Archaeology is not a glamorous gig. It’s definitely cool, but it’s also got its ups and downs. If you are studying archaeology and love it, good for you! But here is your reality check.
When I was a working archaeologist in England, I got paid just over £6 an hour, which afforded me a room in a shared house (with 3 other people) and the odd pint every Friday (or so, depending on the quality of your beer). The archaeology was great; actually, it was fabulous. When you are digging within and amongst an old and densely settled civilization, there are bound to be great finds. But, during my first 3 months in England, I went to London every week to hang out with a glamorous accountant friend of mine. And spent all my money. So, that slowly had to come to an end… Later on, I came to be employed by Oxford Archaeology, one of the largest and prestigious (if archaeology can be prestigious) companies to work for in archaeology. I was away from home almost every week (who needs a home, really?) and pretty much every week, someone quit. That meant that every week, for one reason or another, someone came to the realization that archaeology wasn’t for them.
Here in Alberta, we are lucky that archaeology is properly regulated by the Alberta government. This means that I can live and work above the poverty line (that is, after I paid off my student loans that afforded me my graduate degree), I can own a condo and I can settle down. But! There are still plenty of people that have come to realize that archaeology wasn’t for them.
Here are some personal truths for you.
1. Archaeology has different levels of cool. In my opinion, the coolest archaeology is not in Alberta, but that is where you can actually have a life. If you want to experience some great archaeology, go and join a field school or volunteer program in your favourite part of the world. Be willing to pay for the experience. If you want to make money, then archaeology simply may not be for you… but if you’re ok with that delicate balance of enjoying your job and getting paid for it, find a job in Alberta.
2. Archaeology can involve a lot of travelling. You need to be ok with being away from home at a moment’s notice and perhaps not even knowing when you will come back. Competition is fierce, so if you say no to a gig and you don’t have a good excuse, you might not get called again. This is part of paying your dues, which I think every person new to an industry needs to do.
3. You need to like the outdoors, and love to shovel. It should be obvious that fieldwork is spent outside. So you need to be ok with that… AND, do some push-ups because you are going to need some strength. Not all archaeology is brushes and dental picks. A lot of it is shovels and mattocks. So if you want to be competitive and successful, make sure you can actually wield these tools.
4. Being a field archaeologist isn’t the only way to work in archaeology, but by definition, you gotta be willing to do some digging; otherwise, you’re just an armchair archaeologist. If all else fails, read this book!