To Be or Not to Be An Archaeologist

Consider the following:

“You know you’re an archeologist… when with a BA in Anthropology, field school, and post grad work as a field tech, you have never labeled yourself as an archeologist because in the purest form, you haven’t earned that title. Then you cringe when the non-degree holding, no field school, no anthro studies, shovel bum, I mean field tech, who is new to the community tells everyone he IS an archeologist. UGH!!”

A woman posted the above not too long ago on an archaeology-themed Facebook group.  It spurred a variety of reactions from, ‘what the hell?!’ to ‘Ugh, I know! So, frustrating.’  My fellow Women in Archaeology Podcast hosts chatted a bit about our own reactions to the post.  Our overarching response was why on earth would she not consider herself an archaeologist?  There’s a lot to unpack in just these two sentences.  Let’s consider the first . . .

“ . . . have never labeled yourself as an archaeologist because in the purest form, you haven’t earned that title.”

This individual indicates that she has a great deal of experience and education in archaeology, so why wouldn’t she consider herself as an archaeologist?  I am loud and proud about my archaeologist status—I have earned it through experience (i.e. blood, sweat, and tears) and education (i.e. BA and MA in anthropology and archaeology).  Now, why wouldn’t she do the same?  One of the possible things going on here is called ‘imposter syndrome’.  Numerous articles describing this syndrome have been published by Time, Scientific American, The New York Times, and so on.  Briefly, imposter syndrome is the fear that you will be exposed as a fraud if you claim to be one thing or another, despite numerous accomplishments supporting your claims.  For example, you could never really be an archaeologist unless you fit the ideal. It is the belief that no matter how you strive, you simply are not good enough to have that title.

What does it mean to be an archaeologist in the ‘purest form’?  Is there really such a thing?  The pursuit of archaeology is conducted in a variety of forms, from the lab to the field, from academia to cultural resource management (CRM).  Being an archaeologist can mean surveying hundreds of miles or studying bones or analyzing ancient poop.  There are many ways to be an archaeologist.  Consequently, ipso facto, therefore, forsooth, you—individual who posted this discussion inspiring post— are an archaeologist.  If you fear being called out for not having the specific qualifications to be the perfect archaeologist, don’t be.  No archaeologist is perfect.  Furthermore, the requirements for what it means to be an archaeologist are determined more by the type of career you hope to pursue than some overarching label of what archaeology is supposed to be.  It is the job where the necessary education and/or experience comes in.

On to the second part of the post . . . “non-degree holding, no field school, no anthro studies, shovel bum, I mean field tech is new to the community.”

Now, there is something to be said about experience.  I have met many older archaeologists who learned on the job, before more rigid (and necessary) qualifications were put into place.  They have more knowledge of the field than I could ever hope to gain, however, that does not negate my education and fewer years of experience.  We can work together to really do some really great work.

Currently, if you search for any kind of archaeology fieldwork job, there is typically a list of requirements that any archaeology technician must have. These usually include some coursework in archaeology, as well as some kind of field school.  So, it is hard to imagine there’s a shovel bum out there with zero schooling in archaeology or anthropology, no field school, and no experience in the field.  I’ve been an arch tech and I’ve taught arch techs—everyone has to have some understanding of the discipline.  Otherwise, they can do more damage than good at a site or on a survey.  I wonder if a conflict occurred between this individual and the shovel bum.  It is not uncommon for PHd’s to have trouble finding work right out of graduate school (I struggled right after my MA) and having to work at a lower level within CRM.  It may rankle to be at the same level as someone right out of college—but, that’s not the arch tech’s fault, and trust me, we’ve all been there.

What’s important is to showcase your knowledge, but also admit what you don’t know.  It is not helpful, whether you are the crew chief or the arch tech, to exaggerate your experience.  Experience limitations will become apparent once the work starts.  Be proud of what you have achieved and be a role model for those who want to get the same level of education and experience, but just aren’t there yet.  If you encounter someone who claims to be the best archaeologist in the world, but by no means has the skills, don’t worry about them—it will show in their work.  And, any crew chief, assistant crew chief, etc worth their salt, will notice, too.

2 thoughts on “To Be or Not to Be An Archaeologist

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  1. I came across this article and I had to comment. I just had a similar conversation and experience recently. I realize that I, as a woman in archaeology, have suffered with imposter syndrome for the majority of my career. I have a masters degree in Anthropology, two field schools, CRM and consulting work, have more than 20 years experience in the lab and field, am currently employed as an archaeology lab and collections supervisor, specialize in faunal analysis and historical archaeology, teach lab procedures to field school students, and it seriously wasn’t until I was accepted onto the register of professional archaeologists that I felt comfortable calling myself an archaeologist. For most of my career I just felt like I wasn’t good enough, didn’t know enough, etc to truly call myself an archaeologist.

    Recently, I had one seasonal field/lab tech, who only worked for a total of 8 weeks learning archaeology (no anth degree or previous classes), ask me to give him a recommendation to an agency that he was using to aggregate his data for him. I said okay. When the agency contacted me, they provided me with the information he had given them about his work experience. I noticed right away that the he had given himself the title of archaeologist when describing his work with me. Immediately I got annoyed. I thought, “how dare this kid, after only 2 months, call himself an archaeologist?”. Needless to say, I called him and explained my view on the matter and asked him to change the information with the agency. He really thought that his 8 week experience qualified him as an archaeologist. He apologized profusely. In the end, he admitted that he hated digging in the dirt anyway and didn’t even like archaeology. He went on to apply to medical school. 🙂

    1. It is a frustratingly common occurance in the field, but you definitely qualify to call yourself an archaeologist!

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