So You Want My Job: Archaeologist

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 11, 2009 · 32 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job


Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Any man who has ever watched the Indiana Jones movies has had the thought of becoming an archaeologist cross his mind. Turns out the job is not quite like Indy’s adventures, but you do get to wear khaki pants and a hat, get really dirty, flee from snakes, and uncover relics of the past. Still pretty sweet.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

My name is Dan, and I am 29. I have a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Minnesota State University, Mankato and am nearly finished with a Masters in Geographic Information Systems from St. Cloud State University which is also in Minnesota. I work for the U.S. Forest Service as part of their TEAMS Heritage Resource Enterprise Unit. We provide trained archaeologists for National Forests that need survey work done on the property they manage. Our team is unique as we don’t belong to any one National Forest, but are “deployed” as the need arises. Kind of like the archaeological version of the Special Forces. This year I will be working on projects in Texas, South Dakota, California, and Idaho. I’ve been working for TEAMS for almost a year, and worked as an archaeological field technician for private environmental firms for 3 years prior to joining the Forest Service.

2. Why did you want to become an archaeologist? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

Although I grew up with a love of history and of the outdoors, I didn’t realize I wanted to be an archaeologist until I was 23 and was nearly finished with a totally unrelated college degree. I can pinpoint my decision to be an archaeologist to a single day. I was traveling overseas and was wandering around Sophia, Bulgaria and happened upon a museum of archaeology, which contained a really impressive collection of ancient Greek and Roman archaeological artifacts. Staring at everything from ancient building columns, roman military battle gear, and even long buried sarcophaguses, I marveled at the thought of the experience of pulling something like that out of the ground and thought I would give it a try.

3. If a man wants to become an archaeologist, how should he best prepare?

Archaeology is one of those fields where you need a college degree, preferably in Anthropology or a closely related field such as History or Geography. Most have a degree in Anthropology. You can get work in the field with just a Bachelors degree, but if you want to lead crews and conduct your own research a Masters degree is needed. While you’re getting the degree, it’s also almost universally expected that you attend a “Field School,” usually a 4 to 6 week course that has you in the field for the first time learning how to dig in the dirt like a real archaeologist and becoming knowledgeable in the tools of the trade. In my case this involved living in a tent for six weeks working alongside 25 other students while we excavated a Native American site dating back to 1050 AD. At night we camped out under the stars, drank whiskey and listened to stories told by the college professor that was running the course. I was fortunate enough to have a really inspiring professor that knew how to get the best out of his students, and it was a really fantastic experience.

Besides the educational background, one should be comfortable working in the outdoors for long hours in all conditions. I’ve met archaeologists that seem to really dislike being outside, and I can not for the life of me figure out why they became archaeologists. Unless you are one of the few archaeologists that become college professors, you are going to spend a majority of your time outdoors, walking for miles on field surveys, digging for hours into the earth and generally getting completely filthy every day.

If you were the kid that always came home with dirt on you jeans and a bullfrog in your pocket, this might be the right job for you.


4. How do you go about getting hired for a dig? What sets a candidate apart from others when he’s vying for a job?

Most of the jobs for entry level archaeologists, also called “Shovel Bums,” involve working for Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firms on contracted survey projects, working for the company for an hourly wage as long as they have work for you to do, much like working for a building construction crew. You find out about these jobs largely through word of mouth, and through websites specifically intended for employers to post job details and their staffing needs. Then you send in your resume and hope for the best. Once you pay your dues as a Shovel Bum, you will hopefully be picked up as a Crew Chief, and start earning a 365 day a year salary with benefits. The fastest way to do this is to be recognized as reliable and hard working field technician, while at the same time working toward a specialization within the field of Archaeology, such as analysis of lithics (stone tools), pottery, or osteology (study of bones). My specific specialty is GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, which is used to map out archaeological sites and collect other data using GPS devices, computers and other digital devices. Basically, you have to make your self stand out, as just like in any other profession, there are plenty of people who are happy to just show up and punch the clock.

5. What is the best part of your job?

Reaching down into the dirt and picking up an arrowhead that hasn’t been held in 800 years or more. It gives an instant connection between you and the person that left it there so long ago.

6. What is the worst part of your job?

The time away from family due to the crazy amount of traveling I do. If I could do this job and still be at home every night for dinner, it would be the perfect career.

8. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

It’s tough. The term “Behind every great man is a great women” definitely applies here. Without my wife being as supportive as she is, there is no way I could have the career that I do. The most important thing is to leave work at work, and when I’m at home concentrate as much as I can on the relationship with my wife and family.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job? Or in other words, how much does your life resemble that of Indiana Jones?

