John Schofield, archaeologist

 11 March 2013

John Schofield gives tips and expert insight into the world of archaeology and shares how he entered his career.

Archaeologist John Schofield is the Head of the Archaeology Department, where he teaches the next generation to explore the past. Image: Dr.
Archaeologist John Schofield is the Head of the Archaeology Department, where he teaches the next generation to explore the past. Image: Dr.

What is your home town?

There's no place I call home. I live and work in York now but, as I was growing up, my father was in the forces. It meant we were always moving and I had lived in three countries by the time I was four.

What do you do?

I am an archaeologist, with particular interests in the modern period and cultural heritage. I am currently Head of the Archaeology Department at the University of York, and run the Cultural Heritage Management MA programme. 

What qualifications did you do?

I got a degree in Archaeology and did excavation work as part of the course. Then I did a PhD in Archaeology that involved fieldwork, collecting artefacts from the surfaces of ploughed fields and making sense of them.

It also involved talking to landowners. This practical experience got me my first job, with English Heritage.

How did you get started in heritage?

After completing my PhD, I got a job with English Heritage as a home-based ‘Fieldworker’, visiting archaeological sites and talking to their owners. It let me travel, explore different sites and work outdoors so I got to be really hands-on.

"Archaeologists read a landscape with a time depth and eye that others don’t."

I remember a senior member of staff telling me that I had ‘one of the best jobs in archaeology’. It felt like it at the time.

I went on to become an Inspector of Ancient Monuments and my last post was Head of Military Programmes. Here, I led English Heritage’s work on recent military sites, such as Second World War structures and Cold War bunkers.

I was with English Heritage for 21 years.

What drew you to archaeology?

A sense of the unknown, and the fact that archaeologists can investigate the processes that help uncover why we are the way we are.

I think this is true for understanding the modern period, just as much as trying to understand the ancient world. We think the world around us is very familiar. But dig beneath the surface and we start to discover that things are not as clear-cut as they first appear.

Change happens over thousands of years. Archaeology focuses on the past, but recognises that change is still happening.

What do you do at work?

The University of York is a research-led university, with research feeding directly into our teaching. This makes it particularly rewarding for students to learn from us. In my current role I spend about 30 per cent of my time on teaching, 30 per cent on research, and 40 per cent on management and administration.

My research takes me to Malta and Berlin, and I am working on a couple of books on these projects. I also give lectures at other universities and at conferences, sometimes overseas. 

What’s the best thing about your job?

The students, for sure! I have been at York for nearly three years, and so the first year students who arrived with me are about the finish their courses. 

To have seen these students develop, as people and especially as independently-minded, critically-aware and confident people, is a wonderful thing.

Some will become the next generation of archaeologists and heritage professionals. Knowing that I have made a contribution to their development beats all the exciting projects and foreign travel.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The academic life is a cycle, in which people arrive, develop, grow, and then move on. Seeing students leave is both good and bad, but only bad in the way that autumn is bad. The end of one year, like the coming of winter, can be a sad thought, but the arrival of new students is a positive event. Academic life is a bit like this.

How can I get into heritage?

My top five tips would be:

1. Build up a different mix of work experience

It is the mix that makes you interesting. I often get prospective masters students asking for experience. I ask them if they already have experience, and they say ‘not really’.

If I dig a little deeper, I find out that they’re working in bars, shops or on projects, which adds up to something interesting and distinctive. The experiences shape you as a person.

2. Try out different departments

Working in different jobs and departments will impress prospective employers and give you a clearer idea of the areas of work you enjoy. 

Try out different areas of heritage and different departments. I suggest volunteering and doing a few days at different places to make sure you like the range of work.

3. Be persistent

In my experience, those that have a chance to achieve their ambitions are the ones who have persisted and kept trying to achieve their goals.

4. Remember that everyone is different, and everyone will fit in somewhere

A good CV may get you the interview, but it is your personality that will mean most in the end. Remember to be yourself.

5. Keeping your eyes and ears open to the world around you

Archaeology teaches you to keep your eyes and your minds open to possibilities. Being inquisitive and interested in the world will mean you see things that others might miss.

The thing with archaeologists is that they often spot these things. Archaeologists read a landscape with a time depth and eye that others don’t. 

What do you like about working in heritage?

Heritage is a changing industry. It is changing the way we think of the past and how we work with the public today. Heritage is now also more inclusive of 'everyday places', as much as the listed and iconic heritage sites.

"Archaeology focuses on the past, but recognises that change is still happening."

The thing that I find the most interesting about heritage is that it’s a subject where everyone and anyone can have a view.

It’s not only special iconic places that are of interest. It’s places everywhere – the place where you grew up, went to school, a special café – and how the memories people hold of these places are often what makes them valuable.

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