What Does an Archaeologist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of an archeologist: Conduct excavation, Artifact handling and archival research, Be an active learner, Public speaking, writing, and presentations

The Balance / Lara Antal

Archaeologists use evidence left behind by earlier civilizations to gather information about human history and prehistory. They excavate, recover, and analyze artifacts that might include tools, cave paintings, building ruins, and pottery. Some archaeologists who work in cultural resource management ensure that construction work done on or near archaeological sites complies with historical preservation laws.

Top employers include research organizations, consulting firms, government, museums, and cultural resource management firms. Fewer than 7,600 people worked in this field in 2016.

Archaeologist Duties & Responsibilities

Some typical job duties for this occupation include:

  • Conducting excavation with shovels and other tools
  • Developing and maintaining a cultural resource information base for the field
  • Performing archival research, testing, and evaluation
  • Maintaining archaeological inventories
  • Making presentations to the public, at workshops and other venues
  • Completing field forms, drawing sketch maps, and preparing profile and plan view field drawings
  • Washing, bagging, and labeling artifacts
  • Consulting with the project team about laws and regulations concerning cultural resource issues

This job is all about understanding the development of the human species over centuries. Most of these professionals work for the government or research institutions. Some also work for colleges and universities, particularly after retiring from the stressors of field work.

Archaeologist Salary

The most highly compensated archaeologists work for the federal government.

  • Median Annual Salary: $62,410 ($30.00/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $97,170 ($46.72/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $36,840 ($17.71/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics combines employment data for archaeologists and anthropologists.

Education, Training & Certification

This occupation can require some extensive education.

  • Education: Going to graduate school to earn master's degree or doctorate in archaeology is almost essential. You'll need at least a master's degree for most jobs, but for some—particularly those that involve teaching at a college or university or require advanced technical or leadership skills—it's necessary to earn a doctorate.
  • Training: Can you get a job with a bachelor's degree in archaeology? Yes, but the options are few. You might be able to find a job as a field or laboratory technician or research assistant, but only if you have work experience gained through an internship. Such experience can be very helpful, however, even after you've achieved an advanced degree.

Archaeologist Skills & Competencies

Archaeologists also need specific soft skills and personal qualities. Some are learned, but others are innate.

  • Verbal communication and writing skills: Archaeologists must be able to communicate well, both in writing and orally because they must often present their work clearly and concisely to others.
  • Active listening skills: Strong listening skills will help facilitate your communication with colleagues.
  • Critical thinking skills: You must use reasoning to solve problems and make decisions.
  • Reading comprehension: The ability to understand written material will help you with your research.
  • Perseverance: This quality will serve you well since it will take extended periods of time to complete some projects.
  • Active learning: Your desire to learn and incorporate new findings into your work will help further your research.
  • Physical stamina: You'll be required to bend, kneel, stand, hike, and stand for extended periods of time, often while carrying field and personal gear.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for this profession is poor. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations, at about 4 percent, between 2016 and 2026, partially due to the fact that many of these positions can be reliant on research funding. However, archaeologists will still be needed to monitor and oversee construction projects.

Work Environment

Fieldwork is a regular part of an archaeologist's job. You can expect to spend at least several weeks of each year traveling, and a significant portion of those hours outdoors. Some of an archaeologist's work can't be completed when weather is outright inclement, but heat and sun in some climates can nonetheless affect comfort.

Work Schedule

This is typically a full-time job. It can be confined to regular business hours, but this becomes less likely during times when an archaeologist works in the field. Fieldwork can involve weekends, early mornings, and late evenings.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Those interested in archaeology might also consider these careers:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018