The biggest misconception is that I don’t dig up dinosaur bones. People confuse us with paleontologists all the time. Also, being an archaeologist is not nearly as exciting as the movies make it out to be. Archaeology is a process, and a very methodical one at that. Archaeology is a destructive science; once you remove soil and artifacts from the ground, they can never be returned exactly as they were found. We dig into the ground, removing 5-10 cm at a time so that the soil and the artifacts we remove can tell us the story of the past. It is our responsibility to convey that story to the rest of the world.

As for the Indiana Jones analogy, although there are dangers in the job, I have yet had to outrun a huge boulder or use my whip to disarm a Nazi. There are some similarities though. I am always traveling to new locales and working in areas of the country I’ve never experienced before. My hat is never far from my head, and khaki pants are part of the standard uniform. Snakes, especially rattlesnakes, are almost always an issue in many of the areas I work in. Other dangers include spiders, bears, and stumbling upon back country drug growing/manufacturing areas while on survey. I believe the real similarity between Indy and many of us mortal archaeologists is continuing to find the magic in human history and the cultures that came before us, and I doubt any archaeologist who spent part of theit youth in the 1980’s didn’t have Indy as a huge influence in deciding his career. How could you not?

No matter how hard they deny it, every archaeologist is a fan of Indiana Jones. Without him, our field wouldn’t seem nearly as romantic as it does. Whenever I travel to new projects I always bring at least one, if not all four Indy films with me, because it reminds me of the reasons I got into this job.

10. What’s a typical day like on a dig?

Managing an active dig site is like trying to keep multiple plates spinning at once. Everyone on the crew has a job to do, and everyone is doing it at the same time. Excavation crews are bringing down the “floor” of the excavation unit in 5-10cm levels, while some of the more artistically inclined are drawing and photographing the floors and walls to document the layers as they are removed and excavated further down. If artifacts are found, they are photographed in place, locations mapped in relation to the rest of the excavation unit, and removed. Technicians take data using GPS receivers to continue mapping out the site and its boundaries digitally. Elsewhere on the site, a geophysicist might be using ground penetrating radar to search for undiscovered features such as the remnants of old building foundations hidden under the ground.

I imagine watching a dig site from above is quite like standing over a busy ant hill.

11. What do archeologists do when they’re not on a dig?

The dig is only part of the scope of the project. After the field work, artifacts must be sorted, cleaned and cataloged. Data must be organized, analyzed and reports finalized. Grants need to be written and projects need to be bid on. Being in the field is the fun part. The rest of it keeps the business going.

12. What’s the coolest thing you’ve helped uncover?

A previously undiscovered Shoshone village in Utah. It all started with the discovery of one arrowhead and turned into the identification of a lost community.

13. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

Even with all the education and training, if you become an archaeologist, you are probably never going to be rich beyond your wildest dreams. That’s just not how it works. Comfortable, probably. Filthy rich, probably not. The happiest and most successful archaeologists are the ones that genuinely love what they do. Take that into consideration before you invest all the time, tuition and weeks away from your family that is required for this field.

If you do pursue archaeology as a career, good luck. There are precious few jobs out there that allow you to use your brain as well as you brawn on a daily basis. For me a rainy day in the field beats a sunny day in the office any day.


{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daniel G. November 11, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Come on, man – arrowhead? That’s a projectile point at best. Until you’re sure, that’s a lithic.

2 Stephen November 11, 2009 at 10:07 pm

Hafted biface?

3 Mike at The Big Stick November 11, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Give the guy a break. He was probably speaking for laymen. You say projectile point and most people’s eyes glaze over. That’s why i always enjoyed historical archaeology better. A nail is always a nail.

Interesting interview. My 4 years in the field were fantastic, but the money was never there and I couldn’t stand all the time away from the family. I miss it but I love my paychecks now.

4 Morty November 11, 2009 at 11:07 pm

This all gibes with my wife’s experience, though she specialized in the antiquities of ancient Greece and Rome. Sadly that was all before I met her, so I never had a chance to follow her on a dig.

Great series, as usual. I’m sure it’s been covered before, but since I can’t find the answer: how do you go about finding “So You Want My Job” subjects anyhow?

5 Ryan November 11, 2009 at 11:35 pm

Thanks for the article, the experiences are equal to what mine where in the field. Got as far a shovel bum with degree, but later switched up for pure history since the classroom is what I found I loved the most. Still watch Indy yearly – he got me early into a love for history and archaeology.

6 RainyDayNinja November 12, 2009 at 12:11 am

As far as fictional archaeologists go, Daniel Jackson could kick Indiana Jones’ butt any day.

