A male archaeologist making notes at excavation

Touching History: How to Become an Archaeologist


The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) defines archaeology as the use of material remains to study ancient or recent human history. A student taking courses in the field might analyze physical remains of a long-dead civilization to ascertain who they were, what they did, and how their society functioned. Students might find archaeology both an entertaining and informative area of study.

While popular culture romanticizes archaeologists, in real life, much of their work is done within the confines of a lab, analyzing data and artifacts collected from the field, explains a U.S. News & World Report. When conducting fieldwork, archaeologists spend a fair share of time at site excavations with visits to exotic locales. Students involved in this field of study can potentially travel and gain access to a vast array of cultural resources.

What Does an Archaeologist Do?

Archaeologists are a bit like detectives of history. Using clues ascertained from artifacts or writings, they piece together a civilization or society. Sometimes, this work requires a lot of digging, both physically and metaphorically. A student interested in how to become an archaeologist typically limits his or her study to certain regions. Knowing the local area and its recent and ancient past can support greater success in the field.

Necessary Skills and Competencies 

Archaeology is a demanding field, and students embarking on this journey must have a variety of tools to do the work. The Houston Chronicle notes these skills:

  • Ancient and Modern Language Proficiency. Language and culture define different civilizations. To fully grasp a society, an archaeologist should possess at least three years of study at a university level in the language or languages relevant to their chosen region of study. Additionally, students should familiarize themselves with the modern language of the region, since it has practical applications in the field. If written texts of the society exist, learning the language will help to decipher details that may not be obvious from artifacts.
  • Existing Degrees: University students wanting to become an archaeologist should have an existing degree such as one in art, history or languages that provides a platform for expansion into an archaeological degree. Science-based degrees also can precede archaeology, bringing innovation and development to the field. Students with degrees in physics, chemistry, or geology, for example, can easily adapt their competencies to the realm of archaeological research.
  • Practical Knowledge and Experience: Students who want to become an archaeologist should possess a basic background on how to function in the field through volunteer work, especially in on-site digs. By taking part in volunteer programs and internships, students can learn important techniques for ready application when starting the practical part of a degree program.
  • Effective and Appropriate Communication. Archaeologists should have the skills to switch between jargon in the field and common speech to communicate effectively since part of their responsibility is educating the public on their findings. To this end, a successful archaeologist must communicate efficiently, whether it's writing a paper in a journal to peers or delivering a public lecture.
  • An Understanding of Technology: While archaeology deals mostly with the past, using modern technology is necessary to collect and analyze data to generate meaningful results. Technology such as geographic information systems (GIS) and computer-aided design (CAD) helps to turn the intangible results of a study into something anyone can appreciate. CAD allows for the creation of models that may be printed using sophisticated 3D printing techniques. CAD also offers a method for interacting with incomplete data to better fill inferences. Additionally, applications such as ArcGIS (which allows archaeologists to develop spatial database systems for analysis) and Ilium (an application that can be used for cataloging and exporting finds) compose some of the core technological competencies that archaeologists use in their fieldwork.

Types of Archaeology

Archaeology has several areas of study. For students considering how to become an archaeologist, one concentration of study can be quite different from another in the same field. The SAA notes that archaeology work might revolve around human remains (bioarchaeology), ancient plants (paleoethnobotany), or even stone tools (lithics). A student isn't confined to one body of study; he or she can specialize in an area.

Becoming an Archaeologist

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that students who intend to become archaeologists must possess at least a master's degree in archaeology, anthropology or a related field such as history. For a student trying to understand how to become an archaeologist, a few requirements are necessary to move forward within this field of study:

Educational Requirements

The SAA notes that at the high school level, a student should focus on history, math, English, and science to create a solid foundation for a career in archaeology. A budding archaeologist may concentrate on foreign languages to support their path in this field.

Postsecondary education requirements include a four-year degree, usually in anthropology or archaeology. To enhance skills beyond this point, an aspiring archaeologist should consider Norwich University's online Master of Arts in History that provides a solid basis for analytical comparison and a frame of reference for studying the past.

Experience Gained

As previously noted, a student considering how to become an archaeologist should know that practical experience in the field can positively impact their success. A student can gain practical experience by participating in learning expeditions or field schools. Experienced archaeologists can offer valuable insight to new trainees to improve their practical techniques.

Archaeologist Salary

According to the BLS, anthropologists and archaeologists earned a median salary of $62,410, as of May 2018. Those salaries in the highest 10% topped at more than $97,170.

Job Outlook for Archaeologists

The BLS projects a 4% growth in the job market for archaeologists between 2016 and 2026. The field remains very competitive for job openings. Applicants with at least an applied master's degree and extensive experience in fieldwork will have an advantage in filling these open positions. Earning a Master of Arts in History from Norwich University can provide the educational background necessary for this role.

Start Your Archaeologist Training

Widely recognized for academic excellence, Norwich University is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education. Established in 1819, the institution is the birthplace of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and the first private military college in the United States.

Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program can serve as the first step in any aspiring archaeologist’s education. The 18-month program offers three concentrations: American History, World History, and Public History, and accepts a maximum number of 15 students per class. At the end of the program, graduates may qualify for many roles in the archaeology field as well as in other public history venues. Embark on your archaeologist training today.

Recommended Reading
8 Compelling Careers in History
How to Become a Researcher
5 Benefits of a History Degree

What Is Archaeology? Society for American Archaeology (SAA)
What Is an Archaeologist? U.S. News & World Report
What Are the Skills of an Archaeologist? The Houston Chronicle
Anthropologists and Archaeologists, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Archaeology as a Career, Society for American Archaeology