“When I grow up, I’m going to be an archaeologist.” That’s what I said when I was 4-years-old. “Or, an astronaut.” My mother replied; “That’s fine, son. You can be whatever you want to be.”
When I was just entering Junior High, I remember telling my literature teacher I wanted to be either an archaeologist or an astronaut when I grew up. Half-jokingly, he said I should “shoot for the stars.”
When I was just about to graduate from high school, I was discussing the results of my aptitude tests with my school’s guidance counselor. She was describing some of the optimal career paths that would utilize my best skills: architect, politics, bus driver— all fine jobs, but I already knew what I was going to do.
I stopped her short “I’m going to be either an astronaut or an archaeologist,” I told her. I’d already taken and scored high on the ASVAB and was planning on going to flight school with the Navy. Archaeology was my backup career. She chuckled. “Those aren’t real careers,” she said. “Nobody plans on doing archaeology or being an astronaut. They just kinda slip into those jobs.” She could read the disappointed look on my face and tried to cheer me up. With a broad smile, she said, “Maybe you should consider a career more suited to your skill set? Architecture is an excellent field that would probably suit you well. And, it pays pretty good money.”
Her attempts to placate me didn’t work. When I got home, I told my mom what the councilor told me at school. My mother looked me in the eye and said, “Baby, don’t pay her no mind. If you wanna be an astronaut, you go right ahead and be an astronaut. And, if you want to be an archaeologist, I’m fine with that too.”
Just before I signed the Navy’s enlistment papers I found out that I’m an inch-and-a-half too tall to be an astronaut. So, I went to college to become an archaeologist. That was almost 20 years ago.
You’re going to need grit if you want to become an archaeologist
Archaeology isn’t a career path for the faint of heart. It is an extremely rare job. According to the United States Department of Labor, in 2012, 0.000023% of Americans (just 7,200 persons) were anthropologists or archaeologists. That means less than two hundred thousandths of a percent of all Americans are archaeologists! Just for comparison, there are more professional musicians/singers (167,400 individuals), actors (79,800), dancers/choreographers (25,800) or professional athletes (14,900) than there are archaeologists.
Despite our small numbers, archaeologists in the United States do some pretty incredible things. Most archaeologist work as environmental consultants, making sure construction projects don’t destroy cultural resources like archaeology sites and historic buildings. Consulting archaeologists look for archaeology sites, assess historic buildings, write reports, and consult with government agencies and businesses. A small number of archaeologists work as university professors, researchers, for non-profit organizations, and in museums. Archaeologists in these jobs have a smaller fieldwork component, but spend a greater portion of their time interacting with the general public and students.
It’s not quite like the movies, but, no matter where you work, archaeology can be grueling. Fieldwork can be physically demanding and dangerous. We work in remote places, dangerous neighborhoods or countries, and treacherous environments. More than half of our job involves either researching (reading, giving presentations, and collecting and interpreting data) or writing (reports, articles, book chapters, grant applications, ect.). Needless to say, you will need to be intelligent, hone your writing skills, pay attention to detail, have great stamina, and be highly motivated in order to forge a fruitful career in archaeology.
While the job can be tough, you will be greatly rewarded if you are tenacious enough to act on your dream of being an archaeologist. History is made based on archaeological discoveries. The way people feel about themselves, their country, and their ancestors is partially based on the information collected by archaeologists. As an archaeologist, you will have a chance to see things that have been lost for centuries. Archaeologists are adventurers. In my career I’ve helped discover archaic Native American houses, 4,000-year-old arrowheads buried beneath 18 feet of sediment, bottles of poison discarded by millworkers more than 100 years ago, chain links that bound African American slaves, and George Washington’s dad’s wig curlers. I’ve gotten to work in rocky deserts, marshy tideflats, temperate rainforests, semi-tropical jungles, and on the slopes of some of America’s tallest mountains.
The best part of being an archaeologist is the connections you make with the communities in which you work. People love archaeologists because we help explain the mysteries of what it means to be a human being. Our discoveries provide a link between the past and present. We also collect information that can guide the future of humanity. It may be tough being an archaeologist, but the job is rewarding.
Attaining a career in archaeology is a lot like becoming a professional athlete
Professional athletes are lionized in American society. They were among my role models when I was growing up and I continue to be impressed by their skill and ability. While there are thousands of aspiring professional athletes out there, those that have made it to the pros are definitely blessed. They’re also dedicated and probably didn’t listen to all the folks that told them they’d never make it.
I’m not a professional athlete, but the drive, determination, and dogged pursuit of goals is characteristic to all professional athletes. It’s not only “God given” talent that makes the difference between a professional athlete and an amateur. The pros are the best because they’ve given 100% effort toward their goal, every day of their lives until they made it. This is very similar to the way most archaeologists ended up attaining their dream job. We eat, drink, sleep, and breathe archaeology— constantly honing our craft and learning more about our field. There is a big difference between the people I meet that tell me they always wanted to be an archaeologist and the select few that actually are archaeologists. It’s the same difference between a professional athlete and an amateur.
You can become an archaeologist if you really want to. There are thousands of us in the world and there will be thousands more in the future. Archaeology always needs more dedicated practitioners because there is no end to what we don’t know about our past. There is no end to exploration and the expansion of knowledge. If you want to become an archaeologist, do not be dissuaded. I believe everyone that really wants to become an archaeologist will achieve that dream.
Written by: Bill White
Bill White is a husband, father, author, and PhD Archaeology student at the University of Arizona. He has been getting paid to do archaeology since 2004. Currently, he is the Research Publications Director of Succinct Research and blogs at the Succinct Research Blog.