The Disconnect Between College and the Real World of Archaeology

The Disconnect Between College and the Real World of Archaeology

Alycia Giedd, M.A.

When we all went off to college, there were two groups of students, those who knew without a shadow of doubt what they wanted to major in and the rest who were undecided or changed majors over the course of their 4-5 years there. As for me, I knew since I was a little kid that I wanted to be an Archaeologist.

Now let’s be honest. Anytime anyone hears the word “archaeologist” they automatically think of Indiana Jones or dinosaurs. So when I was accepted to college I packed my bags and was ready to go to learn the ways of becoming a real-life Indiana Jones.  Throughout my years in college and grad school that was still the perception of most of my classmates. We all just sat through our classes learning about all of the discoveries and awesome artifacts that were uncovered by famous archaeologists, and secretly deep down hoped that one day that would be us in the textbooks that future students would read about.

However, truth be told, archaeology in college is more about learning the history, theories, and discoveries themselves than the actual real world concept of archaeology (fieldwork and excavation). When you do your field school for credit hours and/or volunteer work, the majority of the time you are working on a site that has already been discovered, the research has mostly been done, and now you are just uncovering the artifacts in their respective strata throughout the site. And all the while you’re thinking, “wow, this is pretty amazing I’m really doing archaeology”. Not knowing that there is a lot more to it than excavating your unit and digging to subsoil. When in reality, out in the real world, jobs like these are few and far between and it takes a lot of preliminary work and money to ever get to that stage of archaeology.

When I landed my first job out in Colorado I wasn’t given too much of a description of the job before I got there other than it was very rugged terrain and in a canyon. But none of that mattered to me because I finally had a job offer and nothing was going to stop me from taking it. So when I arrived to the project area and saw for myself what “rugged terrain” actually meant, I was well let’s say a bit shocked.  There were boulders to climb over each day, rock shelters to explore, and wildlife to fight off. And by wildlife I mean mountain lions, bears, bobcats, and rattle snakes oh my! We all carried knives on us in case we actually came face to face with any of these creatures. But the fact of the matter is, this was not what I anticipated archaeology to be about. In my mindset, I still thought I was going to be digging units and digging deep down into the soil to pull out long lost artifacts. Nope. Nothing of the sort happened with this job. In fact, I think in the year I was out there I only dug maybe a handful of units smaller than a 5-gallon bucket, called shovel tests. That was the ONLY digging I did.

So why was that the only digging I did, you may ask? That’s because I wasn’t working at a large site on a formal excavation. I was working on something called an archaeological survey, the goal of which is to find sites, compared to the formal excavation often shown on TV and taught in college.  And unbeknownst to me at the time, there are three phases of archaeological investigations. And in the real world of archaeology, Phase I surveys are the majority of what you wind up doing in the Cultural Resource Management (CRM) field. This is something that is not really drove home into college students while they are pursuing their archaeology degrees. I’m not sure if it’s because professors don’t want to dissuade students from becoming archaeologist and try to make it sound like it’s always an exciting field of work or if it’s just because professors themselves haven’t done too much CRM work over the course of their careers. However, the real world of archaeology is much more than excavating a large site. While surveys don’t have the same flashy appeal as large-scale excavations, archaeology is much more than just excavating these sites.

What college students need to learn are the basic fundamentals on how and why archaeologists do what they do. Starting from the beginning, which includes learning about how archaeologists find the sites that are being excavated. But far too often archaeologists begin their professional careers with a poor understanding of the process of actually finding sites. This is the part of the project where you go out and look for remnants of a prehistoric or historic site that is either visible on the ground surface or just below and discovered through shovel testing. But not only can you find sites through this type of survey but you can also discover sites by using equipment like ground penetrating radar (GPR) or other instruments that can detect signs of buried archaeological materials below the surface.

All in all, college classes for aspiring archaeologists should be more focused on the fundamentals of doing all phases of archaeological work from learning about historic maps, learning how to read and use topographic maps in the field, navigation using topographic maps and compasses, along with excavation techniques used during formal excavations. College classes should not focus solely on excavation skills because in reality, finding a job in this field will require a broader skillset. Students need to learn early on what to expect when pursuing this degree so that when they do graduate and enter the work force they are prepared. They need to know that not every day is about returning to your excavation unit and continuing where you left off the day before, uncovering that Civil War era bottle. You won’t always have cool artifacts bagged up at the end of the day, ready to take back to the lab to clean off and examine closely on rainy days. In fact, on rainy days, you’ll most likely be out in the field trying to stay dry. Some days you may be miserable but some days you won’t be; the day you find a spear point or piece of pottery lying on the ground or in your shovel test will make up for the day before when you were soaking wet and cold. Because that’s what this job is all about. Finding that artifact that no one else has seen or touched in hundreds or thousands of years. And when you pick it up and examine it with your dirt covered fingers you get that feeling of excitement and know that that’s why you decided to become an archaeologist. For that feeling right there.