Archaeological work in the U.S.A.

If you want to be an archaeologist, there is a wide range of opportunities for working in archaeology in the United States.  Here you will find what some of the qualifications are and how you may go about reaching your goals.  You will also find that an archaeological career may contain a few surprises.  It is certainly not all glamour and excitement. 

When you are an archaeologist, you should be someone who has an insatiable curiosity about the past, its people, their lives, diet, social and political organization, where and how they lived, and what they made. Archaeologists are part of the larger field of anthropology, but unlike other cultural anthropologists they are interested in previous rather than current culture. Just as detectives do, archaeologists assemble past life by examining the evidence remaining in the ground, on the ground, caves, and under the seas and lakes. Such evidence includes artifacts of all kinds, the ruins of ancient buildings and ships, animal bones, trash dumps, abandoned garden plots, plant remains and pollen, and even the geography where ancient ruins are located.

Some questions are as simple as, "Where did the clay for this ceramic come from?" or as complicated as, "What caused empires to arise in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe, but not in North America?" Archaeologists work together with others such as geologists, chemists, architects, historians, biologists and those involved in other specialties.

A good archaeologist must be patient, exacting, attentive to detail, an excellent researcher, writer, and a team worker. A willingness to put up with rugged living and working conditions is necessary because most archaeological field work is often conducted in remote areas. The weather can be terrible, the terrain can be rough, and the vegetation as daunting as a jungle or absent as the desert. Insects, plants, animals, dangerous chemicals, disease, availability to medical care, and more can be vicious in all of these work areas. You must also be enthusiastic and be capable of communicating your enthusiasm and love of the work to others.

There are long periods of boredom as you face the never-ending analysis of artifacts. There are also periods of frustration when your data appears to always be in conflict. However, solving the puzzle, creates periods of joy. There is also the fun of meeting new people, going to new locations, and participating in the research.

Archaeologists in the US have a variety of job possibilities including museum work and curating, teaching, contract archaeology, or owner of your own firm. The normal work day can vary depending on the job you take, but many things are the same. A university professor may spend the day lecturing, analyzing artifacts in the lab, going to meetings, supervising students, writing up field work reports, or excavating. A museum director could very well spend the day doing the same things as the professor or have a public speaking detail to handle, develop and design new exhibits. As a person working for a contract firm you could spend the day writing up a report, analyzing artifacts, excavating a site or walking endless miles as part of a field survey crew locating archaeological sites. As the owner of a contract firm, you may spend the day seeking contracts, looking for grants, and worrying over the payroll.

The first step is figuring out what kind of job you are interested in doing.  In archaeology, the greater the education you have, the more responsibility and the higher-paying the job. If you have a bachelor's degree, you can probably work as part of a field crew or lab crew surveying, excavating, and sorting. However, with just a bachelor's degree you will not find yourself in charge of running the field crew, writing reports, or directing the analysis. In many cases, you will be treated as though you had no education at all. With more education and experience, at the master's level (graduate school), you will be writing reports and may direct the field crew or the lab work. You can also be a museum curator or teach archaeology, but only at the primary and secondary school levels. To actually write the grant, develop the research design, and become a university professor or museum director, you need a doctorate (Ph.D.) in anthropology.

You can work for private and nonprofit contract archaeology firms as well as university, college, and junior college academic positions. There are a number of research positions at universities, colleges, museums, foundations, and firms. There are also a number of state and federal agencies that hire archaeologists to do environmental impact studies and archaeological assessments before authorizing building, logging, mining, or otherwise disturbing an area. These agencies include city governments, the Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Forest Service, the National Park Service, state monuments, state land offices, and fish and game departments.

And there is always the route of the volunteer.

But be aware that archaeology is not always the glamour career many think nor is it the heroics of Indiana Jones. Archaeology can be down and dirty work.  If you are considering a career or even working part time in archaeology in the United States, there are things you need to know.


Some of you may want to work as field volunteers.  There is a little more to it than simply raising your hand and saying "I'll do it."  A field volunteer mostly works in the field assisting archaeological surveys or excavation.  You must have an interest in archaeology and related outdoor activities.  You must have patience for boring and repetitive tasks.  You must have a tolerance for dust, mud, heat, sun, and insects, many times, all at once.  You must work well with groups, handle physical labor, be able to walk long distances and climb down into excavations. Some dig sites may require a tetanus shot, but whether it is required or not, a valid tetanus shot is strongly recommended.  

