"I believe and teach that the study of the past is important for all, from primary school children to adults. I believe that to be able to identify with a past, and to be proud of it, helps people to have respect for themselves for the group of people from whom they have derived"
- Peter J. Ucko ("Academic Freedom and Apartheid", p. 5)
The nature and importance of educating people, both in the past and in archaeology more specifically, has become a major focus in recent years; the World Archaeological Congress has consistently noted as much, while numerous publications, seminars and courses deal with this element of archaeological practice. Embarking on a degree in archaeology is, then, an opportunity that has emerged only very recently; the conventional image of archaeology is that of an all male, Oxbridge educated elite, yet with the expansion in tertiary education in archaeology during the 1980s/1990s, and the rise of archaeology's public profile in the same period, such conventions are being overturned. When entering any modern archaeology department you will, therefore, encounter ethics and epistemology alongside pottery and round houses.
To study archaeology is to study humanity in its broadest context, with the opportunity to pursue and specialise not only in classical, biblical and prehistoric archaeology but also to be at the forefront of genetics, physics, chemistry and geology. In what other subject can you study the history and development of man from the early Hominin development in Africa, through the rise and fall of ancient Empires to the immediacy of the analyses of 20th century drink-cans in refuse dumps? Archaeology is truly breathtaking in dimension and should be considered quite correctly as an adventure of phenomenal proportions. It's also political, divisive; a common question, questions on the lips of most professional archaeologists and, I must add, most earnest students, are; "who's past is it", "what past are we representing", and "how can we ever begin to unwravel this 'wreckage'?
Archaeology attracts applicants from a variety of academic backgrounds. That doesn’t mean you have to be a scientist to study archaeology; on the contrary, many courses ask nothing more than a passionate interest in the past (although this is a very large "but") with many universities allowing you to pursue your own interests and enquiries, be they hard science or the philosophy and ethics of public archaeology.
The opportunities for practical experience vary from course to course, so it is often best to consider what you want to gain from the degree (a more theoretical knowledge, practical, scientific, et cetera) and what it in fact offers. In order to determine how much experience you will gain, and whether this will be financed by the university or self-financed, do check the details as archaeology can be expensive to pursue outside of the U.K.
The following universities currently offer archaeology (including Archaeological Science, Field Archaeology, Landscape Archaeology and Combined Honours degrees).
When researching the departments at each respective university, consider the range and quality of equipment available to students. In this regard it is important to examine, however briefly, the research output of those departments at a graduate and post-graduate level, for such research will largely dictate the stress placed on various courses at undergraduate level.
Also worth considering are what museums, collections and libraries are close at hand. Studying archaeology at an institution with little or no access to any material remains may pose a large problem to your engagement with the subject. Note: does the department have access to a wide range of archaeological journals, either in hard- or digital-copy?
As discussed above, archaeology often requires little more than an interest in the subject and Universities will almost always not presuppose any academic experience in archaeology on your part. However, archaeology is fundamentally an essay subject where the majority of the work you do will revolve around essays and field/lab reports.
As with all essay subjects, a humanities background is a considerable advantage. For degrees geared at the science side of archaeology, knowledge of biology is particularly useful. It is increasingly common for Colleges to offer Archaeology as an A-Level or GCSE. These are considered with the same weight as any other a level, such as history, that is revelant to the subject.
Archaeology admissions offers reflect the generic trend for most subjects, with Oxbridge demanding higher grades than many others within the field.
Areas and modules in which previous knowledge and experience would be useful
Archaeological computing and statistics: broadly defined, ACS concerns the use of computer software and statistical methods to process archeological data. The processing of archaeological data includes the digitization of finds, the application of statistical analysis to archaeological material and data, the generation of tables, graphs, maps, digital elevation models and ultimately in professional, standardized publication and writing methods.
