Basics of Archaeology Today

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Basics of Archaeology:

Archaeology is the study of Man's past through his physical and artifactual remains. Archaeology is one of those subjects that fascinate people. Why, they think, would someone spend their days and lives, usually in a field, digging for past civilisations' rubbish? Well, for one, because they love it the thrill of discovering, learning about past lives and societies, and maybe having the chance to travel or to be in the outdoors. As with many jobs, archaeology has its politics, camaraderie, hard graft, analysis, interpretation, and then lots of beer in the end. Being an archaeologist is not just a job, it's a way of life.

We have only discovered a fraction of a percent of what came before us. Archaeology is not just about pyramids, what the Romans did, or Greek statues, it is a global endeavour with every corner of the world involved with its diverse and hidden gems waiting to be uncovered. Entering archaeology does not necessarily mean a past studying history or archaeology, on the contrary, many institutions would rather have a student from a different background in order to bring different perspectives to archaeology. Such courses are open to all no matter age, ethnic background, gender, or experience. All that matters is the determination to learn and work as an archaeologist. Here, below, is a general outline of an archaeology student's journey.

First Year:

In Britain, Archaeology is a subject all of its own, while in the U.S. it comes under the auspices of Anthropology. While it is treated and taught differently, the outcome is the same. A typical course for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or science (BSc) in Britain begins in the first year with a general introduction to archaeology. Subjects could include an introduction to anthropology, classical studies, Egyptology, Roman studies, and learning field methods and techniques. Along with essays and exams, the first year is replete with field trips to learn stratigraphy, excavation, field walking, and experimental archaeology.

Second Year:

The second year becomes more specialised and students can branch out in subjects that interest them. Core courses could include archaeological theory, current issues in archaeology, surveying, geoarchaeology, ceramics, osteology, archaeozoology, research and presentation skills, public archaeology, and heritage studies. More field work is also required and can range as far a field as Thailand or Peru.

Third Year:

This is when the student concentrates on his/her dissertation or a field work presentation. There will also be a few courses in the first terms. In some cases during the three years, students can take courses outside of archaeology, especially languages, to enable them to work in different countries.


For students wishing to continue on in their archaeological education, a Master's degree (MSc/MA) course offers a wide range of options. Students can focus on subjects like forensics, museums, conservation, the environment, materials, cultural heritage, field studies, management, maritime archaeology, and public archaeology. Some have essays, field or laboratory work, with dissertations as final assessments. Depending upon the student's situation and the institution, some courses may be available part time over a two year period instead of one. This enables a student to work, whether in an archaeological capacity or not, to fund their education. A student may undertake a graduate degree for love of the subject, to place themselves above the many undergraduate jobseekers, or as a stepping stone to the PhD.


There are two main types of post-graduates going for research degrees. The MPhil (Master of Philosophy) is initially a two-year course of original work that can then lead to a full PhD, normally a three-year course. Both have major theses to complete, with the PhD also having an oral assessment. On successful completion of the PhD, students can then go on to a job in their field, continue with post-Doctorate research or enter into academia.


Archaeology would not be complete without excavating, which comes in a few varieties. Many digs are rescue digs, where time is at a premium, because a construction company, for example, has come across something of archaeological importance that could be destroyed due to construction work. British companies must adhere to guidelines such as PPG 16 (Planning Policy Guidance 16), which basically states that consideration must be given to the archaeological potential of a site. So in theory, no archaeological site could disappear unknowingly under the bulldozer. Once initial investigations are made, usually via non-destructive methods (e.g. geophysics) then the dig may commence. As the construction company is paying, time is of the essence and an effort is made to excavate and record all that is excavated before construction needs to continue.

The other type of excavation is research excavation where time and resources are available to fully excavate a site. Doing this work are private companies or dig units attached to museums or universities. Private companies and museums usually have a core group of staff with a multitude of contract workers or students. University units would be under a member of staff or a funded field unit. Teaching digs are usually run by universities and are becoming popular all over the world, because students have to pay to be on the dig, so they add much needed funds to university archaeological institutions. Heritage companies also employ people to maintain existing sites.

While excavating can be fun, it is hard physical work, usually on your knees for hours on end or transporting buckets or wheelbarrows of spoil around. Digging will continue throughout most weather conditions, so be prepared, plus facilities may be scarce depending on the location. Besides excavating, there is also field walking to find surface artefacts, plotting, processing and cleaning excavated finds, surveying, and artefact drawing.


Archaeology is not just field work. There is also laboratory and library research to be done usually in post-excavation phase. Samples could be studies under microscope or made into smaller pellets for scanning electron microscopes (SEM) or X-ray analyses, geoarchaeological analyses, or other computer and scientific processes. Lastly, once all the fieldwork, analyses, and interpretation is done with, the write-up will begin, either as a dissertation, thesis or for general publication.

Archaeology will always be a factor in our growing society as the old life is ploughed under the new. We need to make sense of the past to help us understand our present and future. Archaeology is also changing with the times in using computers, new theoretical models, new techniques, employing dynamic people, and becoming an international institution to further our knowledge about the complex subject that is man. So, whether an archaeological professional, amateur/volunteer, student, or just an interested observer, archaeology is ever-present around you. Go explore and discover the hidden world beneath your feet.

More about this author: Ray Burke

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