True Story: I’m an Archaeologist

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. Here, Allison Whitmore tells us about her job as an Archaeologist. Stop stealing my dream life, Alli!What were you like as a kid? Have you always been interested in archaeology?
I was definitely a curious kid, which is one of the most important traits of an archaeologist, and I’ve always been fascinated by the past. I remember a childhood game of gathering sticks and rocks and making up stories about how those “artifacts” were once used, but archaeology as a career choice didn’t occur to me until I was a senior in high school. I saw it listed on a poster of careers in my guidance councilor’s office, and it was like a revelation. It’s been over a decade since then, and I’ve never looked back.How did people in your life react when you told them that you wanted to be an archaeologist?
I am really lucky that my parents have never questioned my career. They told me that I could do whatever I wanted, and they truly meant it. They are always interested in what I’m working on, even if it’s something that most non-archaeologists would find super boring! Most people think that my job is really cool – strangers often tell me that they dreamt about being archaeologists as kids.

Can you tell us about the schooling you went through? Did you get an advanced degree? What sorts of core subjects are important to an archeology degree?
I’m actually still in school! I’m about to enter my sixth year in a seven year PhD program in archaeology. As an undergraduate, I majored in Latin and Classical Civilizations (Greek and Roman culture). There are two major tracks that you can take in the field. Those of us who study the Romans and the Greeks tend to work out of Classics (Greek and Roman) university departments. Archaeologists in most other fields tend to work out of anthropology departments.

Did you start working in archeology straight out of school? Was it difficult to get a job?

Pursuing a career in academic archaeology requires quite a bit of school – typically more than ten years of higher education. The ultimate goal for most academic archaeologists is to find a tenure track job as a professor at a university, and that can be difficult, especially with the state of the economy. Another option is to work as a contract archaeologist. Contract archaeologists perform legally-mandated excavations before construction starts on buildings, roads, oil pipelines, etc. There are far more jobs in contract archaeology than in academic archaeology, and you can do it with only a bachelors degree. Contract archaeologists usually work in the US and Canada, although their firms might occasionally send them elsewhere (I have a friend who contracted in Iraq, for example).

What does an average day in the life of a Roman Archaeologist look like?
It depends on the time of year. During the school year, I spend most of my time at my university, researching, writing my dissertation, and teaching. During the summer, I travel to Italy and Greece to conduct field research.

My major project is at Pompeii, Italy, a city buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD. There, I live in an apartment building with the 30+ other members of my team. We work from 8-5, with an hour break for lunch (which I usually eat while sitting on top of the ancient city wall to catch a breeze!). Work in the field involves moving a lot of dirt. People are always surprised at how physical excavation is; archaeologists have to be strong and able to handle heavy activity in difficult conditions (it’s HOT at Pompeii in July!). Because archaeology is destructive by it’s nature – what we dig can never be re-dug – we are extremely careful to document everything that we do with extensive notes, drawings, and photographs.

I’m a trench supervisor, which means that I oversee a group of excavators working in one area of the site. Our team consists of an overall site director, three supervisors, around twenty excavators, a handful of archivists in charge of our records, a conservator who keeps everything that we find safe and stable, and a group of specialists who work with different types of finds – pottery, lamps, coins, bones, and (as weird as it sounds) waste from ancient toilets. In the evenings, we catch up on paperwork or relax, often with cheap wine and trashy TV series!

Are there lots of different areas of expertise in archeology? Could you use your skill set and become an archaeologist in South America? or Egypt?
There are so many different areas of expertise – certain regions of the world, certain cultures, certain types of finds, certain types of finds specific to certain regions or cultures…the field could be divided nearly to infinity. For most archaeologists, its hard to jump from one speciality to another. The American higher education system doesn’t work that way – writing a dissertation is by its nature a task that creates specialists, and universities are interested in hiring specialists.

I have worked at non-Roman sites in Eastern Europe, Cyprus, and America, but only as an excavator; I wouldn’t be comfortable interpreting those sites at a higher level.

What are the biggest rewards that come with your job? The biggest challenges? The biggest reward is definitely the fact that I get to spend my entire day thinking about something that I find absolutely fascinating. I’m never bored with my job, and I know that makes me lucky. Getting paid to travel to amazing locations isn’t too shabby, either!

The biggest challenge is probably living apart from my husband for a big chunk of every year. He stays home to work and take care of our pets while I’m away for my field seasons, and I miss him like crazy while I’m gone. We spend my birthday and our anniversary apart every year, which can get depressing!

Additionally, the job situation is a challenge right now. With the current economy, American universities are cutting back on faculty positions. Also, older faculty members have lost their retirement savings, making it impossible for them to retire and free up their positions. There are many excellent archaeologists on the job market who simply aren’t finding permanent jobs. Those of us who are finishing our dissertations right now have to work hard to set ourselves apart in such a competitive environment.

What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in becoming an archaeologist?
Do it! It can be a viable career, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You should be aware, however, that there is very little Indiana Jones style adventure in archaeology. Archaeologists do travel to amazing places, but in the end, what we are looking for is information, not treasure. Often, a small piece of broken pottery holds more value for interpreting the site than does a beautiful gold ring. Archaeologists need a good natural ability for visual memory, and minds that are well balanced between analytical ability and creativity. You should be just as happy working in a library surrounded by books as you are working outside surrounded by dirt. Most importantly, you should have an insatiable curiosity and a desire to understand life in the past. If you have that, everything else will fall into place.

If you are interested in giving excavation a try, check out the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin (AFOB), published online by the Archaeological Institute of America. Listed in it are hundreds of volunteer and field school opportunities all over the world.

Thanks so much for sharing, Allison! Did any of you want to be an archaeologist when you were growing up? Any questions for Allison?

