12 March 2013

Archaeologists find out about the past by studying ancient sites and objects.

The day-to-day tasks of an archaeologist can vary, depending on where they work.
The day-to-day tasks of an archaeologist can vary, depending on where they work.

What is the job like?

Archaeologists study the distant past by examining ancient sites for evidence of past activity. They are interested in the site itself, including the landscape, soil and buildings, as well as objects they find.

Any finds are carefully examined and recorded, and sites are photographed and mapped. Found objects are carefully transported.

The archaeologist spends time examining and analysing objects. They describe, identify and classify them. They may also research the context of the object, which could include the area around the site or events and people from the same time or place.

Archaeologists often specialise in:

  • a particular time period
  • items such as weapons, bones, ships or jewellery
  • a particular part of the world
  • buildings.

Other branches of archaeology include:

  • underwater – looking at freshwater and marine sites, often involving diving
  • forensic – using archaeology to investigate crimes
  • osteoarcheology – the study of human and animal remains
  • archaeological illustration – hand drawings and computer graphics of objects, sites and maps.

The day-to-day tasks of an archaeologist can vary, depending on where they work. They can be based in, for example:

  • museums
  • local authorities
  • heritage organisations such as National Trust or English Heritage
  • university departments
  • archaeological practices
  • construction companies.

Most archaeologists spend some time in the field. Some spend most of their time as field archaeologists, others spend more time indoors. This could include time in a lab examining finds.

Archaeologists spend time examining and analysing objects. They describe, identify and classify them.

Other activities could include:

  • teaching
  • writing reports
  • researching
  • preparing objects for display
  • interpreting finds to visitors
  • advising local authorities or construction companies how historic sites can be protected for the future.

Field archaeologists still use manual techniques to survey and excavate sites and handle delicate objects they find.

Nowadays, however, there is increasing use of IT and digital techniques such as GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and specialist software for recording, analysis and modelling.

Depending on the size of the organisation you may work in a team or alone. In the field there is likely to be a team, including site assistants, led by a senior archaeologist or a project manager.

The work may involve travel to sites in the UK or overseas.

How do I become an archaeologist?

You must have a real interest in the past and in its objects and landscapes. In addition, you need:

  • an eye for detail
  • good analytical and investigative skills
  • an enquiring mind
  • determination to see things through to the end
  • good communication skills
  • to be able to solve problems.

Good IT skills are essential. Skills and interest in science are useful too.

Qualifications and training

Most archaeologists have a degree and many have a Masters or a PhD. Many universities in the UK offer archaeology degrees. Some combine archaeology with other subjects, such as ancient history, conservation or a language.

You do not need a degree in archaeology, though. You could have a degree in any subject, although geography, history or science subjects are relevant for a career in archaeology. You are then likely to study archaeology at postgraduate level.

Degrees and Masters in archaeology, along with heritage, museum studies, etc, are widely available at universities across the UK. Details are available on the UCAS and UKPASS websites.

This is a very competitive area to get into. You need to get as much practical experience as you can. The earlier you start the better. You can join the Young Archaeologists' Club up to the age of 17. There are branches all over the UK.

Your experience can be paid or voluntary. Opportunities are listed on British Archaeological Jobs and Resources.

With a degree and membership of the Institute for Archaeologists you could apply for a site assistant job. As you gain experience you can become a project manager. Many archaeologists move employers frequently to gain experience of a range of projects in different locations or work on short term contracts (from a few months to a few years), often linked to funding for a project.

As an experienced archaeologist, you could become self-employed (freelance).

What will I earn?

Site assistants or project assistants may earn around £16,000. Project officers may earn from £19,000 to £27,000. Senior project officers may earn up to £33,000.

A senior manager or adviser in a large heritage organisation or head of an archaeological practice may earn £60,000 or more.

Also of interest

Stay updated

Sign up for our weekly careers newsletter

View our privacy policy.

Related events & opportunities