Often when people hear the word “archaeologist,” they think of an iconic film character like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. However, movies about archaeology don’t fully capture what this profession is all about, according to archaeologists.
“Archaeology isn’t always glamorous,” Emily Swain, a Maryland-based archaeologist with the Stantec global design firm, explained in an email. “It’s a lot of hard work that can involve long days in the sun and the heat, trudging through forests with a shovel and screen in hand. It’s dirty work and you don’t always find things. But when you do find something interesting or unexpected, it can open up a new window to the past and give a voice to the ordinary people who may not make it into the history books.”
Rowan Flad, the John E. Hudson Professor of Archaeology at Harvard University, wrote that although there are many aspects of Hollywood depictions of archaeology that are problematic, one truth that these movies do convey is the fact that “archaeology is about discovery.”
Charlotte Frearson, who holds multiple positions at the University College London‘s Institute of Archaeology in the U.K., says that real-life archaeology includes some of the most intriguing elements of Indiana Jones movies — travel, adventure, cultural exploration and the ability to meet interesting people — without requiring any of the criminality or violence depicted in those motion pictures.
An archaeologist could have the opportunity to unearth an object that has been hidden and untouched “for thousands of years,” and he or she could also investigate the origins of mysterious objects “the meaning of which has been lost,” Frearson wrote in an email.
Here is an explanation of what it means to be an archaeologist and how someone can enter the profession.
What Archaeology Is and What Archaeologists Do
The essence of archaeology, experts say, is to carefully examine artifacts, fossils or ruins and decipher their meaning. Archaeology’s mission is to provide insight into who ancestral people were and how they lived. This doesn’t necessarily involve encountering dangerous situations like those portrayed in Hollywood movies, but it does require curiosity and an ability to make sense of complexity.
“Archaeologists are in the business of discovering the ‘material remains’ of past human activities and putting together the stories of past people who created those remains and left them behind,” Flad wrote in an email. “Because the vast majority of past human societies, customs and behaviors were not intentionally recorded in any medium as a historical narrative, we can only understand the diversity of the human experience through the remnants left behind by human activities as material remains.”
A common misconception about archaeology, experts say, is the idea that finding buried relics is the primary mission of archaeology. However, experts emphasize that treasure-hunting isn’t necessarily the primary goal of an archaeologist. They say the central purpose of archaeology is increasing human understanding of the past and clarifying aspects of history.
“We always say, ‘It’s not what you find. It’s what you find out,'” says Laure Bonner, outreach and communications coordinator for the department of archaeology at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
[Read: What Does an Archaeologist Do?]
Experts on archaeology careers note that although many archaeologists work for colleges, universities or museums, others work in a private sector field known as cultural resource management, helping developers ensure that they do not inadvertently destroy valuable archaeological artifacts or sacred burial grounds. Archaeologists can also work for government agencies, where they act as stewards of public archaeological sites.
How to Become an Archaeologist
Working at an archaeological site under the supervision of an experienced archaeologist is a great way for those fascinated by archaeology to figure out whether the profession is right for them, experts suggest.
“Most people who have an interest in archaeology start an earnest engagement with the discipline by taking part in a research project, often one that is set up as a ‘field school’ in which participants learn about the practice of archaeology while taking part in real research,” Flad says, adding that archaeologists who are affiliated with academic institutions often run field schools.
The Institute for Field Research is a great resource for aspiring archaeologists who are eager to explore field research options, Flad says.
Swain notes that great field schools are in a variety of places, not only in “exotic locations.”
“You can learn just as much taking a field school in Texas or Pennsylvania and you might find things just as old if not older than you would find internationally,” she suggests.
Archaeologists usually have academic degrees in either archaeology or anthropology, an academic discipline that focuses on human behavior and human culture, experts say. Though some archaeology jobs require only a bachelor’s degree, many specialized archaeological positions require graduate school, according to experts in the field.
There are numerous archaeology internship programs designed for current students and recent graduates, including some provided via the National Council for Preservation Education, a nonprofit organization that offers paid internship options in collaboration with the National Park Service and other federal agencies.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary among anthropologists and archaeologists was $63,670 as of May 2019, and the typical entry-level education was a master’s degree.
The Pros and Cons of Being an Archaeologist
One of the selling points of archaeology, experts say, is that it provides insight into the lives of historical figures who were members of marginalized or oppressed communities, many of whom did not leave behind a significant paper trail. Archaeology illuminates the experiences of individuals in the past whose lives weren’t chronicled for posterity but who nevertheless did interesting things worthy of remembrance, according to experts.
There are many types of archaeology. Archaeologists often concentrate on a specific aspect of the past, such as a particular historical era or a particular part of the world. Others hone in on historical questions that have applications in multiple eras and regions, such as an interest in what kind of food ancient people consumed and a curiosity about how they grew, produced and cooked meals.
Some archaeologists are most interested in the technological aspect of their field, so they develop and use archaeological technology such as site-mapping tools.
William Balco, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Georgia who has conducted extensive archaeological research in Sicily, notes that there is a significant amount of science involved in archaeology. This includes residue analysis to glean information about ancient people’s diets, and carbon dating in order to figure out how old an object is.
Flad suggests that the field of archaeology includes numerous challenges, such as the struggle to protect archaeological sites from looters, and the difficulties posed when preserving architectural remains “might slow down or raise the cost of infrastructure building” amid a push for development.
“A second set of challenges comes from the way in which interpretations of the material past can be misused as a means to promote specific political or social agendas that use archaeological information to illustrate predetermined narratives,” Flad explains. He suggests that archaeologists should strive to remain objective in their analysis while still engaging the communities that are invested in their archaeological findings.
Swain acknowledges that archaeological projects can be frustrating at times but emphasizes that the work can also be exciting.
“It can be challenging at times working on project after project where you don’t find anything or where you didn’t find what you were expecting,” she says, “but then there are the projects where you find something unexpected or interesting, like an unusual artifact or a cluster of artifacts representing a settlement or temporary campsite.”
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What Archaeology Is and How to Become an Archaeologist originally appeared on usnews.com