites.

Oil, gas, mining, and natural resource companies find, excavate, and record archaeological sites and other aspects of cultural heritage affected by development projects. They also enforce regulatory compliance.

Engineering and environmental consulting companies conduct impact studies and excavations.

Aboriginal land councils conduct research and record cultural history.

Museums hire archaeologists as curators and exhibit directors.

Colleges and universities employ archaeologists as researchers and instructors.

Federal, state, and local government departments employ archaeologists to manage conservation, research, and cultural resource programs.

Finally, aspiring archaeologists need to realize that ‘the dig’ is only part of the scope of archaeology. After the fieldwork, artifacts must be sorted, cleaned, and catalogued. Data must be organized and analyzed and reports finalized. Grant applications must be completed. Project bids need to be submitted. Being in the field is the fun part. The rest keeps the business going.

Archaeologists are also known as:
Archeologist Archaeological Researcher Archeological Researcher