The most widely used statistical software package for archaeological computing is that of SPSS. It is not a requirement to purchase this software before attending university, as any course that requires its use will likely have on-site access. While a knowledge of maths and of statistics is helpful, it is not obligatory. However, when feeding archaeological data through statistical questions (such as, 'is the distribution of pottery in trenches A, B and C statistically significant?'), it is helpful to have some working familiarity with the methods used (including Chi-square tests, Spearman Rank correlations, etc).
UCAS Form and Personal Statement
Archaeology admissions tutors will be looking for applicants who can display an active interest and involvement in archaeology. The best way to achieve this is through practical archaeological experience or the heritage sector.
http://www.ilovethepast.com is a website run by the popular archaeology magazine Current Archaeology and offers contact details and reviews of volunteer opportunities across the UK as well as world wide.
I would also advise contacting your local museum about volunteering. Many Museums are run on a shoe-string and are supported almost entirely by teams of dedicated volunteers, so that any additional help is always appreciated.
Larger national institutions such as the British Museum and the Science Museum still offer volunteer opportunities but there is a much larger degree of competition for places.
A useful personal statement would outline;
(i) Your understanding of what archaeology constitutes as a discipline and as an industry, including an awareness that it concerns both practice and theory. In this regard, archaeology is a practical set of techniques and methodologies employed as a means to comprehensively excavate and record the material-cultural and environmental remnants of past human activity. Equally, archaeology is a means of contextualizing and interpreting that data, of rendering it into meaningful patterns. Both activities have an 'epistemology', or a self-critical concern with how that knowledge is obtained and produced.
(ii) It is important that if you have practical archaeological experience you make this apparent, and elaborate upon it. One of the major weaknesses of many Personal Statements (PS) are either the applicant's lack of excavation experience or their lack of detail concerning any experience they do have.
(iii) Show that you have an interest and knowledge of archaeology that extends beyond the 'obvious' or 'mundane'; that is, drawing on examples such as the pyramids at Giza or Stonehenge is often a weak tactic.
(iv) Many weak PSs tend to read like Reader's Digest articles; that is, they wax lyrical on the "beautiful", "exotic" and "rich" archaeological record, failing to consider the socio-economic, cultural and scientific aspects of archaeological practice and theory. A good personal statement conveys an interest in the archaeological record, but does not sound amateur in so doing.
(v) The choice of language can make a candidate appear weak; for instance, the use of broad tropes such as "human civilization" again give the PS the sound of a populist article rather than a serious and professional piece of writing. Consider the implications of the words that you use.
Course structures in Archaeology vary greatly, and your first port of call should always be the universities own prospectus/website. A few generalisations, however, can be made. As the majority of people starting an Archaeology degree will not have studied it before the first year is normally comprised of basic level courses giving a grounding in techniques, theory, archaeological history and study of archaeolgical time periods. Your course should also have required fieldwork as part of its requirement. This is especially important if you want to become a field archaeologist after your course. Modules within your three years will be varied, comprising of modules on differnt time periods and topics but also scientific and field based work. These will obviously depend on the university and how they teach. Most degrees will have a dissertation in the final year
Life as an archaeology student
Archaeology students don't differ that much from the normal arts degree students, most of the time foscused around the normal bustle of lectures, seminars, reading and stuff like that. The only differences is that you might have the occasional lab session, or a lecture that you spend looking at artefacts (it seems to depend on the focus of the module). As well as this there are likely to be field trips, and in the summer term excavations to attend. (this is based on my own experience, I can't say for certain that it reflects degrees in other unis)
Graduate destinations and Career Prospects
Apart from the obvious (field archaeology) a degree in archaeology opens up a surprising number of avenues. These may include academia, the civil service, teaching, professional consultancy, media and the arts. Archaeology requires such a broad range of skills that its graduates are well rounded polymaths with the ability to inquire scientifically but also to see broad patterns of change.
Many graduates will find themselves working in the heritage sector; museums, historical tourism and for institutions such as English Heritage.
Remember that Indiana Jones was fictional, and even he had a career in academia before he decided to loot, hack and burn his way through some of the most important archaeological sites in the world.