Archaeology: It's not just about digging!

Kate Hilpern
Thursday 22 September 2011 05:38

A quick glance at the television schedules reveals the growing public appetite for all things historical. Time Team, among the most popular of the TV series, has created a huge surge of interest in archaeology in particular - with applications to study it at university having risen significantly since the series began.

"Archaeology as a degree and as a career, is intensely stimulating," says Carenza Lewis, one of the presenters. "I've been doing it for 20 years and I still find it fascinating and varied."

Apart from digging, archaeologists preserve, record and interpret archaeological remains and may get involved in education, publicity and conservation. "And while archaeology is the study of material remains, its focus is not the things themselves," points out Don Henson, head of education and outreach at the Council for British Archaeology. "The things we study are a means to trying to understand why humans behaved in certain ways at certain times in history - which helps us understand the present."

There is a wide range of jobs, he says. "Careers come under five main headings. First, field archaeology, where slightly less than half of all archaeologists work, involves most of the excavation work. Then there's the work for local government agencies, where you might be maintaining historical environment records or advising about what archaeological work needs to be done. Thirdly, there's university work - teaching, research and widening participation. Fourthly, there are a number of careers in museums - mainly conservation and curator work. And finally, the national agencies and organisations like the National Trust and English Heritage, who employ archaeologists."

Even that is not a finite list. "There are jobs for people who like physical things, jobs for people who like intellectually challenging things, jobs for people with logical minds and jobs for people who enjoy using their imagination."

You can also specialise, he adds. "You can build up an expertise in prehistoric stone tools, medieval pottery or analysis of animal bones, for example. You might want to work as a freelancer, getting materials sent to you to work on."

On the downside, there are much fewer jobs in archaeology than those qualified to apply for them. Currently, 30 universities provide an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in archaeology and the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that there are around 7,000 undergraduates studying it at any one time, and 2,000 postgraduate students. With just 6,000 jobs in archaeology, there is clearly a problem of oversupply. But, Henson says, just 10 to 20 per cent of archaeology students choose to go into it as a career. "The majority study it simply because it's interesting and because they know that an archaeology degree is recognised as teaching a whole range of transferable skills."

For those that do decide to pursue a career in archaeology, the biggest downsides are that many jobs tend to be short-term and career prospects limited. "Pay is not brilliant either," he admits. "But the sheer fascination of teasing out knowledge about the past is emotionally, intellectually and socially rewarding."

Trudie Cole, who runs the museums and heritage service for Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, agrees. Her job is to maximise the economic and social benefits of heritage for tourists and residents. "Even though I'm not a teacher or doctor, I still feel my job has enormous social value," she says. "I really enjoy it."

It was the careers office at her university that helped her realise the range of jobs. "I didn't like digging that much. Once I realised that jobs like the one I currently have were an option, I decided to help out in my local museum and then to do a Masters in public archaeology."

Cole doesn't believe it is difficult to get a job in archaeology, provided you don't come out of university with just a bit of paper. "You do need to go the extra mile by gaining experience and building your skills."

But don't assume that you can just turn up on a dig and offer to help out for a week or two, says Kenny Aitchison, head of professional development at the Institute of Field Archaeologists. "The days of people doing volunteering in archaeology are long gone. That's what you did in the Seventies. Now, to get experience, you need to arrange formal work placements."

The best A-levels for someone wishing to apply for an archaeology degree are English, history and geography, says Aitchison. "I value geography over history. Geography is useful in terms of the understanding it teaches about people's interaction with the environment. There are some jobs in archaeology with a scientific focus, and people wishing to go into them would obviously need some kind of scientific background too."

Aitcheson warns that archaeology is not as glamorous as Indiana Jones and Lara Croft might lead you to believe. "Sadly, the realities of working in archaeology are not like that. Even Time Team is over dramatised to make good TV."

That said, he believes archaeology is the best job in the world. "In terms of a stimulating, challenging career, it's hard to beat."

Sarah Dhanjal, a widening participation and diversity officer at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, agrees. "Working in this field definitely feels special," she says. "And as my job - which is about bringing archaeology together with education and promotion - shows the very varied opportunities within the sector."

As part of her aim of raising awareness, she organises excavations with school children and talks on what it's like to work as an archaeologist. "Archaeology has an appeal that's quite different to anything else and that's one of the things we try to get across," she says.


Dan Aukett is a historic environment projects officer for the Historic Environment Commissions

We are responsible for looking after two of the major English heritage grants. Along with a team of project officers who work all around the country, the team I work in is responsible for ensuring that the archaeological work funded by these grants are carried out correctly and to correct archaeological guidelines.

