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Being an Archaeologist: Chuck Spencer | AMNH

Where should archaeologists draw the line when deciding how much of an important site to excavate, if they are not to hinder future investigations? If the field is scientifically healthy, says Dr Lipe, archaeologists will ask new questions in future and have better methods. This is a logical outgrowth of the new archaeology movement of the s, and stresses the careful, well justified and frugal use of archaeological resources, in contrast to the exhaustive excavation of important sites.

Most archaeologists, says Dr Lipe, have had the experience of trying to discover something new about a site that was completely excavated—only to find that the question they wanted to ask had not occurred to the original archaeologists. The intellectual health of the field, he says, depends on being able to address new questions or readdress old ones. This approach has been bolstered by the advent of non-destructive geophysical surveying techniques—such as ground-penetrating radar—that enable archaeologists to identify and target small areas of interest.


Progress in analytical techniques also means that archaeologists can learn a great deal from small amounts of material, provided it is carefully chosen. The result is a move away from the complete excavation of sites towards a more selective, sampling approach. It is deeply ironic that it has taken so long for archaeologists, investigators of the relics of the past, to recognise that archaeological standards, too, are products of their time.

Dr Lynott says these are changing almost from year to year. Changing values mean that every generation of archaeologists inevitably regards its predecessors as crude and insensitive. Future archaeologists may be less critical of Belzoni. Dr Ryan believes Belzoni has been unfairly vilified. He points out that Belzoni went to the trouble of making detailed measurements, drawings and maps of the tombs he found, which was more than most of his contemporaries did. In a period when there were no archaeological standards whatsoever, Dr Ryan argues, Belzoni was not merely a man of his time, he was far ahead of it.

Today, archaeology is in the midst of a second metamorphosis. Having transformed itself internally—into a science—it is now being reshaped by external social, cultural and political forces.

But it is still a work in progress. Dr Vitelli, meanwhile, insists that her students regard the current debate as a chance to reinvent archaeology. For example, the investigation of first-world-war battlefields which have yet to receive much attention from professional archaeologists offers a chance to develop new approaches in which the interests of all parties are taken into account. Such battlefields are unique, notes Dr Saunders, because they provide an opportunity to perform archaeological investigations within the context of an abundance of historical documents—personal letters, diaries, maps, photographs and military records.

Double standards abound, however. Dr Saunders' suggestion in that soldiers' remains and artefacts on first-world-war battlefields should be treated in the same way as those of Australian Aborigines or Native Americans was, he says, initially greeted with bewilderment. But things are starting to change. Already, there are signs of compromises between professional archaeologists, and amateur investigators and relic collectors. Today, amateurs acknowledge the need to seek respectable backing.

One amateur group, known as The Diggers, began investigating battlefields near Ypres in Its members do not claim to be professionals, but the group operates under a licence from Belgium's institute of national archaeology, works with a local museum, and deals with human remains in conjunction with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Widespread public enthusiasm for all things archaeological—another relatively recent development—also gives archaeologists cause for optimism about the future. To illustrate how much things have changed during the course of her career, Dr Vitelli gives the example of the Franchthi Cave in southern Greece, a site with deposits spanning the period from 30, BC to 3, BC.

Dr Vitelli worked at the site during the s and, 30 years later, having become involved in archaeological ethics, she returned to the local village of Koilada and offered to give a talk about what had been found. The mayor approved and Dr Vitelli ended up speaking to a packed house in the village school. The mayor realised they weren't ready for it 30 years ago. And neither were we. And now we all are. Join them.

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Subscribe to The Economist today. Media Audio edition Economist Films Podcasts. New to The Economist? Sign up now Activate your digital subscription Manage your subscription Renew your subscription. Topics up icon. Blogs up icon. Current edition. Audio edition. Economist Films. The Economist apps. More up icon. And there are some hazards specific to digs, such as blisters, injury from tools or large rocks, or even falling into one of the deep holes created on the site. Especially for most archaeologists who live in the United States and Canada and also much of Europe and Australia the usual position is as a professor in a university.

That means that digging happens during the summer break, and the rest of the year is devoted to teaching and research. Depending on the specialty, archaeologists can work in one of several university departments:. The availability of teaching positions in colleges and universities varies from year to year, but in general it is tough to land a job; there are always more people applying than there are positions. In a given year, there are usually somewhere between five to ten positions across the United States and Canada, which means that competition is quite fierce.

Starting salaries for assistant professors, which is the beginning rank, vary. At some schools on the east and west coasts, where the costs of living are higher, starting salaries may be a little higher. In addition, some schools offer faculty reduced or free tuition for their children if they attend that same or an affiliated school.

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It takes a long time to learn all the things necessary to become an archaeologist. There are two kinds of learning: from books, and from experience on an excavation. The book learning comes from college, followed by graduate school, which is necessary: in order to teach in a university you must have the degree of Doctor of Philosophy PhD.

Earning a PhD takes from seven to nine years after college. Graduate school has three main parts: three to four years of courses, a year of studying for and then taking exams, and finally, writing a dissertation, which is really a kind of book; this usually take another three to four years. The summers are for getting excavation experience. Lots of digs are happy to have student volunteers though some charge money for room and board, and sometimes tuition. If you end up going on to graduate school, you will already have experience, which will help you advance faster. There are also all sorts of extra skills that are useful on a dig and for archaeological research.

These include technical drawing of objects, photography, mapping and surveying, and various computer applications. If you learn how to do one or more of these, you can make yourself even more useful on an excavation — and increase your chances of getting a job when you graduate. I love all aspects of what I do, including the parts that I have no choice about like getting up very early, and long airplane rides.

Excavations are great, because I am outside, working with other people, and we are discovering new things together, which is very exciting and interesting.

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Research is great, because I am curious and like to learn all sorts of stuff, so I enjoy being in the library, trying to figure out things and write it down in a way that makes sense to others. I suppose there is some stress involved in my job, in that I always have more things to do than time to do them in, so I am usually behind in something. But I am philosophical about this: most people in my position have the same problem, and we are all only human.

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Some people get upset by these things. Probably the biggest drawback to this kind of job is that it can take over your life.

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But I have known archaeologists who never married or had children, and who truly gave themselves over to their career — and they were very happy. Archaeology, for most of us, is a passion, maybe even a kind of obsession, one we are happy to give most of our time to.