Joe Flatman, author of the award-winning book ‘Becoming an archaeologist: a guide to professional pathways‘, tells us his 10 top tips for getting into archaeology.
Archaeology offers tremendous opportunities for involvement, whether a lifelong interest alongside another career, or a career in itself. It is never too early or too late to become involved in archaeology, and archaeology transcends borders, cultures, languages, and social and economic divisions. Anyone anywhere can become involved in archaeology if they wish, and the opportunities to become involved improve all the time.
The best way to get involved in archaeology is to find out what opportunities for participation are available in your own neighbourhood, through your local archaeology or history society or club, national organisations or local government, schools or universities. There are talks, walks, guides and events on nearly every week around the world; there are also hundreds of opportunities every year to go on more formal training in archaeological techniques and so become involved in actual fieldwork. Many of these events are free; even the ones that charge are rarely all that expensive. Archaeologists are well aware that people don’t have that much money to spare and fight to keep costs of events down. Almost all events are advertised online. Membership of local or national archaeology organisations is similarly cheap and extremely good value. Membership brings you into contact with likeminded people in your neighbourhood and provides access to information and resources like newsletters and magazines, events, and even library facilities.
There are many good popular archaeology magazines now available, often from high-street newsagents rather than specialist vendors. Current Archaeology and Current World Archaeology are a good starting point, offering a quick and enjoyable way to find out more about archaeology. There are also many excellent introductory books on the basics, origins, and practice of archaeology — mostly published in paperback, cheap to buy and easily purchased online. Some recommendations for these magazines and books are listed in the appendix of the book.
The chances are that if you’re interested in getting more involved in archaeology then you’re already doing this — there are so many good TV shows on archaeology these days, as well as online videos, that these have become the main entry point for budding archaeologists. But just in case you’ve not been watching these, then do! Not all archaeologists like all of these shows, and as your knowledge of archaeology increases then you’ll rapidly begin to differentiate for yourself between the good and the bad programmes in terms of the quality of the archaeology done and the validity of some of their claims. But nonetheless, many of these shows do a great job of introducing key concepts, ideas, and sites that are central to archaeology.
As noted above, there are talks, walks, guides and events on about archaeology nearly every week around the world and most of these events are free or very cheap to attend.A great place to look beyond your local archaeology society or club is your local university archaeology or history department: most have weekly talks scheduled by staff and visiting scholars. Visitors are normally welcome to such events by prior arrangement, and such events are usually advertised on departmental homepages. Going to events like these are a great way to meet real archaeologists and likeminded people.
Archaeologists are friendly people who love their subject. They want to tell other people about it and help them get involved. Never, ever be afraid to look up archaeologists who work in your neighbourhood and ask them for advice on how to participate. They may not be able to help you themselves, but they will know other people who can help you and be able to put you in contact with them. A good starting point is either your local archaeology society or your local government archaeologist — both can be searched for online. If these people cannot help you, then your local university archaeology department should be able to help.
For those of you interested in taking the next step, considering not only becoming involved in archaeology but possibly pursuing a career as an archaeologist, the next five steps are especially for you:
Start out by asking yourself what you want out of archaeology — do you really want a career as an archaeologist, e.g. to earn a living doing this? Or rather, do you simply want to become more involved in fieldwork? Understand the implications of a career in archaeology from the outset — long years of training, limited job opportunities, low pay and often short employment contracts — and place this against your other personal aspirations and also commitments. Talk about your aspirations with your family and what this lifestyle might mean for them, and be realistic — if you’ve always wanted a big house with a sports car sitting in your driveway then archaeology really isn’t the career for you. Once you’ve come to a decision then plan what you need to do to make a start in your career — training, experience, and contacts.
Realistically, a professional career in archaeology begins at university. You might not like to hear this but there it is. Without a university degree in archaeology then you are seriously harming your chances of getting any job in the discipline, let alone advancing your career as a professional. So if you’re serious about a career, then find out what qualifications you need to get into such a university degree course, find out what university you’d like to study at, and apply for a place. Remember that it is never too late to do this. Universities have students with an incredibly diverse array of backgrounds, ages, nationalities, and experience.
Archaeologists who do well in their careers have multiple skills and fields of expertise. Multiple skills and specialisms make you the most adaptable to change, the most able to apply for the largest number of jobs. This means both archaeological and non-archaeological skills, experience and expertise. For those already at work who are considering a mid-career move into archaeology in particular, it is well worth making a list of what you do in your current job, what skills you have already, and then seeing how these skills might apply to archaeology.
There are more archaeologists out there than available jobs — supply exceeds demand. Beyond expanding your training, skills, and expertise, successful archaeologists volunteer to do things that make them, and their CVs, stand out, and that provide opportunities for networking, publication, and self-promotion. Early on in any career this means volunteering to work, often unpaid (but hopefully with at least some costs covered) on projects — both the exciting fieldwork components of any project as well as the much less glamorous but equally important pre- and post-excavation phases, planning the project, cleaning, recording, investigating and conserving finds, and writing up notes and reports. More experienced archaeologists who are able to get jobs that perhaps pay them to do these tasks still usually volunteer in other ways — serving on local or national archaeological organisations’ committees, editing newsletters and journals, writing conference and book reviews, organising events and symposia, etc. All of these different volunteer activities can be seen on the CVs of successful archaeologists, and mark them out from their peers. By volunteering, such archaeologists have also been busy networking — making informal links and contacts with people, getting known as friendly, efficient, and trustworthy: the person other people want to work with and employ.
Don’t be afraid or dismayed if at first you don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Everyone who has ever ended up with a job in archaeology, from the lowliest digger to the most senior professor, has hit a low at some point, where they wonder if they’ll ever get work and whether so many struggles are worth it. Struggle and disappointment is part of this lifestyle. If you can’t handle rejection — for jobs, for grant applications, for article and book proposals — then get out now. Similarly, learn to accept constructive criticism: archaeology is too big and complex a subject for any one person to know all the answers — there is always something new to learn and some other opinion that can be of significance. When they have a bad day, most archaeologists simply take a deep breath and then get a good night’s rest. The next day they get back to work.
Joe Flatman’s book ‘Becoming an archaeologist: a guide to professional pathways’ won Book of the Year 2012 in the prestigious Current Archaeology Awards earlier this year.