Why are there so few Archaeologists in such a large country? America’s Archaeology Employment Problems

Posted on July 8, 2014


When I posted that it is estimated that there were only 11,000 archaeologists working in the USA, pre-crash, several people made the comment that it seems like so few for such a big country.

“….it is pretty astounding to think that there are only 11k archaeologists pre-crash in that huuuuuge country.” – Rachel on BAJR facebook group.

The UK had roughly 7,000 archaeologists in that same time frame (pre-crash) with only a population of roughly 64 million people (2014) covering 242,900 sq. km. (land). America by comparison has 318 million people (2014) and covers 9,826,675 sq. km. (land) (sources: populations here and size here).

Edit- after a brief twitter conversation I realize that if you did not read the first post I wrote some of this might not make sense. Quick catch up- 11,000 archaeologists is everyone who is a professional (gets paid)- CRM, Academics, etc. 90% of archaeologists in the US are in CRM. So the reasoning below is aimed at CRM archaeologists- who making up the vast majority of professional archaeologists, in the US and the UK, thus have the greatest impact in raw numbers. Non-CRM archaeologists are a whole different ballgame.


The reason is simple, laws. In the UK heritage protection laws cover almost everywhere, now even marine as well. Effectively, the UK government owns everything six inches below the ground ( a simplification but it works). In Scotland, it owns all lost objects, except recently lost coins, which covers any ‘artefacts’ that come out of the ground, via excavations or erosion or metal detecting or whatever. Moreover, Commercial Archaeology can essentially be required for any sort of development project in the UK, even on private land.

In the US it is much more complicated. Any sort of development on Federal Government land is covered by the heritage protection laws. However, this only applies to Federal land and projects that involve Federal money or require a federal permit (surprisingly, quite a few projects are covered by these last two). Each state has its own set of laws which cover the land owned by the states. In some cases, local laws exist as well but they vary in quality and enforcement. For example, before I left Albuquerque an ordnance was passed requiring archaeological work for projects over a certain size, I believe it was four acres. The real kicker though is that, unless a local law requires it, state, county, city, etc, or it involves Federal money/Permits, development on private land does not usually involve any sort of archaeological work. Again, a simplification but it works.

True, the federal government owns or manages (usually on behalf of American Indian tribes) a huge amount of land (see image which is a rough guide of were archaeology is required).

US federal land agencies- Public Domain National Atlas of the United States – http://nationalatlas.gov/printable/fedlands.html, “All Federal and Indian Lands”


Yet, the overlap between population, and thus development, and federal land is weak (see image)

pop by county US

As you can see no one lives near where archaeology would be require and there is lots of private land. Of course, development like mines, oil and gas wells, roads, etc. occur in these Federal land areas and drives lots of archaeological work.

Flag and Avoid

Because the density of development in the Western US, where we find most of the Federal land, is less than in the UK, everything is spaced out, lots of archaeology work undertaken is what is called ‘Flag and Avoid’. Sites are flagged up by a survey, usually pedestrian survey aka field walking, and then development is moved around them, easy to do with oil and gas wells, even roads. Thus many expensive and labor intensive excavations are avoided, further reducing work and thus the number of archaeologists needed to undertake it.

This is a bit simplified, the laws are more complex than what I described, but essentially the reason there are so few archaeologists in comparison to other countries is because archaeological work is not required as often- less work means less people employed as archaeologists. Moreover, because of how big the US is it is possible to avoid many expensive excavations by moving developments around sites. If the US had the same heritage laws as the UK, and less flag and avoid, it would probably have 5-10x as many archaeologists as it does now. But we don’t and so the US punches below its weight in terms of archaeological employment.

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