Originally published 7 June 2018. Last updated 9 May 2023.
Charlotte Frearson, Jennifer French, and Andrew Gardner discuss why any prospective undergraduate should give the discipline serious consideration.
Archaeologists are many things. As people, they are adventurous, adaptable, expecters of the unexpected, skilled multitaskers, and curious citizens of a constantly changing world. As students, they include the next generation of excavators, as well as other heritage and museum professionals, but others will pursue a diverse range of career paths. All three of us studied Archaeology because we are intrigued by the past and wanted to think about how people live and what it means to be human. But as the next intake of undergraduates weigh up their university options, we would argue that the question we were asked so often – ‘What can you do with a degree in Archaeology?’ – should be flipped on its head. Given the unique skill set that this field of study instils, we should be asking: ‘What can’t you do with a degree in Archaeology?’
Diverse studies, diverse skills
The uniqueness of Archaeology as a university subject lies in its breadth and versatility. It is an all-encompassing field whose subject is all of humanity. The topics it covers are complex, sometimes controversial, and constantly evolving – it is certainly not a discipline stuck in its own past. On the contrary, the boundaries are constantly shifting in light of new discoveries that enhance a subject already brimming over with research possibilities.
As an intellectual and truly multidisciplinary subject incorporating elements of the Sciences, Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, Archaeology allows you to specialise in your chosen area or to become a generalist, working in a wide range of environments from laboratories and archives to getting your hands dirty with outdoor fieldwork. We suggest that the training that Archaeology students receive in such a wide range of techniques, using such diverse tools, provides the greatest variety of future skills of any degree. It is also a discipline that is open to all ages, backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs, and one that can only thrive with a more diverse professional population – a varied body of practitioners means a varied range of perspectives both on the past, and on the equally wideranging people and practices that we seek to study.
An Archaeology degree offers excellent vocational training and a clear career trajectory if you choose to remain in the field after graduation – and large infrastructure projects are creating a demand for site staff that is only set to increase over the next decade. Commercial archaeologists include excavators, site managers, finds processors, and specialists in conservation, material culture, landscapes, and bio- and geoarchaeology. Your studies might also lead you into other heritage- or museum-based work, or into further study and academic careers, whether within Archaeology or any of a broad range of related subjects, such as History, Classics, and Anthropology.
Should you choose to move into another sector entirely, though, Archaeology also equips its students with an impressive array of those qualities so lauded by school careers advisers: transferable skills. In this respect, we can stand proudly alongside subjects like History, English, and Geography, which have long been recognised as strong, broad-based disciplines that qualify their alumni for a wide range of graduate-level careers. Besides the practical, vocational skills of excavation and scientific analysis, Archaeology also develops critical thinking, teamwork, and excellent oral and written communication skills, combined with a rigorous exposure to different intellectual traditions and types of evidence. It should therefore come as no surprise that across the UK Archaeology alumni work as musicians, diplomats, bankers, politicians, accountants, chefs, civil servants, scientists, and (via conversion degrees) lawyers and doctors.
Despite these undeniable strengths, though, applications to study Archaeology at undergraduate level have been steadily declining for the last few years (see CA 330). In part this could be thanks to a limited formal exposure to the discipline (exacerbated by the abolition of the Archaeology A-level), coupled with widespread misrepresentation or misunderstanding of what exactly Archaeology is – and what job prospects it offers – putting off prospective undergraduates from considering studying the subject at university. This is not only a loss to the discipline – limiting the pool of potential archaeologists of the future – but also to students, who lose the opportunity to study a subject whose breadth and versatility offer both a unique intellectual challenge and training in a wide skill set highly sought after by employers across a range of sectors.
There has been much discussion about how to counter this decline (see CA 330, 270, and 268), but for those who do want to apply, there are many options available. In 2017, we established University Archaeology Day to highlight the subject and the universities at which it can be studied. Each year, university departments give talks about their research, conduct workshops, and discuss careers. There are illustrious Archaeology alumni, and stalls and stands from each participating university, giving you the essential information about where, when, how, and – most importantly – why to apply.
Visit the website, www.universityarchaeology.co.uk/university-archaeology-day, for the latest information about upcoming events. Come and find out more from Archaeology staff and current students. When choosing your degree, think differently: think Archaeology.
This article appeared in CA 340.