As an archaeologist, you'll 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

There are four main areas:

  • 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

There are over 80 job titles in archaeology and the job is not necessarily about digging and carrying out excavations. Responsibilities vary depending on your area of expertise.

As an archaeologist you may need to:

  • identify and survey sites using a variety of methods, including field walking, geophysical surveys, aerial photography and LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology
  • 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:

  • Starting salaries can range from £19,853 to £20,926 and should not fall below £19,200.
  • With experience and increased responsibility, you can expect a salary of £29,123 to £31,561 (but not less than £22,400).
  • At senior level, your salary can range from £36,552 to £40,276 (minimum of £28,850). Salaries in some roles may be in excess of this amount.

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

Income data from CIfA. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll work an average of 37.5 hours per week, Monday to Friday. You may need to work weekends and evenings if the time frame of a dig is tight.

Part-time work may be possible in some organisations.

What to expect

  • Jobs exist throughout the UK in a variety of settings, including in laboratories, museums and offices, and at excavations or site inspections, which can be conducted in all weathers.
  • Temporary contracts are common. For experienced professionals, there are opportunities for self-employment and specialist consultancy work.
  • As your career progresses, you're 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. You'll also need to wear protective clothing.
  • There may be opportunities for work or travel overseas for experienced or senior professionals involved in special projects.

Qualifications

You'll need a degree in archaeology or a related subject such as forensic archaeology or archaeological science. Other useful subjects include 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. Qualifications in computing, CAD and GIS may also be useful.

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.

There are also a range of heritage apprenticeships available at different levels. These include the Level 4 Archaeological Technician apprenticeship and Level 7 Archaeological Specialist Degree Apprenticeship. For more information, see Historic England. Heritage-related apprenticeships and training are also available in Scotland - see the Scottish Heritage Resources Portal.

Many archaeologists also have a postgraduate qualification. There are a variety of courses available ranging from public archaeology to artefact studies. Further study may be particularly useful for specialist areas such as human or animal bone analysis, or if you want to pursue an academic career.

Search for postgraduate courses in archaeology.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • practical skills in areas such as surveying, excavating, processing finds and drawing
  • dexterity in using archaeology-related tools and instruments
  • excellent written, communication and presentations skills
  • interpersonal skills in order to talk to different people, including clients, developers and the general public
  • data management and IT skills
  • research skills in order to use historical records
  • a methodical, well-organised and yet flexible approach to work with the ability to react and adapt to unexpected situations
  • the ability to work independently and also as part of a team, particularly during fieldwork
  • the ability to lead and motivate a team
  • an analytical and enquiring mind, with excellent problem-solving skills
  • self-motivation and focus
  • organisation and project management skills
  • negotiation skills
  • patience, dedication and attention to detail
  • the motivation to keep up with archaeological and technological developments
  • an understanding of onsite health and safety.

You'll also need a driving licence to travel to and from sites and offices.

Work experience

Competition for jobs is strong. Practical experience, above and beyond the compulsory fieldwork on an archaeology degree, will show your commitment and interest. It's particularly useful to have fieldwork experience on several sites that includes experience of handling and identifying finds and working with technology such as GIS, surveying equipment and photography.

You can gain hands-on experience through field schools and training excavations. Information on current fieldwork is available from the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) website and their bi-monthly publication, British Archaeology.

Volunteering is a good way of gaining experience and the majority of volunteers start as diggers, who must be enthusiastic and flexible. Volunteering opportunities are available through the 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

Archaeologists are employed by a range of organisations. Many of the jobs in practical archaeology are carried out by independent archaeological field units or trusts. These vary in size and may be attached to local authorities, museums, universities or be independent commercial organisations, trusts or charities.

Other typical employers include:

  • national agencies - such as English Heritage, Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland, Cadw (the Welsh government's historic environment service) and Northern Ireland's Historic Environment Division
  • national organisations - such as the National Trust, the National Trust for Scotland, the Highways Agency, Environment Agency and National Parks UK
  • local authorities - archaeologists are often employed to provide advice on the recording and conservation of archaeological remains during applications for planning permission. Some councils also have their own field units
  • museums - roles can include the identification, interpretation and curation of artefacts, as well as research
  • teaching and research institutions - lecturing, technician and research posts at universities with archaeology courses
  • archaeological societies or organisations - such as the CBA, CIfA and Archaeology Scotland
  • amenity societies - including the Victorian Society and The Georgian Group
  • specialist historic building contractors and private developers - carrying out rescue archaeology before building work begins.

With experience there are also opportunities to work as a consultant. Archaeological consultants may advise a range of organisations such as local authorities, developers, national agencies or the private sector.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are also advertised on the websites of national agencies, local authorities and museums.

Professional development

Training takes place on the job. It's important to take responsibility for your own training and continuing professional development (CPD), and keep up to date with research and scientific breakthroughs.

The CIfA offers a variety of training courses and workshops, as well as opportunities to network with other professional archaeologists. Courses are also advertised on the BAJR website.

You can apply for professional accreditation with CIfA at Practitioner, Associate or Member level depending on your experience and level of responsibility. Becoming professionally accredited demonstrates your commitment to your own learning and development, as well as to standards and professional ethics. All accredited members must complete and log at least 50 hours of CPD every two years. This can include attending training courses, seminars and conferences.

If you don't already have a postgraduate degree, there are opportunities to study at Masters or PhD level in areas such as:

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

Career prospects

There has been a growth in recent years in jobs in commercial and academic archaeology, although competition for posts is still fierce. Salaries can be quite low when starting out and many jobs are fixed-term contracts. Even at higher levels, salaries may be lower than in other comparable fields.

However, archaeology is a popular profession and your career path will vary according to the type of sector you work in and your specialist area. 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.

Some archaeologists choose to undertake further study and move into a lecturing role or academic research post. With experience there are also opportunities to move into consultancy work.

If you have specialist skills, there may opportunities to develop your career in related areas such as forensic archaeology, conservation, heritage management, curating and archaeological sciences.

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