And to reap all of these benefits, volunteers supply their own transportation in most cases.  If housing or campsites are needed, the volunteer usually pays their own way.  Volunteers often have to supply their own food or pay for it if the dig site supplies it.  Many volunteers also have to supply their own tools and equipment.

So after all of this, why would anybody volunteer?  Volunteers are not readily accepted in many professions, however archaeology is one which welcomes volunteers with open arms. There are too many archaeological projects which simply could not be completed without the help of volunteers. The benefits of being a volunteer are very important when you are interested in archaeology as a career.  It allows you to learn and perform the tasks you need to know about, so that you can decide where your interests will be. 

One of the main reasons for being a volunteer is the thrill of discovery. Who knows when during an archaeological excavation, a major discovery can be made, and in spite all the sweat, insects, heat and cold, dust and mud, is the anticipation of finding something really important. Some people just enjoy working outdoors.  But far beyond that, is the recognition by volunteers that their work makes an important contribution to the world of archaeology. 

Many of the web sites reviewed on these pages have provided volunteer opportunities and summer school information.  Not all volunteer jobs face all the negative situations I have covered above, but because you know a little more about what volunteering may entail, you can be somewhat more selective in seeking volunteer positions.

Archaeological Field Technicians

Now we are moving into the realm of the professional archaeologist.  Much of the following material about the profession of archaeological technician is provided courtesy of the UAFT (United Archaeological Field Technicians) - http://members.aol.com/UAFT/home.htm - An important website, and one you should read if you are considering a career in archaeology in the United States and hold any degree less than a Ph.D. in anthropology.

According to the U. S. Dept. of Labor Wage and Hour Division Service Contract Act Directory of Occupations
29020 Archeological Technician - An archaeological technician is one who: "Provides technical support to professional archeologist, utilizing a basic understanding of anthropological and archaeological field techniques in connection with locating, testing and evaluating cultural resource sites. Conducts prefield office research, field surveys and site testing, using a variety of reference materials, interviews with source individuals, aerial photographs and technical instruments. Searches areas of proposed projects for evidence of historic and prehistoric remains. Determines exact location of sites and marks them on maps and aerial photographs. Records information on site survey form and prepares an archaeological reconnaissance report needed for evaluation and management of the project. Insures that work assignments are carried out in safe and timely manner according to established standards and procedures. Reviews work in progress and reports to superiors relative to the completion date and other standards set in report. Cleans and catalogs artifacts recovered from inventories and excavations." 

"Although the technician is principally engaged in field or lab work, nearly all will at one time or another, during their tenure as an "Archaeological Technician," be involved in every aspect of CRM work listed above. What an Archaeological Technician can never do is act as "Principal Investigator" on a project or sign reports as a "Professional Archaeologist." Professional Archaeologists must meet the minimum experience and educational requirements set forth by the U. S. Secretary of the Interior and respective State Historic Preservation Officers. Archaeological Technicians have no such educational requirements beyond that which it takes to obtain "a basic understanding of anthropological and archeological field techniques..." ...From UAFT

As an archaeological technician, you will always be an employee due to the job description and restrictions of the U.S. Dept. of Labor.  Just as in any other type of employment, you will find "the good, the bad, and the ugly."  And just as in any other 'community' you will find those who excel as well as the basic dysfunctional goof off.  You will also find a wide range of educational and experience levels.

Once again to gain an appreciation for the career and its risks and rewards, you need to visit the UAFT website linked above.

Looking for employment?  Try Shovelbums - http://www.shovelbums.org/ - -  Have Trowel, Will Travel - http://archaeology.miningco.com/blfieldtech.htm - - archaeologyfieldwork.com - http://www.archaeologyfieldwork.com/ or Cultural Resource Management Network- http://www.eculturalresources.com/ - where you will find not only job information but a lot of additional material as well.


This is where I must jump off the proverbial bandwagon.  Academic archaeology covers a vast field from teaching to heading up field research, publishing to speaking, presenting papers to defending them, defining and presenting theories to plans of action.  The best I can do here is to refer you to the various institutional websites, curriculum vitae, and personal web pages of academics found throughout the reviewed material.  Academic careers vary in needs and requirements from institution to institution.

I hope the above, as incomplete as it is, was of a little help in giving you some information about the life and expectations of an archaeological career in the U.S.  There could be/and have been, books about the subject.  It would take hundreds of web pages just to cover the basics and the associated questions, let alone give you a completed picture.

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