Archeologist  What They Do

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Archaeologists Career Video

Insider Info

dotArcheologists are the detectives of human history. They use scientific methods to study artifacts -- human-made objects like pottery, houses and carvings. Using clues from artifacts, and the sites that hold the artifacts, they try to recreate and interpret human cultures of the past.

dotSince most of human history hasn't been written down, archeologists have pieced together much of our knowledge of the past.

"Archeologists provide evidence on how human culture began, how we developed unique ways of adapting to our surroundings, and how we moved from relatively simple to complex societies," says Texas archeologist David Carlson.

dotThere are two main branches of archeology: prehistoric and historical. Prehistoric archeology deals with societies that existed before written history. Old World archeologists are concerned with periods like the Paleolithic Age, which was about 750,000 years ago.

Historical archeology begins with the written history of the region the archeologist investigates.

dotArcheologists do fieldwork to gather artifacts. They travel to a particular setting and excavate or search for artifacts in an area.

Artifacts from past cultures are often buried beneath layers of dirt and rock. When excavating a site, archeologists carefully move the earth looking for these clues and what they indicate about the culture.

"It's like being given a 3,000-piece puzzle with 2,689 bits missing, and putting the rest together so that it makes sense and adds to everyone else's puzzles," says archeologist Carole Gillis.

dotAlthough it often takes archeologists to remote places in different countries, fieldwork isn't as glamorous as it seems in the movies.

"It's definitely not an Indiana Jones thing," says Annabel Ford, an archeologist with the University of California. "It's often hot, tiresome and boring. The findings are much more often pollen grains and pottery than beautiful artifacts."

dotWhen doing fieldwork, archeologists often travel to a remote location and set up camp. They're responsible for preparing the site by surveying it and then mapping it out. They then begin to excavate, or dig.

They slowly remove soil until they come across artifacts. Then they have to record the exact position of their findings. When they have finished the excavation, archeologists write up reports of their work.

dotFieldwork is physically demanding. It can require long periods of hiking, bending over, lifting heavy equipment and standing in the hot sun. Dangers of the wilderness, like wild animals and poisonous snakes and insects, come with the territory.

In spite of the more tedious aspects of fieldwork, most archeologists say excavation is their favorite part of the job.

dotEvery archeologist has a favorite discovery. "Mine was an 8,500-year-old dog burial at Koster. That showed that kindness and concern for a family pet can occur in all kinds of societies -- not just civilized ones," says Carlson.

dotWhile fieldwork is what most people associate archeologists with, 90 percent of an archeologist's time is spent elsewhere. Many are professors at universities. They spend their time teaching students, applying for grants to fund their fieldwork, documenting the findings of a dig, researching the work of other scholars and writing academic articles.

The contrast between fieldwork and academic settings means an archeologist's schedule and working conditions vary a great deal. Sometimes it's a 4 a.m. start at a plot in the hot sun of remote Southeast Asia until sundown. Other times it's a 9-to-5 day in front of a computer or in a classroom.

Just the Facts

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At a Glance

Use scientific methods to study artifacts

  • Most archeologists say excavation is their favorite part of the job
  • Many are professors at universities
  • You'll likely need a PhD