5.2 Archaeology as a career
In their study of archaeology as a career, students will read essays and complete an activity to gain an understanding of and appreciation for the career of a professional archaeologist.
A copy of “Profiles of Archaeologists” for each student.
Hominid: the family consisting of humans and their ancestors.
Archaeology is one of the four subfields of anthropology. Anthropology is the study of humanity, in the broadest sense. Linguistic anthropologists study languages: how they change, how they are related to one another, and the relationship between culture and language. Cultural anthropologists study the cultures of living peoples. Physical anthropologists study the physical characteristics of human populations and the evolution of the hominid family. Archaeologists study past human cultures through material remains—artifacts and sites.
Anthropologists study human cultures and how they change. They seek to make general statements about human behavior. Anthropology addresses questions like: In what ways does a culture change when people who were nomads become village-dwelling farmers? How does a technological invention, such as the automobile or the computer, change a society? Is the passage through adolescence to adulthood less traumatic in some cultures than it is in others? Archaeology is the method anthropologists have of studying these kinds of questions as they pertain to cultures in the past.
Archaeology is the laboratory of time, where human cultures and how those cultures have changed can be studied over thousands of years. Popular movies have helped create a public image of archaeologists as swashbuckling adventurers. In reality, archaeologists are much more like the fictional character Sherlock Holmes, working with clues to piece together mysteries of the past.
Archaeology is related to history; both attempt to understand the past. The differences between history and archaeology center on the types of evidence used and, to some extent, the kinds of questions asked of that evidence. Historians rely mainly on written documents to study the past. They examine, for example, old courthouse records, newspapers, books, diaries, and letters. Archaeologists study artifacts and sites—the things people used and the places where they used them. When the culture being studied has left behind written records or oral history, such as stories or songs, archaeologists use these sources, along with archaeological data, to help them understand the past.
Many people think archaeologists study only ancient cultures and historians study just more recent events. Yet historians do study written records of ancient Egyptians, which are more than 5,000 years old, and some archaeologists research the behavior of modern people by studying their garbage. For example, one archaeologist studies early 20th-century coal mining camps in California. To put it simply, archaeology is a method of studying the past, even the past of one hour ago, by researching material evidence—the things people created and used. History is a method of studying the past by researching written records.
In the United States, archaeologists earn degrees in Anthropology. But in some countries, archaeology is considered to be its own discipline. A few colleges in the U.S. offer degrees in archaeology. Most practicing archaeologists have a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Arts degree. Many archaeologists also have a Doctor of Philosophy degree, a necessity for becoming a university professor.
Considerations for selecting a college or university include the kinds of programs each offers, the opportunities for field work and internships, and the background and research interests of the faculty. At the undergraduate level, a broad anthropological background and an archaeological field school are the most important experiences for students to gain. By participating in a field school, students learn the techniques used to excavate and record sites, how to analyze artifacts and other finds and how to interpret their findings. It is often advisable to seek employment in archaeology after completing an undergraduate degree and before beginning a graduate program. Graduate school is where students study the special branch of archaeology that most interests them. Because archaeology is such a diversified field, a refinement of research interests helps a person select the graduate school best meeting his or her needs.
Archaeologists can specialize in a wide range of topics. Some choose to work with museum collections. Others decide to specialize in one of the analytical techniques, such as pollen analysis, identifying animal bone and plant fragments or geological sediment analysis. Some archaeologists specialize in a geographical area, like Peru or the southeastern U.S. Others specialize even further, working with a particular cultural group or time period, such as African-American sites or the Woodland period, which falls chronologically in North Carolina between 1000 BC to AD 1000. Underwater archaeology is another specialty. Field work is a component of most archaeologists’ work, as well as writing and working with computers and other scientific equipment.
Employment opportunities in archaeology are primarily with colleges and universities, state and federal agencies, private consulting firms, museums, and historic sites. Archaeologists who work for colleges and universities spend a lot of time teaching and training students both in the classroom and in archaeological field schools. Cultural resource management is a branch of archaeology that grew out of legislation requiring state and federal agencies to consider the impact a proposed development project, such as a pipeline or road, could have on prehistoric and historic sites. Archaeologists who work for the government help enforce laws protecting archaeological sites and data from destruction. Archaeologists who work for private consulting firms, as well as some who work for universities, are frequently hired by businesses and government agencies requiring archaeological services for proposed development projects. Archaeologists pursuing research topics often receive funding by writing grant proposals.
Recently, there has been a surge of interest in involving the public in archaeology. Interpretation of sites, publications written for a general audience, tours, curriculum development, and children’s activities are all part of this new specialty. By educating the public about the importance of the past, archaeologists hope to help save archaeological sites from destruction.
Archaeology is a study that requires a broad understanding of many things: soils, plant and animal life, geology, surveying, chemistry, computers, statistics, and the social sciences, to name a few. People with interests in many fields will find an opportunity to integrate them in archaeology. Sometimes skills learned in archaeology will lead a person to new employment opportunities and career directions in related fields. Field work in remote areas and foreign countries is another aspect of archaeology that many people enjoy.
This lesson can be used in a variety of ways. It can be a part of a careers fair or an element in a unit on archaeology. Some suggestions:
- Students research possible specialties in which an archaeologist might work. Also have them list the skills they think a person should have in order to work in that specialty.
- In small groups, students create a list of questions they would like to ask an archaeologist about his or her profession. They then arrange to interview an archaeologist.
- Students read the profiles of two archaeologists and write a short essay about why they will or will not consider a career in archaeology.
- Invite archaeologists working in a variety of specialties to speak to your class or be panel members discussing questions and issues identified by the students.
- Ask students to think of other fields of study that relate to archaeology. Conversely, ask them how they think being an archaeologist could provide a person with background to work in other fields.
- Either individually or as a small group project, students interview an archaeologist on the future of archaeology as a career.
North Carolina curriculum alignment
- Goal 4: Acquire the skills to investigate the world of work in relation to knowledge of self and to make informed career decisions.
- Objective 4.01: Document the variety of traditional and non-traditional occupations.
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