A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
It might not be as glamorous as you think.
Many years ago, a well-known and very senior colleague, legendary for his fieldwork, looked across the dinner table at me appraisingly. "Make the most of it," he said. "What?" I asked. "Your time as an archaeologist," he replied. "We're in the golden years. Enjoy, for it's going to be very different in a generation or so." Golden years they indeed have been! Just think of the magnificent discoveries of the past two decades: new chapters of human evolution such as the 4.5-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus fossils from Ethiopia, the terra-cotta regiments of Emperor Shihuangdi, and the Moche Lords of Sipán--just to mention a few. Then there was the revolution in scientific methods: GIS, isotopic analysis, and advances in DNA research. Now archaeologists are searching for sites in deep water, using computer models to reconstruct ancient architecture, and applying archaeological data to modern questions of agricultural land use.
My elderly colleague called it right. My contemporaries and I worked through the years when archaeology became a large global enterprise. Now times are changing and changing fast. Archaeology is in a crisis that threatens its very existence. The world's archive of archaeological sites is shrinking rapidly both on land and underwater. Support for academic archaeology is at best level, rather than increasing. One thing is certain: your career will be very different from mine.
It won't be easy to thrive in this changing archaeological world. Accept the fact that you'll probably change jobs much more frequently than my generation. Assume that you must be versatile, capable of teaching archaeology to general audiences, of speaking to diverse groups with enthusiasm and expertise. Embrace the worlds of conservation, CRM, and heritage, and build your career on their ethical values.
Please, don't be content to become a technician and quietly vegetate. What archaeology needs more than anything else is team players who are leaders, people with multidisciplinary expertise, a sense of humor, and the ability to be versatile. You may never have a job with a pension or security of employment, which adds new challenges to the already difficult path that lies ahead, but you should have a fascinating life, full of rich challenges.
Finally, the most important thing is that you find happiness and contentment in your life. You may find out fairly soon that archaeology is not for you, that the atmosphere of graduate school is stultifying. Get out and pursue the other career options mentioned earlier. I know far too many people in archaeology in their 40s who are stuck in dull grooves, deeply unhappy, and unable to bail out. If you are the slightest bit doubtful about becoming an archaeologist, do something else for a while, then come back to graduate school. I've seen a steady stream of such students, several of them from the insurance business, who have retired early, then become enthusiastic archaeologists in their 50s and 60s. Put your happiness before anything else.
Archaeology is what you make it, and the archaeology of the future will not be what my generation made it. Your archaeology will be different. I think it's going to be far more challenging (and interesting) than the more narrow archaeology of yesteryear. How do we carry out research in an era of diminishing sites? Can we develop methods to "excavate" sites without disturbing subsurface strata? Can we mainstream conservation into archaeological research? How do we respond to the seemingly insatiable demand for cultural tourism? The possibilities are endless for anyone prepared to step outside the narrow universe of academia.
Brian Fagan is an Emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting and the Discovery of the New World.