Things I Wish I Had Known About Archaeology

Posted on February 8, 2012


I helping create a guide for new archaeologists to the world of commercial archaeology. It has got me thinking about what I wish I had known before I became an archaeologists. In no particular order here are some of the thinks I wish I had known.

  • Gear- People say get a trowel but not all trowels are created the same. I prefer a Marshalltown for sandy soils but a WHS/pick-ax for clay and other harder soils. Also, the little things like line levels, pencils that work, pens that work, markers, compass, a clipboard that works, etc.
  • Cloths- I know lots of people who buy snake guards once and then realise that places that have poisonous  snakes are also very hot. You quickly realise that that extra layer of thick cloth is not great in 100 degree heat (40 C). I have seen someone heat stroke out because of them.
  • Basic ability to identify lithics, ceramics, hearths, etc. – Not just identify while standing still or in a lab after someone have told you its an artefact and handed it to you. No, while you are on the move, huffing it over steep and tough terrain in 100 degree heat. At a fairly decent pace, the type demanded of pedestrian survey ( I realise not every were in the world does this sort of survey) you can pace over the edge of a site in a matter of sec. and can easily miss a site if you have no idea what you are looking for. Picking out an arrowhead is easy for anyone but picking out a flake 1cm long in bad light is a skill. I remember when I first did survey I had no clue what I was looking for and afraid to stop everyone every tens sec. to say, “is this something?”. Yes, I picked up the skill eventually but man it would have been nice early on.
  • Laws- many times you are out doing archaeology with only at vague idea of why. It would be great if I known the laws before hand (US, UK) instead of picking them up as I went.

These are just a few of the things I wish I had known.

From Jim-

  • Insects, surprisingly, insects are a concern and we have seen freshly minted archaeologists quit because they could not put up with those annoying biting pests (it’s not that anyone really likes them). If you want to be an archaeologist, spend some time outside before you commit to a degree.
  • Diet, if you have allergies or other dietary conditions – when working in small towns and remote locations it can be a real bear trying to find something that you can actually eat. The usual response is that people then don’t eat. Unfortunately, if you are working outside all day, eating is important. So think about how to manage your needs before you go into the field (don’t expect your crew supervisor to have thought it through for you).

From Robert-

I wish someone had told me about the need to protect your knees and hands! When I first started in archaeology in Ireland, kneelers were unknown. On far too many sites along the way they were a rarity. The macho culture being what it was, many of us never made a fuss about it and just trowelled our way along through the cold and the wet. Same with protective gloves – on many of the sites they were available we didn’t use them (and the pay was often so bad, it was considered an extravagance to buy your own). Today, after two decades in the field, I have arthritis in my hands, knees and one of my hips. All the same, I’ve got many more positive things to take from my career than negative ones … still wish someone had pointed me in the right direction early on!

From Bajr– 101 tips in Archaeology

From Margarita- These are some great tips. I would hope that anyone seeking to take on archaeology as a career will know the two very basic things: you’re gonna get dirty, and you’re not gonna get paid much doing it. BUT, you will love your job (and you will get by!).

Over the years, I have met quite a few people whose love for the job waned over their desire for stability. So, my contribution to this list is this: Remember that you will have an irregular schedule, taking you out of town for potentially long periods at a time.

From Jennifer- Wow, where to begin… I think pay is a big one. I knew that the pay was a bit on the low side, but didn’t realize it would be so flat after all these years. I don’t think anyone expects to be rich working in archaeology, but you hope that after some time you are going to make more than when you first start out. Without an MA, you’re often not making a lot more than folks out of field school. When I was a student, I didn’t have a real sense of how much earning a decent wage really mattered. The student loan payments hadn’t hit yet, and I didn’t have many ‘real’ bills looming. It’s not until someone is out in the real world that they realize how hard it is to stretch that low field archaeology pay.

On a related note, I wish I would have realized how important it was to make use of non-receipted per diem. I blew too much of it on silly stuff through the years and should have pocketed the extra money.

So few firms actually offer real benefits like health insurance and 401ks. I only worked for a handful of companies that did. If I had to go back and do it again, I would have stuck it out with those firms for the long haul instead of jumping ship and going to another project when the work temporarily dried up.

I didn’t know how difficult it would be, in some aspects, to have a ‘normal’ life working as a nomad in CRM. When you are on the road most of the time, it’s difficult to establish and maintain relationships at home. Factor in a family, proximity to home and daycare costs, and continuing as a field archaeologist/parent suddenly becomes very difficult. I am a mom of two young boys and my husband often travels for work, so I am limited to working locally. I’ve had a tough time finding work in my area, and to make matters worse, there aren’t any local CRM firms here.

As far as travel, there are also other issues that go hand in hand with being away from home so much of the time, like making arrangements for someone to take care of an apartment, banking, bill paying (a lot easier with almost everything on the web now), etc. I made a lot of bad decisions in retrospect (like having an expensive apartment I rarely saw).

Andrew HoaenWhen to quit. Fun as it is, archaeology is a pretty hard row. Try and work out your goals, and how many deadpersons shoes you will have to fill to reach your goal.


What about you? Please comment below or blog about what you wish you had known. I would love to know what other people think. (I will post it here)

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