7 Brian November 12, 2009 at 1:19 am

I just got my bachelors and have all but given up finding any jobs as a shovel jockey. Companies need archaeological surveys when they use federal funding for construction and I bet you can guess how much of that is happening at the moment. Good luck with that.

8 Mason November 13, 2009 at 5:17 pm

The interview summed it up pretty good. Eventhough the pay is not that great (one of the lowest relative to amount of education required) and you do spend a lot of time away from home, it is a wonderful job. You meet cool people, see neat places, and end up with all sorts of stories to tell. You really need to have a masters degree to make any headway. Once you do have it all sorts of doors open up. Like Dan said in the interview, you have to make yourself stand out. Find a skill that few people can do well and that is extremely useful. I specialized in zooarchaeology and it helped me a lot.

9 dannyb278 November 13, 2009 at 9:32 pm

nice catch on suggesting “projectile point” instead of “arrowhead” but as Mike suggested, using words like projectile point and hafted biface are not exactly laymen friendly. That was the challenge in writing up this interview, i started to go off on tangents using terminology that only people in the field would know, and it started to get really dull even for me.

10 dannyb278 November 13, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Brian, check out “avue digital services” for archaeology jobs within the Forest Service and check google “” for all governent agencies. It is the best place to find federal employement, with the Fed still actively hiring field techs.

11 Pete Peters November 14, 2009 at 12:08 am

I’m an archaeologist working for a state historic preservation office. Having dealt with both public and private sector archaeologists I can’t stress enough how terrible a career it is.

Private industry: low pay, back breaking labor, slim on benefits, general lack of professionalism. It’s supposed to be research that’s carried out but it’s really just going to a new spot and digging some holes.

Public sector: low pay, boring office work. Constant frustration with the private sector archaeologists.

Unless you manage to get a steady job that doesn’t require travel you will not be able to set down roots anywhere. Good luck dating anyone, starting a family, home, etc. Sure it can be done but how much time will you spend out on the road or sleeping in motels?

You are much better off if you can nab a state or federal position but most archaeology jobs are either associated with educational institutions (better aim for that phd) or private companies.

Archaeology looks like fun but as a career it blows.

12 Pete Peters November 14, 2009 at 12:17 am

@Mason: stories and experiences are great, everyone loves an adventure but what happens when you find yourself shoe-horned into a low paying job when you are 45. Your priorities at 25 will be different at 45 or 65. Adventure is nice but part of being a man is being responsible and planning ahead. It’s hard to build a decent retirement when you are working from contract to contract hoping the work doesn’t dry up.

If you do have a family and continue to work at a job that requires constant travel how will your wife/kids feel? They should be your first priority not a desire for adventure and stories and neat experiences.

13 Mason November 14, 2009 at 8:57 am

@Pete Peters: I came to realization you spoke of before my twin daughters were born. I left archaeology after nearly 12 years (before I got bitter) and became a teacher (public school science). In my limited experience that is probably the best job a married man with children (he plans on devoting time to) can choose. I did have my fun before that and it enriched my life. I draw on those experiences to teach my students. The only dirt I shovel nowadays is when I’m doing yardwork or building a playhouse for my girls, but I still love archaeology.

14 Brian November 14, 2009 at 10:12 am

I’ve seen a lot of comments regarding the extraordinary amount of travel and subsequent time away from home and family, but specific times haven’t been posted. So how much time, on average, will an archaeologist likely spend in the field that will keep him away from his family over the course of a typical year? How does that balance out with the cataloguing and other work done after the field work is completed? I’ve been considering going back to school to facilitate a change of careers and archaeology is something that I have always had interest in. I’m still weighing my options and all the information helps.

Great article! I really enjoy this series even if I unfortunately will never get a chance to try many of these wonderful and important jobs. Keep ‘em coming.

15 dannyb278 November 14, 2009 at 11:13 am

First, the pay isnt that bad in the private sector if you are serious about your job. Most Principal Investigators (project planners, M.A. required), make in the high 40′s-50′s per year with 1-3 years of experiance as a P.I. . More than most highschool teachers make in my area. Overtime is huge, and i made nearly the same amount of money from May-Nov, as i would working 40 hours a week year around and i now have winter off.

As for time, my job is unique as i travel to projects accross the country, usualy being gone on a session for 12-17 days, and then home for 7, with winters off. thats the reality of my job. If you work full time for one forest, you dont travel at all, and you go home every night. If you work for a private sector firm, you are more than likely working in a more specific area (midwest) , and my experiance with work days have been 10 on with 4 days off.

