Archaeologists examine ancient sites and objects to learn about the past. They may specialise in particular geographical areas, historical periods or types of object, such as pottery, coins or bones.
Many people associate archaeologists with carrying out excavations, commonly called 'digs'. This work and the related recording, analysing and interpreting of archaeological remains, are only part of what some archaeologists do.
They may also work in a range of other settings including:
- 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.
Depending on the archaeologist's specialist area, common duties may include:
- surveying sites using a variety of methods, including field walking, geophysical surveys and aerial photography;
- working on field excavations or digs, usually as part of a team, using a range of digging equipment;
- project managing an excavation, including managing teams of diggers;
- recording sites using drawings, detailed notes and photography;
- analysing finds by grouping, identifying and classifying them;
- using computer applications, such as computer-aided design (CAD) and geographical information systems (GIS) to record and interpret finds, sites and landscapes;
- using computers to produce simulations of the way a building, site or artefact would have looked;
- cleaning and preserving finds;
- conducting laboratory tests, such as radiocarbon dating;
- conducting research and desk-based assessments of sites;
- checking planning applications and identifying any possible archaeological impact;
- providing advice on the conservation or recording of archaeological remains;
- ensuring important buildings, monuments and sites are protected and preserved;
- producing and publishing excavation and site reports;
- producing publicity materials and publishing articles about research, site interpretations or excavations;
- producing written material aimed at a wider audience;
- giving educational talks and presentations;
- assisting in the curating and display of artefacts;
- teaching in an educational environment.
- The recommended starting salary for archaeologists ranges from £19,853 to £20,926. Some positions may pay less than this but following recommendations, minimum salaries shouldn't fall below £17,094.
- With experience and increased responsibility, archaeologists can expect salaries of around £29,123 to £31,561.
- At a senior level, salaries can rise to £36,552 to £40,276.
Salaries vary considerably according to the location, sector and size of the employing organisation. Organisations that are members of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) are required to endeavour to meet or exceed the recommended minimum salaries.
University academics and archaeologists working for national bodies such as English Heritage, Historic Scotland, or Cadw Historic Environment tend to command the highest pay.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
The Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) provide a recommended package of employment entitlements that employers are encouraged to adhere to which contains guidance on working hours, leave and pension entitlements.
Average working hours are 37 per week, Monday to Friday. However, archaeologists may frequently be expected to work unsociable hours, including weekends and evenings, where excavations are working to tight time frames. Part-time work or career breaks may be possible in some organisations.
What to expect
- Work is based 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.
- 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, with concentrations in south-east and south-west England, London and Scotland.
- Generally, archaeologists have a relaxed dress code, although protective clothing is worn when necessary.
- If working on digs, a reasonable level of fitness and mobility is required as excavation work can be physically demanding.
- Depending on the nature of the work there may be considerable travel within a working day, and overnight absence from home may occasionally be necessary. A company car is not usually offered, but mileage for site visits may be payable.
- Opportunities for work or travel overseas are uncommon, but may be available for experienced or senior professionals involved in special projects.
This is a career open to all graduates but a degree/HND in one of the following subjects would be useful:
- ancient history;
- heritage management;
- landscape architecture/urban design;
- marine archaeology.
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.
A qualification in computing may also be useful because of the recent expansion in computer applications in archaeology.
Knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD) and geographical information systems (GIS) is very beneficial.
Entry without a degree is possible. A few institutions offer foundation degrees and, at a lower entry level, paid or volunteer archaeologists can work towards a Level 3 or 4 NVQ in archaeological practice.
It is becoming increasingly common for archaeologists to hold postgraduate qualifications. This may be particularly useful if a specialist skill or knowledge is required, such as human or animal bone analysis.
It is also helpful to complete a postgraduate qualification if you want to pursue an academic career. Specialist postgraduate courses are available in a wide variety of subjects and a list of courses is available from British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR).
It can be beneficial to attend training events run by specialist bodies such as the:
- Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC)
- The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)
Many are open to non-members and can provide networking opportunities for potential entrants. You may also want to consider becoming a student member of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) which can also help with networking and keeping up to date with developments in the industry.
