Last week, I got a text message from a friend of a friend that went something like this: Hey! I have always wanted to learn more about archaeology but I'm not sure how or if I can get involved. Is it too late???
I thought this is a great example of how accessible archaeology is as a field to be excited about (yay!) but how bad we as archaeologists are at spreading the word about getting involved in our exciting field (boo!). And, of course, the perfect topic for a blog post.
First: what is an archaeologist and what do they study?
We do not study dinosaurs. Relatedly: if anyone can explain why Americans all think archaeologists study dinosaurs, please comment. I'm dying to know.
Archaeologists DO study what I fondly refer to as "old peoples' trash", sometimes even old ritual offerings, or the remains of old people themselves (with their descendants' permission)! These things tell us many details about what life was like in the past. Some archaeologists even advocate for "garbology": studying today's trash to learn more about people today.
Second: Okay, trash isn't as cool as dinosaurs but I'm still interested. How can I get involved?
Archaeologists need a lot of help, and we don't have a lot of money. If you have a museum, college, or history center near you, chances are you can get roped into some volunteer work before you can even say "paid in experience". This experience may consist of cleaning artifacts, counting bones, or even zapping stuff with lasers and writing down numbers. You may also have the opportunity to dig on a community excavation. Lots of museums are doing this now and I got to do this on Kodiak a few years ago.
Third: I'm getting pretty good at counting and cleaning rocks. Can I get paid for this?
In short, yes! Though, it may take a l o n g time. Most paid positions require a BA degree in anthropology and a field school through an accredited institution, though some will hire people with "equivalent experience". That basically means you know someone on the inside who can vouch for your hours in the lab and on your community archaeology project, as I understand it.
Fourth: What can I get paid to do and how much will it pay?
Archaeology is kind of a weird social science because it has the option to work as a contractor for the government. All public lands in the US (and many other countries) must be surveyed by a team of environmental and cultural heritage experts before you can break ground or sell it to inventory the resources that may get destroyed. For this reason, many archaeologists work as Cultural Resource Managers. As a field technician, you only need a B.A. and a field school for a pretty stable seasonal job that can pay $12-18/hr but has no benefits. Sometimes, you can get sick overtime. Did I mention it's seasonal?
After you pursue seasonal work for a while, your body may start to encourage you to get a job with health care. In this case, you may have enough experience that you can become a full time crew chief and boss other seasonal techs around. Or, you may need to go to graduate school to get a Masters. This will usually cost money but results in a more stable job with benefits, a bit more autonomy, and some research possibilities. Salaries vary widely from here with region, projects, and workload.
Alternatively, you may really like school and feel ready to commit to a 7-8 year Masters/Doctoral program so that you have the option of becoming a professor. That's what I did. I like teaching and research so I knew out of college it was basically the best option for me while I could stomach eight more years of school. Know that the job market for professors is not great and I invite you to look up your professors' salaries if you went to a public university. We're Drs. but we're not MDs, if you know what I mean.
In sum, archaeology is really fun but unless you really love it I wouldn't recommend it as a full time job because they're so hard to get and require a lot of school. If you DO really love it, then you should definitely pursue it because you will enjoy learning every little detail about it over several years of school and work!
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.