Pete= If you are still a field tech at 45 your doing something wrong. Most people that succeed in this buisness are in leadership positions by the time you are in you early 30′s. The higher position you attain, it seems the less travel you do. Working for the federal government, i have a pretty good retirement package, great benifits and ample vaction time. Although i travel a lot, my wife understands that this is my job. Coming from the military, where i was gone from 6 months to a year, two weeks is hardly that bad.

It’s plain to see that this job isnt for everybody, as many people leave the industry with a bitter taste in their mouth. Anyone who goes into this job with just a bachelors degree and no asperations for a M.A. is likely to hit the glass ceiling pretty quick, and thus burn out on fieldwork.
To me this work is more fullfilling than the time i spent in “The Office” like work conditions that prevail in todays society. If cubicle life makes you happy, than this probably isnt the right job for you. Keep your cubicle and “Dilbert” strips pinned to its wall. I’ll take my fieldpack and trowel any day.

16 Mason November 14, 2009 at 11:38 am

Brian it really seems to depend on what sort of arch position you obtain. Some people are able to be strict lab techs and maybe go out when the need arises. If you don’t really care about being at home and want to travel, CRM and Park Service tech and director positions put you out in the field a lot. The first year of my marriage I was away from home a total of about eight months and I worked for the NPS at the time. You are sort of on call and since the higher ups make the calls you have to be ready to go on a dig when they give word. I have a friend that is a Forest Service archaeologist that makes good money and only has to be concerned about the cultural resources within the confines of the state forest he works at. He gets to be home with his family every night and really loves the position he is in.

As far as the ratio of time spent in the field to looking at all the goodies you find, that too varies. In contract archaeology the amount of time you get is based on how much money your client is willing to spend. Sadly, like a lot of contracts, the lowest bid usually wins so you don’t often get a lot of time. A three month field session is usually followed by a frenzy of lab activity and report writing in a very short time. If you are a project director you will spend more time working on the reports and managing all the data coming in. If you are a field tech you could get wash duty, float duty, analysis duty (recommended but you must show skill), or be sent out on on another project led by another field/project director. Hope that helps.

17 Charlie November 14, 2009 at 1:13 pm

I’m 45 years old and stuck in a job I hate. In fact, I would rather step on a rusty nail than go to work most days… So I have started on a master’s in archaeology and plan to do my own thing when the degree is finished…

I have a bit of experience in video so I plan to produce my own video series about archaeology offer “heritage tourism” tours. No need to get stuck in a pit digging up old arrowheads or projectile points, or fumbling through mountains of data input worksheets or teaching at the local university for me. To me, archaeology is so much more.

Think outside the “pit” and don’t let the traditional view of the archaeologist get you down, brothers….

18 dannyb278 November 14, 2009 at 7:37 pm

nicely said charlie. its amazing how archaeology and the virtual/digital age have combined in many interesting ways.

19 Pete Peters November 16, 2009 at 11:33 am

I’m young. I’m jaded because of my surroundings and the others around me. I have time to get out and I plan to.

Charlie, you should go speak to professionals and professors about archaeology because, no offense, it sounds like you don’t have a clue what it entails or what the point of it is. It’s not about exploiting past people and cultures. You have the same view I had when I started college ‘oo, it’s neat, I love the history channel.” Do your research before you waste a bunch of money. Your response is very naive and your plan, frankly, is unrealistic. If you aren’t working in CRM or for a university there is no money for this stuff.

20 Mason November 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

Actually the feds pay really good salaries once you move up the ranks.

21 Tori November 20, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Jaded is an understatement for you, hun.
You really need to put your emotions aside and let those of us who have a passion for this career make it known to all that, although this is a very tenuous job, it has an amazing impression on your life. Though as a “man” you are expected by society to be responsible and provide for your family, a wife, who of all people should know you inside and out should understand that this is a CAREER not a job. A career is something you love and something that makes you happy, it is something that may take time out of your day but it is something that is there to help all of us really understand why we were put on this earth. For some their career is taking care of their family and for others it is being passionate and enthusiastic about archeology and anthropology.

For this career you really need to know your stuff. A bachelors is not going to get you anywhere. As for me, I got my PHD and am working at a university and absolutely loving every second of it.
Archeology, anthropology and anything in the social sciences are going to need for you to get a much higher education and so be ready to become a life long student, and make sure you love what you are working to become.

22 Mason November 21, 2009 at 9:05 am

Well said Tori.

23 oak computer desk January 20, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I can’t say as though I have ever wanted to be an archeologist, though Indiana Jones does make treasure hunting look fun. It sounds as if the career choice is great for someone who likes to travel and be outdoors and for the right person I say more power to you.


