So You Want to be an Archaeologist?
This year I had the opportunity to attend two conferences in San Diego (where I am writing this). One being the American Schools of Oriental Research (or ASOR, which I attend every year) and the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL, first time). These conferences can seem intimidating to some, especially if you are new to the field of archaeology and considering it for a career. It is important however, to stay up to date on excavations, new finds and new interpretations discussed in the ever growing field of archaeology in the Middle East. On top of this, you may even get to rub shoulders with some of the “rockstars” of archaeology, pun intended.
I believe this is the perfect time to start a dialogue with those who may be interested in a career in archaeology. I have received questions on how one would get into this gig, so I will briefly tell my own story of how I got involved in archaeology as well perhaps give some advice to those who are considering this as a vocation.
In the Beginning
There was something romantic about archaeology when I was younger. Naturally, anyone would be enticed by the life of adventure brought on by Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. However, the reality of our craft comes crashing down upon you in your first anthropology/archaeology 101 class. From what I observed most people had trouble staying awake in these classes. I was a lost freshman at the University of North Florida, trying to find my way amongst the thousands of other students taking their Gen Eds. Finding myself was harder than it should have been considering that I was not even a great student in my own right, as I rarely went to class or even prepared for exams. I simply floated by. Nothing interested me. All I knew is that I did not want pursue a generic degree, and I did not aspire to making a lot of money to live comfortably. I wanted to do something that was different.
I also grew up in a conservative Christian background and I had a desire to investigate the Bible on a deeper level. I felt that if I were to understand this book, that was the source for my faith, then how best to investigate it then to study the periods and people in which it was about? After almost two full years of floating, I did something that was very uncharacteristic of me. I wanted to try out this archaeology thing, so I picked up a phone and called the University of Chicago. Why the University of Chicago? Because that was where Indiana Jones taught in his movies of course! I called and I asked the admissions councilor what it took for me to do my PhD in archaeology there. They were very helpful in telling me exactly what I needed to know. They gave me a list of things to keep in mind and I want to share that list with you.
I will be upfront with this however, to be a professional archaeologist, it will require a considerable amount to schooling, almost 10+ years. But there are other ways to be involved in archaeology without all of that and I will address career choices at the end of this post for those that may still want to be involved indirectly in archaeology. For those interested in becoming a professional archaeologist, take note and read below.
I. Learn the Languages
I wanted to investigate that people and places of the Bible. In order to do that I had to put myself in a position where I could learn the language(s) of the book and ancient people. That meant going to a school where I could learn Hebrew and Greek. The reason for this should be simple: how can one claim to know the culture or people in question if one cannot bother to learn the language? Language reveals much about a particular culture and it should be the first step to really understanding other people. What we read in a book such as the English Bible or even in a history textbook about a culture that is not from our western world is an interpretation of the actual thing.
Based on this revelation I found a school, Harding University, which met my needs and offered a major in Biblical Languages. I studied Greek and Hebrew as well as doing some advance study in backgrounds of the Biblical text. These are good starting points to build off of if you are interested specifically in the world of the Bible. If your interest is in another part of the world, then go to a school that offers that. For example, if you are interested in archaeology in Central America, you can find a school that will prepare you for that. If you are interested in Japanese archaeology, you can find a school in that. All it really takes is a quick Google search. If you need help finding a school I would be happy to give assistance. Messaging me in the comments section below.
2. Go on a Dig
Perhaps this should be number one, but this also should be a no-brainer. How will you know if you like archaeology if you have never been on a dig? Here’s the good news, you can go on a dig and not be an archaeologist. There are excavations going on all over the world and at all different times of the year. Most excavations offer “field schools” in which they will actually teach you the methods and practices of an on-going excavation.
My very first dig was during my undergrad was with Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations (2013) in Israel. I was simply just happy to be there. I had no experience and had only been told what life on an excavation was like. The first week was hard only because I had no idea what to expect. It was actually quite laborious for me and I did not enjoy waking up at 4am in order to go do physical labor. The question always comes to mind to every beginner-- "Did I actually pay for this?"
However, it became all worth it the first time I uncovered pieces of a storage jar from the 10th Century Iron Age. The longer I stayed with it, the more I began to wrap my mind around the methods and cadence of a dig. It was rewarding and not only did I enjoy it, I realized I was good at it. Since then, I excavated other sites such as Abel Beth Ma’acah (2015) while I was working on my MA, and am currently at Khribet Safra (2018, 2019) while on my PhD. I have even done some CRM (cultural resource management) work with the military cataloging Post Civil War cemeteries and surface surveys at major military bases.
So naturally I would recommend you go on a dig. However, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you don’t even have to consider being a professional archaeologist in order to be involved in a dig. I know scores of people who simply love to do field work, and they also have other jobs they do back home. For them, it becomes a hobby and they have found out that you can still be involved in archaeology without all of the school.
