What do Archaeologists do?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Archaeologists on a dig site.
Archaeologists on a dig site.

The field of archeology is a scientific field that studies primarily prehistoric cultures to give modern people information about how their ancestors lived and interacted in the distant past. This field belongs to the larger science of anthropology. Archaeologists spend quite a bit of time excavating and analyzing materials found underground at dig sites.

Jaffa, Israel, and ancient city that has been studied by many archaeologists.
Jaffa, Israel, and ancient city that has been studied by many archaeologists.

Digs are found throughout the world, and the work done there can be both time-consuming and laborious. When archaeologists make finds about early cultures, however, it can be very exciting. New “finds” add to the knowledge researchers have about the way people lived in the past.

Archaeologists are not the romantic Indiana Jones type, for the most part. They are also not paleontologists who dig up dinosaurs. The only buried animals they would find pertinent to their study are domesticated animals, or animals that made up part of an ancient culture’s food source.

Archaeologists study the burial practices of ancient civilizations for clues about the belief systems people had in the past.
Archaeologists study the burial practices of ancient civilizations for clues about the belief systems people had in the past.

Work done on a dig site can be at times painstakingly slow. Soils have to be analyzed a small amount at a time to find any remnants of an older culture, and they are usually filtered to see if they turn up half of an old tool or a fragment of bone. These finds are then carbon dated to determine their age. Often, digs are initiated when a tiny artifact is found, suggesting that there may be additional artifacts in a particular area.

Archaeologists study the Aztec calendar to better understand Mesoamerican concepts of time.
Archaeologists study the Aztec calendar to better understand Mesoamerican concepts of time.

On digs, archaeologists usually excavate material in 10 by 10 foot (3 by 3 meter) squares. Digging must be done carefully to not destroy buried structures or smaller artifacts. Early researchers had the unfortunate habit of completely destroying everything they excavated by overdigging a site. So now, anyone who digs on a site does so with great caution.

Archaeologists have determined that Stonehenge, a prehistoric megalithic site in Great Britain, was built in three broad phrases.
Archaeologists have determined that Stonehenge, a prehistoric megalithic site in Great Britain, was built in three broad phrases.

As discoveries are made, archaeologists catalog all finds, and may later make reports about their findings. They may work in conjunction with social or cultural anthropologists to make guesses about how an older society used tools or what type of gods the society worshiped. These experts can also report on the advanced status of a culture by evaluating certain finds that suggest complex thinking or cultural development.

Archaeologists who study mesoamerican cultures still debate why the Inca built Machu Picchu in the 15th Century.
Archaeologists who study mesoamerican cultures still debate why the Inca built Machu Picchu in the 15th Century.

Archeology can be a fairly dirty and difficult job. It involves a lot of digging, and minute observation of soils. Many digs are in unrelentingly hot locations, without access to showers or even bathrooms. Most people who work in the field, however, are too fascinated by the results of digs to mind such privations.

Most archaeologists work with universities or museums, and part of their job is to obtain funding for digs. They also may employ students on digs to have extra assistance on the job. Students usually work without pay, but relish the training they receive in their chosen field.

Archaeologists study prehistoric burial sites, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found throughout Ireland, for clues as to how people once lived.
Archaeologists study prehistoric burial sites, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found throughout Ireland, for clues as to how people once lived.

An interesting look at the field of archaeology is the James Michener fictional novel The Source, which evaluates a dig site in the developing state of Israel. It is particularly fascinating in the way it flips back in time to tell the story of how ancient Jews and earlier peoples functioned in the culturally rich areas that now make up the state of Israel. Though some of the digging tactics are outmoded, the novel still rings true in its essence of this field, as the story of these people are fictionally reconstructed to give readers information about their predecessors.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PracticalAdultInsights contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PracticalAdultInsights contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon1004497

Both anthropology and archaelogy are so interesting as it engage me in getting to know how the past and how people evolved to this current life we are in and I could imagine how it was in the past before I was born to exist in this planet. It is a big question that keeps me pondering.

anon985339

Archaeology is so interesting. It is my dream to become an archaeologist.

anon952912

When I grow up, I really want to be an archaeologist.

anon309387

You would take science courses (geology, chemistry, biology), history, anthropology, courses. You also need English (lots of paper writing in Arky). And you need at least C+'s to get into university.

And then in university, if you don't think you can keep up B's, or A's then have a backup plan because Arky is very competitive and there aren't many jobs available. Or get into volunteering at a museum or field work with CRM so you at least have experience if you don't have the grades.

I am a third year Arky student. Good luck!

anon297410

What methods do archeologists use?

anon294663

What kind of precautions do they take?

anon272035

What are some real life examples of what an archaeologist does every day?

anon109981

It's only been very recently I've considered archeology as a career. I've always be very interested in the past, I love history -- mostly ancient history -- couldn't stand anything other then ancient history in school. Canadian history almost killed me it was so painfully boring.

But back to the topic. What would I need high school wise to have a job as an archaeologist? My marks in high school are nothing to be proud of. I was happy with a pass, didn't care about marks. But now that I have a chance to go back to high school and upgrade my marks, I could have a shot at my dream job. So what courses would I need other than history?

anon85305

when i grow up, i really want to be an archaeologist. i find the past and things like this so interesting. it's hard for me not to get into a show on discovery or nat geo. it's my dream to do this someday!

anon3926

I find the past so interesting. Just thinking about life before us, like WAY before us makes me excited. If only we could visit the past. Then we'd know for sure. I'm most interested in the past of humans. How we developed over time. It's hard to imagine that the bones and fossils they find could me one of my ancestors. But that's what makes it all so interesting...not always knowing for sure!

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    • Archaeologists on a dig site.
      Archaeologists on a dig site.
    • Jaffa, Israel, and ancient city that has been studied by many archaeologists.
      Jaffa, Israel, and ancient city that has been studied by many archaeologists.
    • Archaeologists study the burial practices of ancient civilizations for clues about the belief systems people had in the past.
      Archaeologists study the burial practices of ancient civilizations for clues about the belief systems people had in the past.
    • Archaeologists study the Aztec calendar to better understand Mesoamerican concepts of time.
      Archaeologists study the Aztec calendar to better understand Mesoamerican concepts of time.
    • Archaeologists have determined that Stonehenge, a prehistoric megalithic site in Great Britain, was built in three broad phrases.
      Archaeologists have determined that Stonehenge, a prehistoric megalithic site in Great Britain, was built in three broad phrases.
    • Archaeologists who study mesoamerican cultures still debate why the Inca built Machu Picchu in the 15th Century.
      Archaeologists who study mesoamerican cultures still debate why the Inca built Machu Picchu in the 15th Century.
    • Archaeologists study prehistoric burial sites, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found throughout Ireland, for clues as to how people once lived.
      Archaeologists study prehistoric burial sites, such as the megalithic dolmens that can be found throughout Ireland, for clues as to how people once lived.