24 The_republic March 20, 2010 at 12:11 am

I finished up my Archaeology Degree in Australia 4 years ago and had a wonderful time on digs across the country. I’m now on a completely different career path and have found that the lessons I learned in my Degree help me every day. Anyone wanting to do Archaeology should be encouraged as most of you know the skills you learn are invaluable even if you don’t spend your life on Digs.

25 Christian May 8, 2010 at 11:30 am

I went the Ph.D route and left after completing the course requirements — in the dissertation planning process. I drank the Indiana Jones coolaide, fell in love with all the National Geographics, could spend days on end in museums (still do all of that actually). My specialty was East African Paeloanthropology. I did a stint at the Smithsonian, went to the top schools. Did my field school in Northern Kenya, went back during graduate work and lived with a tribe of hunter-gathers in Tanzania. I ultimately left for two reasons — 1) Theoretical problems with interpretation of hominid behavior. 2) Living and loving a career as an African Paleoanthropologist while living and loving a wife and family are not coexisting goals, CONTRA Tori’s advice above (if you, reader, are unmarried; you might not realize she doesn’t sound like a married person’s attitude at all). MONTHS incommunicado in some Very dangerous places, then back to the ‘job’ at a university (where I could put down roots) where I would spend long hours in research, teaching, writing… I knew many married folks both with Ph.D’s and steady University jobs, as well as grad students who are no longer married. Some still are and happy, but — Just sayin’.

The experience has provided me with endless awesome and melodramatic stories (chased off cliff by lioness, hippo tramplings, hunting giraffe with bow and arrow, carpet vipers falling out of rafters, bar fights with UN peacekeepers, etc.) to entertain my grandchildren; but in the end for me– The woman (still unmet at that point) WHO I SHARED my life with was more important to me than how I satisfied my own desires for adventure, creativity and fun.
It’s a great job if you go all the way for your Ph.D. — but if you try to ‘have it all in life’ you have to walk a harder tightrope than other careers.

26 Mason May 29, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I’m a high school senior, and I’ve been contemplating Archeology for a while now. I really want to go to Miami University (Ohio) with a major in Anthropology and a minor in Jewish Studies.

I can imagine myself sitting in the Negev desert digging up remnants of the great Davidian kingdoms of Ancient Israel…

Archeology is so poetic! I love it!

Great article!

27 Kristina February 9, 2013 at 7:33 pm

I’m so glad i found this article.
I’m also from Minnesota and have been considering a degree in Archaeology for about a year now. I have planned on attending U of Minnesta Twin Cities for my bachelor in Anthropology, but after reading of your experience at Mankato i’m starting to wonder if I have picked the right college? I also have been considering getting a double major in photography. Would that second major help me stand out more in the field?
Thanks so much for the article!

28 Ian March 12, 2013 at 5:37 am

My wife has actually completed the requirements necessary to pursue fieldwork. There are few careers, from what I can tell, as physically and mentally stimulating as what she has already experienced. Would I, as a spouse, be willing to give up her time with me in order to give her personal fulfillment? Absolutely.

29 Wayne May 21, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Thank you for the information. Living the archaeology life could be unique

30 Tex May 23, 2013 at 10:21 am

“Reaching down into the dirt and picking up an arrowhead that hasn’t been held in 800 years or more. It gives an instant connection between you and the person that left it there so long ago.”

That feeling is electric and most definitely my favorite part of the job as well :)

31 Kimberly C. September 3, 2013 at 9:21 pm

I have recently considered choosing Archaeology as a career path and I must say that this article has really put things into perspective. Instead of just romanticizing about it, I now know the actual work and impact of having a career like archaeology in your life. Although I’m now taking a more realistic approach to it, I must say that instead of discouraging me, this article reinforced my desire to become an archaeologist. So incredibly glad I found this article!

32 MacDermott November 2, 2013 at 1:46 pm

I’m also a high school senior considering a career in archaeology. I have a burning love of history and a desire to not only learn from and about the past, but to solve some of the great mysteries of Western Europe. Being of Irish/Scottish decent, I have a particular interest in learning about the ancient Celtic cultures that my ancestors were apart of.
I think that the quote in “Braveheart” that “every man dies, not every man really lives,” is a very relevant saying for those of us who have a passion about history. I understand that I am not married and so I don’t understand all of the complications of being married and having a career in archaeology at the same time. However,(to all of the downers out there) life is only so long, and if you are passionate about something in life the logical thing to do is to take that passion apply it to your career, otherwise you will be an unhappy person for the short period that you are on this earth. I would rather live out my passion and take all of the hardships that come with it then live my life, bored and restricted, with a job that is easy.

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