Ideal for those with an interest in the physical remnants of people of the past, archaeology courses straddle the humanities and social sciences to look at human history through many millions of years of development. To do this, archaeologists study historical sites, structural remains, bones, tools and other artefacts. Though not guaranteed to be as dramatic as the famous on-screen adventures of fictional archaeology professor Indiana Jones, archaeology nonetheless offers exciting opportunities to be at the forefront of new discoveries and theories.
Read on to find out about common archeology degree types, entry requirements, specializations and career options.
Archaeology degrees typically take three or four years to complete, and may be offered as either Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) degrees. The former is likely to have more of a humanities focus, while the BSc is of course more science-orientated, giving you an overview of scientific techniques and making use of the university’s laboratory facilities.
Regardless of whether you choose a BA or BSc, your archaeology degree will combine elements of both arts and sciences. You’ll learn how laboratory examinations of materials found during excavations lead to an increased analytical understanding of the period, place, culture and/or event in question. You’ll also learn how to investigate the social, historical and cultural contexts to your archeological excavations using multi-disciplinary research, drawing on a wide range of other disciplines – the classics, linguistics, geography, art, statistics and more.
You’re likely to be assessed by essay assignments, culminating in a dissertation in your final year. Whether you do a BA or BSc archaeology degree, fieldwork is central to the course and will allow you to develop your practical skills, conduct research and even make your own archeological discoveries. Some universities offer the chance to conduct excavations abroad in countries such as Egypt or Greece. The total duration of fieldwork in your archaeology degree will vary, but is likely to be around four to six weeks.
Archeology degrees also enable you to specialize in particular eras and places of interest by selecting optional modules. You can read more about common specializations in the next tab.
As always with undergraduate degrees, you’ll need a high school diploma or equivalent (for example, A-levels in the UK). Some universities may ask that applicants, particularly for BSc programs, have an A-level or equivalent in a science subject, but most universities will accept students from any study background. Some UK universities also stipulate that home students should have knowledge of a foreign language, as international communication is such a central aspect within the field.
Here are some of the most common archaeology specializations:
As the name suggests, prehistoric archaeology is the study of human life in the time before historical records began. Because of this, prehistoric archaeologists need to work harder to attempt to fill in the blanks of the historical and cultural significance of past civilizations based on the remnants of their monuments and artefacts. This specialization would suit you if you’re interested in the earliest origins of human beings (at points overlapping with scientific studies of evolution). You may learn how to analyze human or animal bones, as well as exploring what landscapes and environments can tell us about our prehistoric past.
Staying in the ancient world, classical archaeology is an ideal specialization for students interested in exploring ancient civilizations such as the Ancient Greeks and Romans. (You may be able to specialize further in one particular civilization.) You’ll increase your understanding of these classical societies by analyzing the art and material culture of the ancient world. This specialization is also available alongside art, ancient history and a range of languages – there may be an opportunity to learn a language such as Latin or Greek.
More commonly found at master’s level, a specialization in medieval archaeology examines the remnants of societies from the end of the classic period to the beginning of early modern history. It can often be studied alongside medieval history, allowing you to examine evidence from sources in both subjects to make interpretations and arguments. Modules in a medieval archaeology specialization include battlefield archaeology, medieval castles and nautical archaeology, as well as specializations in particular medieval societies.
A specialization in archaeology with art history will interest students who want to further their understanding of the contexts in which the art and material culture of past cultures were created. You’ll focus on studying the themes of art and archeology in particular regions and time periods, drawing on a range of archaeological tools and techniques to build up a contextual understanding and interpretation. This option is likely to involve less fieldwork and more classroom-based learning.
Archaeology courses should provide you with a set of specialized skills and knowledge which are desirable in a range of archaeology jobs. These include roles in heritage agencies, museums and local governments, but your skills could also be useful for careers in all kinds of other sectors, including chartered surveying, education, the civil service, computing, marketing, business, finance and more. Read on for some examples of archaeology jobs you may want to consider following your degree.
Starting with the most obvious of archaeology jobs, a career as an archaeologist would enable you to focus your work on a specific area of interest and make exciting archaeological discoveries for a living. To become an archaeologist, you’ll need to demonstrate your sincere interest and commitment to the role by taking completing work experience which goes above and beyond the field-work incorporated in your degree. You may also consider taking a postgraduate degree, which many employers will expect you to have or be working towards. Possible employers include archaeological contractors, local governments, universities, heritage agencies and independent archaeological consultants. This profession is highly competitive, and is often combined with teaching and/or research responsibilities.
Heritage managers conserve, manage and increase access to heritage sites, such as historic buildings, ruins, museums and ancient monuments. Responsibilities may include managing budgets and financial planning, generating income from commercial activities, hiring and training staff, maintaining good customer service and health and safety, marketing the attraction to the public, and liaising with other agencies such as funding bodies and other heritage organizations. Heritage managers will also keep up with the latest developments in their field and may conduct historical research into their site. To become a heritage manager, a postgraduate qualification in heritage management is beneficial and sometimes required by employers, and relevant work experience is essential.
Your skills and knowledge could also be ideal for archaeology jobs in the museum sector. For these roles, you will almost certainly need either relevant work experience in the sector or a postgraduate degree. The main museum-based roles are:
Another archaeology career within the heritage sector, historic buildings inspectors (also known as conservation officers or conservators) promote the long-term preservation, care and enhancement of buildings with historical significance. To do this, they advise on the best methods of preservation, get involved with regeneration projects and work alongside heritage and conservation groups to develop policies and strategies, amongst other tasks. Again, a postgraduate degree or relevant work experience may be an asset for increasing your chances for this role, and you’ll need to show you have knowledge and a keen interest in historical architecture.