Becoming an archaeologist

Ten years ago, Joe Flatman – a columnist for Current World Archaeology’s sister-magazine Current Archaeology – wrote the first-ever book about career paths in archaeology. The second edition of Becoming an Archaeologist: a guide to professional pathways has now been published, and it reflects recent changes in the sector.

The second edition of Joe Flatman’s handbook, Becoming an Archaeologist, explores an even greater variety of different career paths in archaeology. Here he reflects on how the discipline has changed over the decade since the book was first published.

Over the past decade, everything has changed and yet nothing seems to have changed. To focus on the positives first: archaeology is still archaeology. It is even more relevant in our contemporary world than it was ten years ago. Archaeologists work on ever-more sites across – and even in orbit around – the globe; they have embraced a decade’s worth of technologies; and they have reached out in time and space. Thanks to archaeologists, we know more about the human past, and more about our potential futures, than we did before. And, crucially, archaeology in the past decade has become much more accessible. More people, from a greater diversity of backgrounds, are involved in archaeology, and as a discipline it is easier than ever to get involved. The first edition of the book focused on the UK, the USA, and Australia. In the revised edition, I have sought to include a much greater diversity of voices and experience from around the world. There are new and expanded interviews with practitioners from a broad range of backgrounds and locations, as well as new information about the realities of working in a wide array of roles. These additions, touching base in every continent, better reflect the global community of archaeology, its places, and its peoples.

In other aspects archaeology, like wider society, is a more fearful and fractured place than it was. We continue to weather a global pandemic and connected economic aftershocks; and, in terms of geopolitics and climate, archaeologists and archaeological sites alike have witnessed some horrifying changes: we have lost wonderful people and extraordinary places that can never be restored. Archaeology is not immune to wider social changes either, changes that bring their own challenges. The #MeToo movement rightly highlighted historical and modern-day abuse and abusers in our community who have destroyed people’s lives through their actions; while the #BlackLivesMatter movement focused attention on the colonial pasts of many nations and on the challenges of the post-colonial present.

Given the realities outlined above, it remains fair to ask: why does archaeology matter? Why should people spend their time studying archaeology, and why should society at large fund and support archaeology through various means? On this, the book (like its author) remains resolutely cheerful. First, there is demonstrable evidence that humans have shown an interest in their past since the very origins of humanity itself – that such an interest is one of the defining features of humanity, a characteristic that makes us what we are. Second, archaeology tells us about the past, and the past tells us about our possible futures. There is, for example, a large body of work on archaeological lessons of climate change – how human adaptation to past changes can inform modern decisions about responses in our present and future worlds. Third, archaeology contributes more to any economy than it takes away. This is the ultimate, market-led reality of archaeology. But, crucially, archaeology also contributes to society in ways far beyond pure economic value. People want to be involved in the study and protection of the past, and, beyond simply making us happy, there is extensive evidence that archaeology makes us healthy too, and that being healthy saves our communities – our economies – money in the long-run. Such a focus on wellbeing reflects a shift away from an exclusively economic valuation model for modern-day societies to one that shows that physical and mental wellbeing have a significant impact on quality of life, and that there are extensive routes to wellbeing using the historic environment, especially archaeology. Put simply: the past not only makes society money, it saves society money as well. This is, surely, something that we can all celebrate.

IMAGES: Joe Flatman; Lynley Wallis; Natalie Cohen, The National Trust
Further information
J Flatman (2022) Becoming an Archaeologist: a guide to professional pathways (Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-1108797092, £24.99).
See also and Joe's latest column for Current Archaeology at