Bringing the Past to the Present for the Future



Thursday, March 22, 2007

Looking at Careers -- Historical Archaeology

(reprinted courtest of the Society for Historical Archaeology-click on the above link to be forwarded to their website)

If someone asked you to draw an archaeologist, what kind of picture would you produce? Would it resemble Indiana Jones at a temple, complete with whip and machete in far-off India or in a cavern crawling with poisonous snakes? Or would it look more like a studious Howard Carter, peering through an opening at the gold and treasures of King Tut' tomb.

Although some modern-day historical archaeologists have adventures like Indy's or find treasures like King Tut's tomb, most have more in common with detective Sherlock Holmes, because they are trying, to solve the mysteries of the past. That is why a historical archaeologist will sweat for days under the hot sun to carefully extract tiny bits of pottery from the ground or spend hours in the laboratory, trying to fit together pieces of an 18th-century wine bottle. By examining seed and pollen grains through the microscope, other historical archaeologists discover what plants people ate centuries ago. And nearly all historical archaeologists spend many hours at a computer, fitting all of these pieces of evidence together into a portrait of people, places, and events of the past.

So historical archaeology is more than just a treasure hunt. It is a challenging search for clues to the people, events, and places of the past. Archaeology's quest for the past occurs not just in far-off locations, but right in our own back yards. Today's archaeologist uses skills and knowledge, rather than guns and bullwhips, to make the past come alive. On this page, you will discover how a modern professional archaeologist works and how you can become part of this challenging field.

What Is Archaeology? Archaeology is a way of studying the past based on the remains of things that earlier people left behind or discarded. These remains include both the objects used by people long ago, called artifacts, and the buildings, structures, and landscapes where people lived, known as sites. Archaeological sites can be found anywhere where humans have stayed, lived, or worked in the past. By carefully collecting and examining all of the evidence from a site, archaeologists help us to understand how our ancestors met the challenges of life in the past.

As in any other profession, fields of specialization exist in archaeology. What period of history, area of the world, or skill interests you the most? Take your pick! There is something for everyone!

For example, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson searches in Africa for the fossilized bones of our earliest ancestors. Prehistoric archaeologist Dennis Stanford looks for traces of the earliest Americans. Physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley helps to identify the bones of soldiers killed at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. Conservators like Betty Seifert use their knowledge of chemistry to preserve the artifacts recovered from sites, so that these objects will be available for future study.

Historical archaeology is a specialized subdiscipline within the field of archaeology. Historical archaeologists study not only artifacts and sites, but also the documents written about the people and places they are studying. Kathleen Deegan investigates the earliest Spanish settlements in Florida, while James Deetz studies 20th-century coal-mining camps in California. Urban archaeologist Pamela Cressey excavates the shops and houses of 19th-century Alexandria, Virginia. Doug Scott examines the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana where the Sioux and Cheyenne defeated Custer. Underwater archaeologist George Bass dives on ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. And all of them depend on research historians like Amy Friedlander and Victor Geraci to find old documents and maps to help explain the artifacts and features which they find in the ground.

From the Arctic to the tropics; on land and underwater; in the field, the laboratory, the library, or the office specialists from many fields work together to help archaeologists unravel the many mysteries of the past.

Becoming an Archaeologist

It is never too early to think about a career in archaeology. Like most other professionals, an archaeologist must be able to read and write well, understand and appreciate history, and be comfortable using scientific methods and equipment. Getting "hands-on" experience is a very good way to begin. Many archaeologists start in high school as volunteers with their local non- professional archaeological societies. As volunteers help archaeologists on sites and in laboratories, they come to know what archaeological work is really like. Experience with such groups has helped many people find out whether they want to pursue a career in archaeology.

Today's archaeologists are all college or university graduates. Many of them majored in anthropology, a science that looks at how and why groups of people act the way they do. Studying subjects like history, biology, and chemistry prepares archaeologists to analyze the many different kinds of information that they must use in order to solve the puzzles of the past.

Participating in a field school is an important part of an archaeologist's training. A field school teaches all of the techniques that are used to excavate sites, analyze the artifacts, and interpret what is found on an archaeological site.

In graduate school, archaeologists study the special branch of archaeology that interests them most. As you learned in the previous section, there are choices that fit almost any interest.

What Kinds of Jobs Do Archaeologists Do?

In general, archaeologists find jobs in one of four types of workplaces: in universities, in government, with private research firms, and with museums and historic sites.

College and university archaeologists spend much of their time teaching students. They often organize and run field schools that help their students learn the proper methods of archaeological research. Archaeologists who work for national, state, and local governments help to enforce laws that protect archaeological sites and also educate the public about archaeology. For example, every state has a state archaeologist who supervises projects and deals with issues that affect their state's archaeological resources. Many archaeologists work for private consulting companies which are hired by businesses and government agencies that need archaeological services. Some companies are very specialized; for example, one Midwest firm analyzes the chemical content of soil samples from archaeological sites all over the country. The museums and historic sites that you and your friends visit and enjoy often hire archaeologists to curate, or take care of, their collections of artifacts and plan special events and exhibits.

What Are the Rewards of Being an Archaeologist?

As in any other career, the salaries earned by archaeologists vary depending on the kind of work they do and the skills and training that they have. Some archaeological workers earn hourly wages; others have annual salaries that range from $16,000 to over $50,000 per year. Permanent positions usually offer standard benefits; temporary jobs do not.

But most archaeologists will tell you that their biggest rewards do not come from earning large salaries. The thrill of handling an object perhaps hundreds of years old, or finally figuring out what really happened on that site--these are the rewards that keep today's archaeologists working to solve the puzzles of the past.

Archaeologists: Saving the Past

The chances for today's archaeologists to study the past are growing ever fewer. Although new roads, shopping centers, homes, and other structures are needed, building them often means that archaeological sites are destroyed before they can be studied. Uninformed people who dig around old sites to add artifacts to their personal collections also threaten archaeological sites. By disturbing the ground and removing the evidence, they leave the archaeologist with fewer pieces of the puzzle to put together.

You can make a difference now. Find out more about archaeologists and how they work by reading books or by joining volunteer archaeological organizations that try to protect important sites. Let the officials in your government know that you want to help preserve the sites in your community. Most important of all, if you find a site, do not disturb it. Instead, carefully note its location, and tell your state or local archaeologist about it. By taking these actions, you can help to preserve the history of your community.

Every one of us can be a caretaker of the past, if we all recognize that archaeological sites, as part of human history, belong to all of us!


The information on this page is adapted from the society's Mapping Out a Career in Historical Archaeology brochure. This pamphlet is directed at middle school students and is designed to acquaint them with archaeology and the subdiscipline of historical archaeology. Copies of the brochure may be obtained by contacting the society at: Society for Historical Archaeology, 15245 Shady Grove Road, Ste. 130, Rockville, MD 20850, Phone: 301-990-2454, Fax: 301-990-9771, Email: