[Originally published 2007. Updated May 2023].
Jobs in archaeology competitive. However, do not despair: there are other ways of becoming an archaeologist than becoming a professional archaeologist.
First of all though, let’s look at professional archaeology .
There was a short time between 1973 and 1975 when jobs in archaeology were abundant. These were the years when the Government suddenly woke up to the importance of rescue archaeology and for two years in succession, Government spending on archaeology doubled and, as a result, virtually every graduate in archaeology in those years got a job.
There was also a boom in the 1990s, following the introduction of PPG 16, but then we saw a heavy decline in the size of the sector following the 2008 financial crash. By 2014, however, archaeologists were in demand again, and the number of ‘new’ jobs has been increasing ever since.
A recent survey (2020) of earnings in archaeology revealed that the average income for an archaeologist was £30,183 a year – a huge increase from fifteen years ago when the average was £17,000 a year.
Many universities like to boast that all their students who desire a job in archaeology, find a job. However, this brings us on to the problem of the circuit digger. Many archaeological excavations are comparatively short term, ranging from a couple of months to occasionally a couple of years. There is therefore a ‘lump’ of circuit diggers who go from dig to dig.
The circuit is fine for a year or so after graduation, and occasionally it is possible for those with ability and luck (more luck than ability) to transfer to more permanent jobs. However, all too many archaeologists reach the age of 28 and suddenly find that they want to settle down and buy a house, and find that they cannot do this on the casual earnings of a circuit digger.
They leave archaeology when it is already rather late to find an alternative job. And if you do find a permanent job in archaeology, it will be as a manager, working for a developer in an office, getting him planning permission for his new projects. Do you really want to end up working for a developer?
There are of course exceptions. There are well paid jobs as lecturers in universities, or as civil servants with English Heritage or the Royal Commissions on Ancient Monuments or with the British Museum. However for these jobs, a degree with first class honours from a good university is normally required. There are also jobs with local authorities, either in museums or in planning departments, but these are less well paid, and less secure.
Apart from this, a career in archaeology should be considered like a career on the stage, something where one requires both talent and luck (and more luck than talent). And like an actor, it is always worthwhile having something outside archaeology (e.g. accountancy) to fall back on.
A degree in archaeology?
This is not to say that you should not get a degree in archaeology. Indeed, a degree in archaeology forms a very good basis for a career in the outside world: it combines both the arts and sciences, it gets you out into the open to do fieldwork, and you will almost certainly learn how to construct databases, and do stock control – it is a far more practical degree than say English or History.
And having obtained your degree you need not drop your interest in archaeology if you go into business – you can become an amateur archaeologist and enjoy a life-long passion.
Join your local society, join some of the national societies, join the Council for Independent Archaeology, and subscribe (of course) to Current Archaeology. Preferably, too, you should find some speciality that will always make you useful: the study of Samian ware pottery is a good example, or follow up the subject you studied for your dissertation at university. And above all, enjoy your archaeology. Good luck!
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