Writing an archaeology personal statement


personal statement (PS) is an item of independent persuasive writing used in the applications procedure for higher education in the U.K. The PS will be submitted with the UCAS Form for the attention of each university to which the applicant has applied. In this regard the PS is generic, yet its function is to identify the motivation, experience and understanding of the applicant, with a view to adding a 'thicker' understanding to the largely statistical/factual nature of the UCAS Form itself. Ultimately, the PS is the single opportunity that the applicant has to 'speak for themselves' during this process, unless they have also to submit examples of work or to attend an interview. The aim of an archaeology PS is, therefore, no different from that of the 'average' PS, yet there are unspoken criteria by which a 'good' PS can be distinguished from one that is mediocre. Archaeology traditionally attracts only a limited number of applicants to higher education courses, such that the relevance of the PS, when competing for limited spaces, may be intensified. Equally, archaeology is a craft and practice which many people have lifelong affiliations with, such that excavation experience and prior fieldwork experience (see below) figure heavily in the quality of an archaeology PS.

Key Concepts

While the PS is an independent, unique submission, certain 'rules' and criteria are necessary to ensure that it is both structured and relevant. The following points are each worth considering in some detail before starting to write the PS itself; these points provide the skeleton of most successful personal statements.

  • What do you want to study?
  • Why do you want to study archaeology? (note: if you are applying for a joint honours course you must balance both subjects equally)
  • What personal qualities, experience and skills do I have which suit me to pursue this discipline at university level?
  • What are my other relevant interests and skills?

For an archaeology PS it might be argued that point 3 (especially experience and skills) are the most important, most relevant aspects of the statement.

Writing about fieldwork and experience

As a discipline, archaeology constitutes both theory and practice, the latter including a series of processes which begin at the level of research and survey, include excavation, and result in analysis, storage and presentation. This 'archaeological string' is an important process in the effective execution of archaeology as a practice, which in turn generates theory. The varied nature of this 'string' offers many points at which interested students and applicants can become involved, such that when applying to university it is worth considering firstly obtaining experience and, secondly, presenting that experience. Seeing as there is no dedicated section on the generic UCAS Form to submit this information, the PS is the locus for the archaeology PS.

Relevant skills and experience will include:

  • Survey (including fieldwalking, topographical survey, archival research)
  • Excavation
  • Finds- washing, sorting and storage
  • Analysis
  • Storage and presentation (digitization of archives, construction of archives, museum work)

The second, third and fifth points are the most common to encounter and organize; many museums will accept volunteer applications either through a formal or informal process. If you have museum experience consider writing about: (a) the kinds of material culture that you encountered (b) your reaction to it (c) what your duties included (d) what skills you applied and gained (e) the procedures that you followed.

If you have excavation experience, considering the following: (a) the nature of the excavation (date, location, extent and research aims), (b) your duties/responsibilities (c) the skills you applied and gained (d) the material that you recovered (e) your reaction to the excavation and its procedures (f) your conclusions; was it similar to other sites that you can think of, drawing from your 'book' knowledge? What is the relevance of this?

When writing about excavation, using formal or professional language will convey that your experience was a learning experience from which you obtained genuine skills. Writing that "we dug a hole" is not a correct usage of archaeological jargon, while writing the following provides a clearer, more professional summary:

"The area of the excavation to which I was assigned was believed to contain the continuation of a wall feature located in the adjacent trench. I was responsible for a 1x1 sounding, to be taken down in 20 cm spits with a view to defining both the presence of the wall feature and of more clearly defining the stratigraphy of what was believed to be room fill"

You are not writing an archaeological report, but the use of correct terms (feature, context, trench, sounding, 'spit' digging, stratigraphy, fill) conveys your understanding and abilities as regards archaeological excavation. Comment on the sociological, economic and cultural value and associations of recovered material, avoiding purely aesthetic/exotic statements (such as "I found a beautiful item of jewelery"). Thus, when on site pay attention to how professional and trained archaeologists refer to material, processes and equipment.

Writing about archaeology the 'modern way'

One of the many errors which are made in archaeology personal statements are to write about archaeology in an inappropriate idiom; unthinking 'evaluative' statements such as "human civilization", "ancient world" and "progress" often convey what might be kindly defined as a 'Reader's Digest' knowledge of the discipline, rather than one that aspires to be professional. Consider and question the populist image of archaeology as it is presented in the media and press, even comment on your reaction to this. What is the value of public archaeology? Where do you stand on illicit excavation and artefact trafficking? In this light, consider referring to heritage legislation, court cases and personal anecdote. Equally, when writing about sites that have interested you, avoid tropes and populism; in other words, avoid writing about Stonehenge unless you have something quite unique or original to say. Do a limited amount of research into areas that interest you, providing an opportunity to show that you have a broader understanding of work in that area. Indeed, it would be fruitful to comment on ongoing excavation and research. Such information is not difficult to find, such that I advise discussing these issues with members of the TSR Archaeologist's Society, or by conducting internet research. Having a dynamic understanding of the discipline will show that you have an interest in keeping-up with its advances and research.