But, here’s the crux, going on a dig is typically not cheap, especially if it is overseas. Most digs will offer packages that include room and board, food and weekend tours. Take advantage of these because nothing beats traveling in a foreign land with an archaeologist who has been excavating there 20+ years. At Safra we do something similar in which we travel to exotic sites in Jordan on the weekends and will cap off the remainder of the trip in Israel the final week. To see what the daily life of an archaeologist in the Middle East looks like, see my Youtube video here.
3. Consider your career options
Jobs in archaeology are few and far between. It is no secret that everyone wants the cushy teaching job, teaching in the Fall and Spring while excavating in the summers. However, this is not realistic for most. Consider all of the schools in the United States, then think about all of the schools that have archaeology programs. I will go ahead and tell you that there are not many. At the conferences I attend, there are many young PhDs looking for a teaching jobs and the sad part is that most of them will never find one. They will have to learn to contribute to our craft in another way.
Luckily we are in a day-in-age where our government is becoming conscious of its ecological footprint as well as its culture footprint. I have mentioned before my experience with CRM, in that there has developed this entire industry that seeks to help private landowners and even the government navigate preserving America’s culturally sensitive heritage. I have done quite a bit of work in this area and there is a real need for archaeologists to commit themselves to preserving America’s intellectual history.
As I mentioned before there are many ways one can be involved with archaeology and not be a professional archaeologist. Gone are the days where the archaeologist needs to be a jack-of-all-trades in educating themselves in every facet of ancient culture. We need ceramic experts, biologists, chemists, linguists, historians, economists, metallurgists, zoologists, botanists, geologists, medical professionals, database analysts, coders, GIS specialists, cartographers, fund raisers, and the list goes on. All of these disciplines and specialists can be archaeologists in their own right and help in the ultimate goal for uncovering and preserving the past.
4. Stay humble
I did not end up at the University of Chicago, but I found an institution that met my needs and is willing to support me and my research. Every day, I learn something new about myself and about history that adds another puzzle piece into my ever-growing view of the world we live in. At ASOR this year, I met with the great William G. Dever, a world renown archaeologist and was incidentally the professor to two of my professors (guess that would make him my grand-professor). He had this advice to say to me. He told me to always be willing to learn and do not ever think that you know everything. When you get to the point where you stop learning then you have failed as an academic. I understood what he was saying, and I was grateful for his wisdom. I have seen how fluid our discipline can be in that new finds and new methods are being discovered every day that can be applied to how we view the ancient world. Humility play a large role with every academic because when you have stopped learning, then you cease to be a scholar.
Archaeology is an immensely rewarding discipline that can take you to places you never dreamed you would go. Understanding the past has immediate relevance to our own issues in the present. Find your niche and get involved.
Thanks for reading! If archaeology is something you are interested in, feel free to reach out. I can recommend some schools for you and of course help you in your search to find a dig.
For some, the summer means school is out for students. Growing up in Florida, it meant going to the beach daily, barbecues, bon-fires and fishing. When one is in academic discipline of archaeology, summer means: “dig season.”
It is true that there are other excavations, which operate outside of the months of May – July, but in the Middle East, summer is the most convenient for students. Field schools are in full swing and archaeological projects either begin or pick right up where they left off last year.
In this case, Khirbet Safra kicked off its second season in Jordan for 6 weeks (end of may to mid-July). Andrews University has been involved with excavating major sites in Jordan since 1968 led by the renowned archaeologist Sigfried H. Horn. In fact, Tall Hesban Excavations just celebrated its 50th year anniversary of continuous work as apart of the Madaba Plains Project. Two additional excavations at Tall El-Umayri (1984) and Tall Jalul (1992) have also been excavated by Andrews.
:::Warning::: Technical, but not too technical, archaeology jargon coming henceforth. All pictures I use in this post are my own (unless specified) and are, by no means, publishable quality. I do this intentionally to protect the integrity of the publications.
To answer more questions regarding the Iron Age in Transjordan (the politically correct term for the land in modern-day, Jordan) excavators moved their focus southwest to Khirbet Safra. Some sites in archaeology are called Tells/Talls or Khirbets. A Tell is a mound created over time with layers of ruins and occupations beginning with the most recent occupation on the top and the earliest material culture at the lowest levels. (For a better description of Tell structures check out my blog post here.)
A khirbet is the designation for a site where its ruins or architecture are exposed prior to any excavation or disturbance to the site. From aerial photographs, the khirbet has a clear outer-wall surrounding the circumference along with an inner wall also running along the interior forming what is known as a “casemate” – a double reinforced wall structure commonly seen in the Levant.
