Our guide to archaeology

Our guide to archaeology

First published date February 14 2014 Amended date March 12 2015

The dictionary defines archaeology as the ‘study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains.’ In other words, it’s literally hands on history! Over the thousands and thousands of years there have been civilisations, there have been clues as to how they lived left behind, and who wouldn’t want to explore that? Whether it’s excavating in the search of artefacts dating back as far as Ancient Egypt or as relatively recently as the First or Second World War, there are so much out there that still remains to be discovered, and you could find yourself a part of that search if you take one of the many archaeology courses on offer. So if you have a keen interest in history or love the adventures of Indiana Jones, then why not sign up?


Types of archaeologists

As archaeologists scan the entire globe for findings that could be two hundred or two thousand years old, the fields in which you can specialise in are just as vast. Archaeology isn’t just the excavating process; there’s is a lot more to it than the actual digging up of artefacts. While that may be an important factor of archaeology, there are a lot of other people needed to do jobs that make the excavating possible. Sites which are being dug up, much like any regular building site, need an archaeological surveyor to oversee and plan the whole project.

As well as surveyors, archaeological digs need people to actually look after whatever may be discovered. This is where finds specialists and conservators come in. The specialist will be able to interpret and determine what has been found, where it comes from and what it was for and the conservator will then preserve the findings and make sure they are looked after and stored correctly so they are not damaged. After that, when it comes to long term display and storage, perhaps in a museum, a finds curator will be in charge of making sure all artefacts are cared for properly.

These are just a few of the types of jobs you may be involved in, so as you can see archaeology doesn’t mean you will be confined to muddy knees! That is, of course, unless you want to be...


Courses on offer

As mentioned, there are many different routes you can go down in the world of archaeology, and there are numerous courses available that venture down all those paths in some way. Whether you see yourself just learning about the history of the world through artefacts or maybe want to eventually go on and study a degree, you will find a course that caters to your needs. Most courses have no real entry requirements; if you are going for a diploma then you may need GCSEs in numeracy and literacy as a minimum.

At one end of the spectrum, you can take one off courses that are just introductions into the world of archaeology. These will most likely be evening or weekend based and will only cover the very basics at first. But from there, you may find yourself immersed and may want to further your knowledge with more in-depth, advanced courses. For example, there are still introductory courses in essence, but ones which will delve deeper in the world of archaeology over a longer period of time allowing you to gain more knowledge over time. These kinds of courses will be more hands on and will show you the basics in how to handle newfound objects, conserve them and study them also. They may also look briefly at the process before any excavating activities take place like site surveying and studying aerial photography, perhaps in search of a potential dig. This level of courses doesn’t offer any kind of professional qualification upon completion though.

The more advanced courses on offer may award a diploma at the end of your studies which is likely to take around a year or so, and some are also access courses so you can have the option to go on to higher education and study at university.


Career opportunities and course benefits

There are many different careers in archaeology, ranging from the actual excavating process, to museum curator to teaching and lecturing. With a keen interest in the history of past civilisations as well your possible future prospects, you can go a long way.

If you really are looking for a newfound career in archaeology, whether you’re fresh out of college or in your mid 30s looking for a change, formal qualifications are a must in this industry. However, it is not uncommon for people to turn to archaeology later on in their lives so it’s never too late. If you have experience or qualifications in fields like history or anthropology or the sciences, then that will be advantageous to you in your search for a career.

If it’s not a change of career you’re after, and more just an interesting education, then you’ll be bound to find a course that satisfies your needs. Your eyes will be opened to the fascinating world of archaeology and who knows where that may lead you. There are many amateur archaeologists out there who merely practise their passion as a hobby, either alone or with fellow enthusiasts. A fun course in archaeology can help further your knowledge to fuel your newfound recreation!


Some famous archaeological discoveries

-          Tutankhamun – Perhaps the most recognised feat in archaeological history was the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Found by Howard Carter in 1922, the excavation of the 3,000 year old tomb made world news and was one of – if not the – world’s most fascinating findings.


-          Dead Sea Scrolls – The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered over 1946 and 1947 and were continuously excavated until the mid 1950s. Over 1,000 manuscripts found in what is now the West Bank proved hugely significant as they are the earliest surviving biblical writings to be discovered so far dated around seven centuries after the death of Christ.


-          King Richard III – The location of Richard III’s remains were a matter of debate for the centuries following his death in 1485, but following the excavation of a car park in Leicester (the former site of the Greyfriars church where Richard was buried) in September 2012, the skeleton of the former King was discovered some 500 years plus since he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Hill.


-          Staffordshire hoard - The largest ever excavation of Anglo-Saxon artefacts was only just discovered as recently as 2009. The hoard, found in a field in Staffordshire, excavated over three thousand artefacts dating back to the kingdom of Mercia from the seventh and eighth centuries AD. The items, mostly made from gold and silver, varied from sword decoration to crosses and the whole collection was bought by the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery for a whopping £3.285m.


Digging up some archaeology facts!

-          Did you know that general archaeologists don’t look for dinosaur or animal fossils? That line of work is for palaeontologists who specialise in the excavation of prehistoric life.


-          Archaeologists only dig square holes, this is to ensure they know exactly where something has been found and keeps things very precise and accurate.


-          Archaeology is so important because there are no written records for 99% of human history.

-          Archaeologists have to be careful when deciphering findings like scriptures as they tend to be biased. This is because literature was limited to the rich and powerful and didn’t give much attention to the general masses.


Some famous archaeologists

-          Agatha Christie - The famous novelist was also keen in the field of archaeology and would spend a lot of time on excavations with her archaeologist husband, Sir Max Mallowan. Christie famously said once, ‘An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.’ Much of her works are heavily influenced by her archaeological experiences.



-          Thomas Jefferson - One of the USA’s founding fathers and the Third President of the United States actually dabbled in archaeology. Dabbled perhaps isn’t the right word to justify his findings however as in the late 1700s, Jefferson discovered what would become known as ‘Jefferson’s Mound’. This was an Indian burial mound in which he says he found the human remains of around 1,000 men, women and children.


-          Flinders Petrie – Full name, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, was an English Egyptologist and archaeological pioneer. Petrie’s most famous discovery was the ‘Merneptah Stele’ in 1896. Dated back to around 1208 BC, the granite slate is an inscription by King Merneptah mainly describing his victory over Libya and their allies. More significantly however, one line speaks of ‘Israel’ and is said to be first mention in history which is why many consider it Petrie’s most famous find. He also tutored Howard Carter, the discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun.


-          Gertrude Bell – A jack of all trades, Bell, as well as being a keen archaeologist, was a writer, traveller, political officer and even a spy! Bell was a keen figure in the formation of modern day Iraq from Mesopotamia and helped launch the what is now know as The National Museum of Iraq,  a museum containing artefacts from Mesopotamian civilisation.

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