Mindset, skills and aptitudes

Most archaeologists I know have been fascinated by ancient cultures since childhood. Their interest developed when they were young, even if for most of them it was only much later that they realised they actually wanted to make a career out of this passion. (My own interest in ancient Egypt blossomed when I was only 9 years old, but I didn’t realise I wanted to become an Egyptologist until my second year of my BA.) Egypt and many other ancient civilisations do indeed stir passion in the breast of archaeologists…. and to become a good archaeologist you have to love the civilisation you are to study for the rest of your life. That is one important thing to keep in mind. You must be really passionate about what you do because archaeology can be challenging. The job can be physically difficult, it’s likely not to pay well and a good job with a decent pay cheque will be hard to come by.

Archaeologists can have an extremely rough and tough life when in the field, especially those working in Africa and the Middle East, Asia or South America. All the academic training in the world will not prepare you for the kind of life an archaeologist leads in the field. Harsh living conditions and the threat of tropical diseases are not mentioned in most discussions, but they nonetheless exist. As an archaeologist, you have to be ready to leave all creature comforts at home and go native… and enjoy yourself no matter how hard it gets.

Many people think that archaeology is cool… but only a select few will actually enjoy it when they realise what they are up against: the heat (or cold), bugs, tropical diseases, lack of amenities, being away from family and friends for long periods, being surrounded by team members all the time, and harsh working conditions. Archaeology (in most countries) is not for wimps… you need to rough it in the field for several weeks, if not months, and want to do it all over again the following year. The tough and rough life is not just for guys, though. Girls can do it too… and very well, I might add!

If you have a fragile constitution, archaeology would not be your best choice of career. However, it does not mean you have to forget about studying ancient civilisations… you could become a historian, instead. Or become a philologist and study the ancient texts and translate them. Historians and philologists do not spend as much time in the field (if any at all), so this remains an exciting option for those with physical limitations. (Or those who hate bugs!) The best way to know if you will enjoy working in the field is to actually visit the country where you would like to work. Just touring and visiting archaeological sites will give you a feel of the country (its heat and its bugs) and its people, and you will be able to determine whether you would enjoy staying there for long periods of time. Additionally, field archaeology is, in some ways, similar to camping (real camping in the forest, not camping in a trailer tent). You might want to go camping for a long week-end during the summer and see if you like that…

Being a good archaeologist is not simply a question of having many diplomas and knowing how to use a trowel. There are things that are not learned from books or at field school that are needed in order to become a good archaeologist. Although they are not part of official archaeological training, I believe that team work and cultural sensitivity play an important role in the life of an archaeologist. Such issues ought to be reminded to the reader because they are sometimes overlooked. Archaeological missions are generally composed of a few archaeologist (foreign and local), permanent or visiting experts and scholars, antiquities inspectors, students and local workmen (archaeologists very seldom work alone). As you might imagine, all these people have different personalities and sometimes team work can become very stressful. Yet, all have to try to the best of their abilities to put differences aside and work together to achieve common goals in the pursuit of archaeology.

Working in a foreign country where the customs are different from yours requires a great deal of respect, cultural sensitivity and compromise. Abroad, you cannot do things the way you would at home and you have to adapt to local customs. Cultural sensitivity should be demonstrated in your professional contacts with local archaeologists, government officials and anybody else you encouter or work with as well as in your daily behaviour, manners, language and dress. Should you be uncertain on how to behave in certain situations or what to wear, simply ask someone you think might know. It becomes second nature eventually and keeps you out of trouble. In Rome, do like the Romans do… or so the saying goes.

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