Initial surveys of the site found several different time periods of pottery on the surface ranging from Iron IIA (10th-8th Century BC) to the Byzantine periods (AD 3rd century). Four fields were opened on the four areas of the city -- A, B, C, and D. These fields were strategically placed in order to 1) delineate the casemate (in all fields); 2) expose any remaining gate structure in the north and east on site (fields C and D); and 3) expose any large, assumed administrative structures in logical locations (Fields A and B).
The first season (2018) yielded fine results of pottery and helped establish a better chronology of the site. Two squares were opened in each Field and majority of the squares were finished and closed by the end of the season on account of bedrock laying a meter to a meter and a half under the surface. In most areas, upon the exposed bedrock was a sealed locus of Iron I pottery dating to the 13th Century BC, which was earlier than what the excavators expected since Iron II pottery sherds were collected in the initial 2017 ground survey.
The second season in 2019 was focused primarily on Fields B and D respectively. Field B opened four new squares where a monumental building was discovered abutting the casemate wall to the south. Field D also opened four more squares and discovered several rooms connected to a 13th century BC gate complex to the city, complete with a threshold stone and stone benches. The gate finding is significant for several reasons since it is a high traffic area for entrancing and exiting the city. Many administrative and legislative processes occur at city gates. For ancient and biblical parallels, see texts dealing with events where the elders meet at the city gates to make judgements and form contracts. (Gen 19:1, 34:20; Exod 32:26; Deut 25:7; Josh 20:4; Ruth 4:1, 4:11; Prov 31:23; etc. ).
A better picture of phasing is appearing and tells us that the first settlers to Khirbet Safra built a walled town/city upon bedrock, filling in holes and depressions in the bedrock with a red-bricky material in order to make it flat. The site was most likely destroyed at one time as there is a thin ash layer in Fields A and B most likely caused by an earthquake on account of tectonic/seismic activity frequent along the Jordan River Valley which is a known fault line. There is also a possiblity that that destruction could have occured by the growing Moabite presence in the Iron Age II seen at other sites in the surrounding areas like Dibon and Ataruz. Some settlers during the Byzantine period reused the abandoned/destroyed walls in Fields A and B but only had a short period of occupation.
For copyright and publication reasons, I will leave any more details about the findings of Khirbet Safra for now. It is a fascinating site which will help answer questions we may have concerning the Transjordan in the Iron Age I. For those interested in biblical chronology and archaeology, this is most likely the time period of the books of Joshua and Judges. If geographic information and boundaries in the Bible are accurate then the city of Khirbet Safra lies within ancient Reubenite territory.
Next Season we hope to reopen all 4 fields and continue with excavation. Although some questions were answered, more questions are raised. We have yet to find any inscriptional evidence or material culture which shows what kind of people lived at Khirbet Safra, whether they were Moabite, Ammonite or -- dare we say, Israelite? Only time will tell as we press onwards and downwards. Consider joining us next year as we dig into history and uncover the secrets of Khirbet Safra.
I realize a lot of this text can appear as technical, archaeology “mombo-jumbo.” However, these are valuable results that we uncover which help us understand the world that came before us and ultimately tell us something about ourselves. Archaeology is about discovering our intellectual heritage. It is not all working in the hot sun every day. You can see my video in what a typical day in the life of an archaeologist looks like here. When we are not working, we tour exotic sites, eat wonderful Jordanian cuisine and more importantly, form relationships with people who are not much more different that ourselves. Archaeology is an opportunity for building a bond between people of different cultures. It brings together people from all walks of life in different age, ethnicity, language, religion and politics. We coexist and work towards a better understanding of humanity. See my video of our wonderful volunteers and students from last year here. Come join in on the adventure with us next year. You will not regret it.
Video Blogging from Jordan
Since I am in the field this summer I will have to put my Genesis project on hold until the Fall. In the meantime, you will be able to follow me on my travels to Jordan. I am excavating with Andrews University at Khirbet Safra and I will use the resources at my disposal to document our efforts and show you what it looks like to be an archaeologist in the Middle East. I will also vlog from some key sites in Jordan that are referenced in the biblical text or subject to "Biblical Archaeology" such as Mt. Nebo, Jerash, Tel Dhiban, the Dead Sea and others. Stay tuned all of the month of June as I will attempt to put out as many videos as I can.
There will also be a portion of the vlog where I will answer questions from you guys! So, be sure to either comment below or ask questions to my twitter handle accessed by the button below. This is a great opportunity to ask an archaeologist your questions!
Additionally, while you are waiting for more content, enjoy my blog and subscribe to my YouTube channel in order to get updates for when I post new videos. I hope this may be a rewarding experience for myself and for you as you get an inside look into the Bible and Archaeology.