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What is an Archaeologist?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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An archaeologist is a person who discovers, collects and analyzes the material remains of previous societies and cultures. He or she studies artifacts, such as tools, weapons and ancient domiciles to learn about the way people lived in the past. An archaeologist studies modern and historical texts, employs specific field techniques, uses advanced laboratory equipment and writes detailed reports. In addition, many archaeologists choose to teach at universities or become museum curators in order to share archaeological principles with a wide audience.

Excavating and Examining

Archaeologists find and excavate historical sites, taking extensive measures to carefully collect and transport artifacts to a laboratory. While excavating sites, archaeologists use tools such as shovels, trowels, brushes and sifters. In a lab, an archaeologist uses specialized equipment, such as microscopes and X-ray machines, to examine the materials that were collected. He or she might spend several thousand hours analyzing pieces of artifacts to determine when, how and why they were used.

Writing Reports

After the field work and lab work is completed, archaeologists translate their data and theories into carefully written reports. They then submit their papers to scientific publications for review, to determine whether they are worthy of publication in a respected scientific journal or book. Patience and a keen eye for detail are important characteristics of an archaeologist, because he or she might be required to spend years collecting specimens and organizing data in order to compose a single report.

Types of Employment

Many archaeologists work for government agencies. An archaeologist who works for a government typically focuses on protecting and promoting significant archaeological sites. He or she engages in cultural resources management, which involves supervising construction and land development projects to ensure that archaeological sites are not harmed.

Archaeologists who work in the private sector are commonly employed by engineering firms, research centers, private laboratories or museums. These professionals typically engage in extensive field work and laboratory work as well as cultural resources management projects. Museum archaeologists might act as curators or even tour guides, explaining the significance of certain artifacts to the general public.

Education Requirements

To become an archaeologist, a person typically must obtain a master's degree or doctorate in archaeology from an accredited university. Archaeology students usually take courses in history, geology, geography and anthropology while they are in undergraduate school, and they focus on ancient history and specific archeology courses while they are in graduate school. A master's degree typically is sufficient to find work with the government or in the private sector, and a doctorate usually is necessary to join a university faculty, work as a museum curator or supervise large archaeological field projects.

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Discussion Comments
By anon351900 — On Oct 17, 2013

I am taking a test about hominids and different types of scientists and I need to know what an archaeologist is. Please help!

By allenJo — On Jun 01, 2011

@lonelygod – Yes, that’s a shame about Egypt. I believe the Director of Antiquities shut down archeological excavations in that country, at least in certain locations. It used to be open at one time I believe, but some people were a little sloppy with their work and after while the government shut the whole thing down.

I used to watch a TV documentary that chronicled the expeditions of some modern archaeologists in and around the pyramids, but they worked under strict government supervision the whole time.

By MrMoody — On May 31, 2011

@rjh - If you pursue a career as an archaeologist you’ll probably find the most opportunities available in your own backyard, meaning your state.

For example, in the state where I live (Oklahoma) I know some people who work in the archaeology field, and they dig around sites in the state. Since we have a strong native American population here that is the focus of their excavations.

I think Hollywood has romanticized the notion that those in this field wind up in the far flung reaches of globe, looking for the Lost Ark or something like that. But I think for most archeologists they’re not so much looking to strike “gold;” they’re looking instead to uncover just a little bit more about their local and regional history, one rock at a time.

By Bertie68 — On May 31, 2011

@BoniJ - When I was young, I used to want to be an archaeologist. Then, I didn't have a very realistic idea of how they work. I have to laugh now because I used to think that you just dug up all this neat stuff and got all excited.

A cousin of mine is an archaeologist, and she told me that it takes a very patient, organized, curious,and accurate person - you know what I mean. If you work out in the field, you need to be fit and healthy.

Of course, in college you will take anthropology, history, archaeology, and sociology, and I'm not sure what else. Read as much as you can about past cultures.

My cousin said that the field is pretty competitive and you might have to start with volunteer work in the field or in a museum. Or you could start out in an assistant paying position. Anyway, my cousin loves her job!

By BoniJ — On May 31, 2011

I'm now a senior in high school, and I am thinking seriously about becoming an archaeologist. I think that I would love the work, but I'm wondering about the competition out there. I'm also curious about what is involved in the job. While I'm in college, what can I do to get ready to "look for a job?" I know being an archaeologist is a lot different than what you see on television shows. Any ideas I can get will be a great help.

By Sara007 — On May 31, 2011

If you have children that have an interest in becoming an archaeologist you can buy fun kits that let you set up a dig in your own backyard. These educational toys come with lots of interesting pieces that can be 'discovered' in a sandbox.

The children, after finding a treasure, learn about the history behind it and can write notes about their find.

I think these kinds of educational game based off of real-world careers are fantastic to help keep kids interested in things like history. You can order these sets online and they are much cheaper than the newest video games.

By lonelygod — On May 31, 2011

If you have ever wanted to be an archaeologist there are a lot of museums and universities that offer people the opportunity to help out on digs for a day. These mini-internships give people a taste of what you can expect from this career and offer a great way to learn from hands on experience. While you aren’t usually working on anything too interesting, it will give you a feel for the work.

Unfortunately, one of the few countries that doesn’t offer this experience is Egypt. Which is a real shame because so many people dream of digging through the ancient rubble and figuring out more about their impressive history.

By rjh — On May 31, 2011

@hidingplace - Good question. I’ve done a little research about studying archaeology myself and from what I can tell, at the very least you’ll need to know how to record data accurately and be able to analyze it. This will include percentages, measurements and other kinds of statistics. If you’re doing any kind of mapping it’s most likely to be done with GPS and mapping equipment so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

All in all I’d say math skills are desirable though I wouldn’t say an extremely high skill level is absolutely necessary, so it all depends on how much you struggle with mathematics and if you have the potential to get better.

By hidingplace — On May 31, 2011

I’m in high school and am interested in becoming an archaeologist but I’ve always struggled with mathematics. I’m otherwise pretty good academically. I was just wondering how much mathematics is involved in archaeology? Does it require a high level of knowledge of math or is it mostly done with software and calculators?

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