16 Comments

Heidi Rose

I was visiting with my sister Katie (23) the other day at the elementary school where she just started teaching music. She said even though she usually ends the day tired and with a worn voice, she always looks forward to going back. She said she wishes everyone could find a job that makes them feel like that.

I really liked hearing how Allison found one. And I hope I can find one.

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MJ

Sixth year, of a SEVEN year program! I don't know how you keep yourself sane! Well I guess it's worth it when it's what you love!

I love that Allison is so passionate about what she is doing, I hope everyone can find her 'nitch' like her!

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Zia Madeira

Fantastic interview! Inspiring, for sure. I'm trying to figure out how to pursue archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and ethnobotany…and someday live off of it. Hmmm…

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Jennifer@womanvfood

Cool interview! I minored in Archaeology as an undergrad and majored in Classics! I couldn't face the idea of being in school for so long though đŸ™‚ Though now reading this I'm kind of regretting it!!!!

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Molly

Archaeology as a career sounds amazing! I can imagine the thrill of finding something that was made and loved so long ago.

And I love how Allison mentions her supportive parents. I've always found it's much easier to go after my dreams with the clear support of my family!

http://www.onekindwordproject.org/

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Ginger Jane

Oh oh! I want to be an Archaeologist even more after reading this! Although I'd much rather be digging in exotic locales than NZ – it seems as though most of the work done here is midden excavation *eye cross*, and I just don't know how long I could be enthusiastic about pipi shells.

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Andrea

Hey, cool! I'm also an archaeologist and worked in Pompeii as an undergrad before I did my MA at the Institute of Archaeology in London.

I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was five (yes, precocious, I know) and at the age of 32 after years of working in consulting archaeology, I decided it's not for me. It gets depressing when 100% of the work is contracted by clients who deeply resent that ancient people lived on the land they now want to turn into another big box store or subdivision.

I'm currently working in Bhutan as a volunteer while I decide how to proceed.

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Alice Wolff

I just want to thank you. I've wanted to be an archaeological anthropologist since I was ten, and I'm applying to colleges this year at 17. My biggest struggle is convincing my dad that this is a legitimate career, and that there are field opportunities as well as other options. Reading this was so encouraging, because the qualities you described archaeologists needing basically describe me. I would love you have your job.

I have some questions:
Does where you go for undergrad/grad school hugely affect what sorts of jobs you can get?
Have you ever heard of volunteer opportunities being available for high school students? (Obviously not helping with actual digs, but anything archaeology-related.)
Are there any field positions available for archaeological anthropologists, or is that not something that happens?

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j.lowe

Great interview! I majored in Anthropology at Cal and took a couple of AWESOME archaeology classes. It's such a fascinating field. đŸ™‚ I sort of wish I'd pursued it a bit further, even though I was already an anthro major.

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Jenni

Yay! My brother and his grilfreind are both archaeologists (she specialises in ancient use of bees, he loves bronze age stuff), good to see something about what it's really like to be in such an interesting field đŸ™‚

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Alli (One Pearl Button)

I'm glad everyone enjoyed the interview! Thank you, Sarah, for inviting me.

Alice asked:
Q: Does where you go for undergrad/grad school hugely affect what sorts of jobs you can get?
A: As long as you do well and make sure you get the background skills that you need for the type of archaeology you want to do, where you go to undergrad isn't hugely important. I went to a small liberal arts school that didn't even have an archaeology department. Graduate school is more important, because you want to make sure that the program you choose has professors who are active in the field and will be able to provide you with opportunities you are interested in. In the end, what you do in school is more important than the name on your degree, though!

Q: Have you ever heard of volunteer opportunities being available for high school students? (Obviously not helping with actual digs, but anything archaeology-related.)
A: Yes! Check out the AFOB (mentioned at the end of the interview). I got my start excavating in high school.

Q: Are there any field positions available for archaeological anthropologists, or is that not something that happens?
A: Yes, many! Most archaeologists are also anthropologists. My project employs many anthropologists in the field.

If anyone has other questions, you are always welcome to email me – alli [at] onepearlbutton [dot] com, or stop by my blog, http://www.onepearlbutton.com. Thanks again for reading and sharing your great comments!

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besswess

I was fortunate enough to study under Dr. James Franklin during undergrad. His work with Pompeii is fascinating. I couldn't get enough. At 16, I decided I wanted to study Classical Art and Archeology. Of course, I became obsessed with all Italian art and then Anthropology. Before I ended up with four majors, I graduated. Sometimes, I think I should have pursued a masters in Museum Studies, but at the moment, I am content with my current occupation.
I loved this post. Congrats on pursuing your passion.

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besswess

I was fortunate enough to study under Dr. James Franklin during undergrad. His work with Pompeii is fascinating. I couldn't get enough. At 16, I decided I wanted to study Classical Art and Archeology. Of course, I became obsessed with all Italian art and then Anthropology. Before I ended up with four majors, I graduated. Sometimes, I think I should have pursued a masters in Museum Studies, but at the moment, I am content with my current occupation.
I loved this post. Congrats on pursuing your passion.

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Anonymous

I'm in year 11 and would like to become an archeologist. I love history; and especially Mesoamerican archeology and ancient civilizations.I have never been to an archeological site, as living in Australia there are not any huge excavations someone my age can attend and must admit I have limited knowledge in this field. Unlike others, my attraction to archeology is relatively new, about a year or so. Before such time I don't think I even recognize this as an actual career pathway. I have visited uni's and belief this is what I want to do. But others around me think it would be a waste, and there is no money, nor future prospects in archeology; i get good grades and they do not want to see me put them to waste. I am set on being an archeologist, but is it really such a bad career choice like everyone says.

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