You'll need to build up a range of practical experience to get a job as an archaeologist in this competitive and rewarding profession

Archaeologists examine ancient sites and objects to learn about the past. The aim of the role is to record, interpret and preserve archaeological remains for future generations.

You may be involved directly in carrying out excavations, commonly called 'digs', or work in related settings, such as:

  • local authorities, advising on the archaeological implications of planning applications;
  • museums or heritage centres, assisting with the preservation, conservation, display and interpretation of artefacts;
  • universities and research organisations, carrying out research and educational work.

Types of archaeology

You can work in one of four main areas of archaeology:

  • contract or commercial archaeology – working for a developer who is responsible for the cost and time involved in a project;
  • research or academic archaeology – working on sites or survey projects over several months or years, subject to funding;
  • public or community archaeology – work carried out by professional organisations but with public involvement;
  • specialist archaeology – specialising in particular geographical areas, historical periods or types of object, such as pottery, coins or bones.

Responsibilities

As an archaeologist, you'll need to:

  • survey sites using a variety of methods, including field walking, geophysical surveys and aerial photography;
  • work on field excavations or digs, usually as part of a team, using a range of digging equipment;
  • project manage an excavation, including managing teams of diggers;
  • record sites using drawings, detailed notes and photography;
  • analyse findings by grouping, identifying and classifying them;
  • use computer applications, such as computer-aided design (CAD) and geographical information systems (GIS), to record and interpret finds, sites and landscapes;
  • use computers to produce simulations of the way a building, site or artefact would have looked;
  • clean and preserve finds;
  • conduct laboratory tests, such as radiocarbon dating, and research and desk-based assessments of sites;
  • check planning applications and identify any possible archaeological impact;
  • provide advice on the conservation or recording of archaeological remains;
  • ensure important buildings, monuments and sites are protected and preserved;
  • produce and publish excavation and site reports;
  • generate publicity materials and publish articles about research, site interpretations or excavations;
  • give educational talks and presentations;
  • assist in the curating and display of artefacts.

Salary

The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) provides guidance on salary figures for archaeologists at various stages of their career, in addition to recommended minimum salaries.

  • Starting salaries can range from £19,853 to £20,926, with a recommended minimum salary of £17,646 in 2016/17.
  • With experience and increased responsibility, you can expect a salary of around £29,123 to £31,561 (recommended minimum salary of £20,561).
  • At a senior level, your salary can rise from £36,552 to £40,276 (recommended minimum of £26,568).

Salaries vary according to the location, sector and size of the employing organisation. CIfA provides a recommended package of employment entitlements, which contains guidance on working hours, leave and pension entitlements.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Average working hours are 37.5 per week, Monday to Friday. You may need to work weekends and evenings if working to tight time frames on a dig.

Part-time work may be possible in some organisations.

What to expect

  • Temporary contracts are common, so self-employment or freelance work is possible. For experienced professionals, there are increasing opportunities for specialist consultancy work.
  • Jobs exist throughout the UK in a variety of locations, including indoors in laboratories, museums and offices, and outdoors at excavations or site inspections, which can be conducted in all weathers.
  • As your career progresses, you are more likely to work indoors, rather than on site.
  • If working on digs, you'll need a reasonable level of fitness as excavation work can be physically demanding.
  • There may be opportunities for work or travel overseas for experienced or senior professionals involved in special projects.

Qualifications

You will usually need a degree in archaeology or a related subject such as ancient history, anthropology, conservation or heritage management to work as an archaeologist.

Archaeology is a broad subject linking with many others, such as geography, history and social sciences, and there are some specialisms where a science degree such as biology, botany, medicine, geology or environmental science may be more appropriate than a purely archaeological qualification.

However, if you don't have a degree and are working in a paid or voluntary archaeological role, you can take an NVQ in Archaeological Practice. Developments are also underway in England to create a historic environment practitioner apprenticeship, with a view to creating an equivalent qualification in Scotland and Wales.

Qualifications in computing, computer-aided design (CAD) and geographical information systems (GIS) may also be useful.

It's becoming increasingly common for archaeologists to have a postgraduate qualification. This may be particularly useful in areas such as human or animal bone analysis, or if you want to have an academic career. Search for postgraduate courses in archaeology.

Skills

You'll need:

  • excellent communication skills and the ability to liaise effectively with a range of other professionals;
  • flexibility and a willingness to keep up to date with developments in archaeology;
  • a methodical and well-organised approach, with good attention to accuracy and detail;
  • strong team work skills, particularly during fieldwork;
  • an analytical and enquiring mind, with a keen interest in the past;
  • self-motivation and focus;
  • dexterity in using tools and instruments;
  • organisation, negotiation and project management skills;
  • patience and dedication;
  • good IT skills and a willingness to keep up to date with technological developments.

You may need a driving licence to travel to and from sites and offices.

Work experience

Competition for jobs is strong so practical experience, above and beyond the compulsory fieldwork on an archaeology degree, will show your commitment and interest.

Volunteering is a good way to gain this experience and the majority of volunteers start as diggers, who must be enthusiastic and flexible. Volunteering opportunities are available through the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) via their local groups.

The CIfA has a searchable list of registered organisations undertaking commercially-funded work in areas such as consultancy, education and outreach, field work and post-fieldwork, and stewardship. Use this list to find out contact details of companies you could approach for work experience. Student membership of CIfA can also help you develop contacts with professional archaeologists.

Employers

You can find employment in:

  • commercial planning and development consultancies;
  • archaeological field units or trusts (these may be attached to local authorities, universities or be independent commercial organisations);
  • national agencies such as Historic England, Historic Scotland or Cadw Historic Environment;
  • national organisations such as the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland;
  • teaching and research institutions;
  • museums;
  • archaeological societies or organisations such as the CBA and the CIfA;
  • amenity societies such as the Victorian Society and The Georgian Group;
  • specialist historic building contractors and private developers carrying out rescue archaeology before building work begins.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Training usually takes place on the job. You'll need to take responsibility for your own training and continuing professional development (CPD) and keep abreast of research and scientific breakthroughs.

The CIfA offers a range of training courses and workshops, as well as opportunities to network with other professional archaeologists. As a member of CIfA you'll need to complete at least 50 hours of CPD every two years. This can include attending training courses, seminars and conferences.

A limited number of work-based placements are available through Historic England and CIfA for new archaeologists with around six to 18 months' postgraduate experience. You may wish to apply for one of these if you want to diversify into a new branch of archaeology or to enhance your skills.

See the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) for details of training courses offered by a range of providers. Postgraduate courses are available at some universities in areas such as:

  • field archaeology;
  • bioarchaeology;
  • landscape archaeology;
  • heritage management.

Career prospects

Archaeology is a diverse profession and your career path will vary according to the type of sector you work in and your specialist area. However, a typical career path in fieldwork may involve several years as a digger, followed by several years as a site supervisor and then progression to a project management or managerial role. As a relatively small but popular profession, competition for posts can be fierce.

Archaeologists are professionally accredited by the CIfA. Becoming professionally accredited demonstrates your commitment to your own learning and development, as well as to standards and professional ethics. There are various levels, depending on your levels of competence and responsibility. Many employers expect their staff to be professionally accredited and support them to achieve membership.

Although there has been a recent reduction in the number of posts available with local authorities, opportunities in the private sector are set to increase with, for example, the demand for archaeological services in relation to HS2. This is likely to provide increased opportunities for career progression.

If you have specialist skills, there may opportunities to develop your career in related areas such as conservation, heritage management, curating and archaeological sciences. Some archaeologists choose to undertake further study and move into a lecturing role or academic research post.