You will need to demonstrate evidence of the following:
- 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 teamworking skills;
- an analytical and enquiring mind, with a keen interest in the past;
- self-motivation and focus;
- dexterity in using tools and instruments;
- organisational, negotiation and project management skills;
- patience and dedication;
- good computing and IT skills and a willingness to keep up to date with technological developments.
A driving licence may be required, and being physically fit is also important in some posts as a lot of the work may be outdoors in potentially demanding environments.
Pre-entry work experience, above and beyond the compulsory field-work experience involved in undergraduate study, will demonstrate your commitment and genuine interest.
Volunteering is the best way to gain this experience and the majority of volunteers start as diggers, who must be enthusiastic and flexible.
You can find employment in:
- national agencies such as English Heritage, Historic Scotland, or Cadw Historic Environment;
- teaching and research institutions;
- national organisations such as the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland;
- commercial planning and development consultancies;
- archaeological field units or trusts (these may be attached to local authorities, universities or be independent commercial organisations);
- archaeological societies or organisations such as the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) and the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA);
- amenity societies such as the Victorian Society and The Georgian Group, although opportunities here will be limited due to the small size of the organisations.
Although the profession is growing, there are more qualified applicants than there are jobs, so many archaeologists combine traditional archaeological work with a teaching or research post; a number of colleges and universities offer such opportunities.
There are new opportunities in the construction industry, working for a specialist historic building contractor, or for a private developer to carry out rescue archaeology before building work begins.
Look for job vacancies at:
- British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR)
- Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC)
- Local Government Jobs
- Museums Association (MA)
Not all new positions are advertised, and it is still common for jobs to be filled through speculative applications and word of mouth, especially with small organisations or in the voluntary sector.
Training for archaeologists usually takes place on the job. In addition, it is essential for archaeologists to take responsibility for keeping abreast of research and scientific breakthroughs through training and continuous professional development (CPD).
Undertaking CPD is mandatory for accredited members of the IfA.
Attending internal and external training courses, relevant seminars and conferences is an effective way of keeping up to date with current issues and refreshing knowledge.
There are also a number of short, specialised courses for those who wish to develop their knowledge, which provide opportunities for professionals to further their career in new areas.
These courses are run by organisations such as English Heritage and by academic institutions. Details of courses can be found from the Training Online Resource Centre for Archaeologists (TORC).
Information about developments within the profession along with additional resources and details of courses and events may be found at:
Archaeology is a diverse profession, and career paths will vary according to the kind of sector you work in. However, a typical career path may entail several years as a digger, several as a site supervisor and then progression to a project management or managerial role.
Becoming an accredited member of the IfA can be important to career development, and enable progression to more senior posts. Membership is available at various levels:
- Practitioner (PIfA) - for those working under the guidance of others and carrying out responsible work under a level of supervision.
- Associate (AIfA) - for those carrying out work or delegating tasks with some autonomy but without holding full responsibility.
- Member (MIfA) - for those with the greatest level of responsibility and competence and who are in charge of organising and running large projects or who carry out highly specialised work.
All members have to undertake agreed levels of continuing professional development (CPD) and the IfA assists with this. It also maintains a database of Registered Organisations, which are those organisations committed to meeting the IfA quality assurance scheme.
In the private sector, where contracts may be short and temporary, career progression can be limited.
The public sector may offer greater opportunities for career development, with local authorities having well established promotion routes to more senior posts, which may include managing a team of cross-functional conservation professionals, including:
- heritage managers;
- building control officers.
Find out more from the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers (ALGAO) .
A career in archaeology rarely follows a structured format, and as it is a small profession, competition for promotion can be fierce.
Gaining specialist skills may help provide access to opportunities in other areas such as conservation, or archaeological sciences.
Undertaking a postgraduate qualification in a vocational subject such as heritage management may be of benefit to career development.
One of the biggest growth areas in recent years has been rescue archaeology where private contractors employ diggers, site supervisors, researchers and others in advance of building or development work.
There are opportunities to move into lecturing in universities or into academic research posts, although a postgraduate research degree or a proven publications record may be necessary.
Another career development opportunity is to move into writing, either updating academic study material to reflect new technology and findings, or publishing books or journals about archaeological experiences in the field.