I think it's a good example of the diversity of jobs you can get within the archaeological sector. Archaeology isn't just about digging. In many ways, I think my job is more interesting because I cover such a cross section of projects, from marine to prehistoric to medieval.

I graduated a year-and-a-half ago, having done an archaeology degree and then a Masters in heritage, education and interpretation. I became massively interested in history when I was doing my A-levels, but I didn't want to study something as mainstream as history at university. I wanted to do something a bit different and I also liked the fact that archaeology is the study of people and how we live, whereas history tends to be about dates and the bigger picture. I think with archaeology, you get to use your imagination more too as you have to always be open to new ideas, and I think you're more in touch with the past than historians. Archaeologists deal with artefacts, such as a Bronze Age grave.

I chose to do my Masters degree as a way to bridge the gap between the very academic discipline of archaeology and being able to put it into the public space. My Masters focused on how it is possible, once you've excavated a grave or Roman site, that you make people understand the significance of it. I firmly believe that history is for everyone and I felt it would be a good chance to see how it's possible to make it relevant not just to academics festering in an office, but to the likes of you and me.


Ian Milsted is a field archaeologist for the York Archaeological Trust

I became a professional field archaeologist, having studied my first degree in history and a Masters in field archaeology.

I've always been interested in the past, but I got slightly fed up with academia when I was doing my history degree. I preferred the idea of the interface with the past that you get with archaeology, whereas history is about books. You get to handle material to understand to understand how people lived and how societies worked. There is also the forensic appeal of archaeology - the unpicking of what you're looking at. In addition, I find archaeology to be very interdisciplinary - from surveying to digging to research.

If I'm on site, a typical day starts at 8am. I get the equipment together, have a briefing with my supervisor and then start removing and identifying features, producing a record along the way. Once off site, I go into what's known as the post excavation analysis phase - looking at the material and then going through the process of checking dates, studying individual features and outsourcing specialist reports where necessary, for example on pottery, bone or metal work. So on site, I'm more of a technician and off site, I'm more of a researcher.

People say it's really hard to get a job in archaeology, but that's not my experience. The problem is that they are all temporary short contract jobs, at the end of which you'll almost certainly be laid off. That can be frustrating, but once you've built some experience and improved your CV and network, you are likely to get other work.

If you don't want to stay in field work you can branch out into teaching or more generalised work like museums. There's also archiving and academia.


Ethnic minorities are extremely under-represented within archaeology. It's a problem that they are trying desperately to turn around.

Richard Benjamin, whose PhD explores this very issue, believes many black and Asian people just aren't that interested in British history. "This may be due to a lack of relevant archaeological or museum-based information affiliating these groups with the broader scheme of British heritage," he explains.

But Carenza Lewis, a presenter of the TV series Time Team, disagrees. " I've found that people can be interested in the past, regardless of their ethnicity," she says. "In fact, I think it's insulting to suggest that black people are only interested in black history. I'm not interested in Stonehenge because my ancestors built it, but because I'm as fascinated as the next person as to how anyone built something like that."

In any case, Lewis points out that at Cambridge University, where she is pursuing a widening access programme, archaeology isn't just about British heritage. "We cover places including India, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas."

She believes the reason for the shortage of ethnic minorities in archaeology is socio-economic - a factor that Benjamin also acknowledges. " Universities are still mainly accessed predominantly by the middle-classes, and most ethnic minorities in the UK tend to be concentrated in the lower socio-economic groups," she says.

One of the ways in which Lewis is trying to change this is by going to schools and colleges to show young people what archaeology is all about and informing them that archaeology is open to them as a degree subject.

Emma Greenway, undergraduate admissions administrator at the University College London, has a similar approach. "We have someone who is involved in taking boxes of artefacts to schools and trying to get them interested in archaeology. The feedback is usually very good, but the problem remains that many ethnic minority students say there is no way their parents would let them go into it as a career. So we are also focusing our efforts on educating the wider ethnic communities about the subject and its career opportunities."

Nathalie Thomas, who is a black undergraduate archaeological student at UCL, says her passion for archaeology stemmed from a project on the ancient Greeks and Romans in primary school. "Ever since, I've been fascinated with the past. Studying archaeology means I can pursue that interest and I really enjoy it."

Meanwhile Nisha Doshi, who is half-Gujarati and is studying for a degree in archaeology at Cambridge University, says, "I've been interested in archaeology since I was nine-years-old. I lived in York, where I was surrounded by the past and I joined the Young Archaeologists' Club. One of the things I particularly liked was that unlike history, archaeology isn't static. There are always new methods coming out, so it's very dynamic."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments