Archaeologists deal specifically with the pursuit of uncovering and recording human history through the excavation of sites, commonly known as "digs". They study the history and culture of earlier societies with the aid of recovered artefacts, tools, art, dwellings, and other remains from the past.

They reconstruct records of extinct cultures and study them. They then classify and interpret these in order to obtain a better insight into the history, culture, social, spiritual and technological activities of earlier societies.

Archaeologists’ work can be divided into broad categories:

Fieldwork: which includes excavation of archaeological sites, drawing up of site plans, recording, sorting, numbering and photographing of objects

Laboratory work: including scientific analysis of objects

Reports: interpreting findings and writing of reports, which may be published in journals.

Although archaeological fieldwork usually takes place in teams, it is possible to work on a self-employed basis. Opportunities for national and international travel may arise through different dig locations, consultancy work with international development organisations, or through attendance of professional conferences.

An integral part of archaeological knowledge is obtained from the ground through scientific excavations. A variety of tools, such as shovels, picks, trowels, brushes and paintbrushes are used in excavations. The ground or deposits that are excavated are sifted so that all the objects found in it can be sorted, packed and sent to a laboratory for further analysis.

Findings at archaeological sites are recorded and assessments made, after which possible events are reconstructed and theories noted. Fossils are studied and photographed on site, then packaged for laboratory analysis. Detailed descriptions are vital, and meticulous care of findings (stones, bones, pottery, utensils, fossils, tools, etc..) is essential. Detailed documented recordings of findings contain the type of items found and their exact location, as well as their historical significance.

In the laboratory the archaeological materials are cleaned and classified according to type, for example stone implements, iron implements, bone implements and different kinds of pots. Some of the items, such as potsherds, are preserved. Laboratory work, such as radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone to determine the age of the site and finds, is sometimes done by specialist organisations.

Excavations sometimes require the archaeologist to visit isolated places and camp out. Processing all the data and material found takes two to three times longer than the excavation itself and therefore archaeologists, during a year, usually spend only three to four months in the field. They spend much of their time deciphering, dating and drawing conclusions on the findings.

Personal Requirements

  • versatile in completing a wide range of tasks
  • very observant
  • meticulous, systematic and logical
  • sensitive to social issues
  • self-discipline and patience
  • above-average intelligence
  • dedicated to preserving the past and belief in conservation
  • ability to learn foreign languages

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

Compulsory Subjects: Mathematics, Physical Sciences
Recommended subjects: Geography

What to Study

Degree: BA or BSc, with Archaeology as a major, e.g. UCT, UP, Wits, UNISA, plus an honours degree in Archaeology, UNISA. Other recommended degree subjects are: Anthropology, Cultural History, History of Art, Geography, Zoology, Botany, Palaeontology and Languages - UNISA, UP, UZ.

Post-graduate training: As job opportunities are limited, students are advised to further their studies to masters and doctorate level. Correspondence courses are offered by UNISA to people working in museums.


Employment opportunities for archaeologists are extremely rare and positions for them really only exist in museums and at universities.

Self-employment opportunities for archaeologists are limited. Archaeologists, who want to work for themselves, must be able to think creatively and comprehensively and generate their own opportunities and market their services. They can, for example, work as specialist tour guides on a freelance basis and thus combine archaeology with tourism.

Further Information

The South African Archaeological Society

The Southern African Society of Archaeologists
Department of Archaeology
University of Stellenbosch
Stellenbosch, 7600

Anthropology Southern Africa
Ditsong Museums of SA
GaMohle Building
70 WF Nkomo (Church) Street West
Tel: (012) 492-5744

Getting Started

  • contact the South African Archaeological Society for more information
  • work on being observant and building up your general knowledge
  • read as widely as possible about different cultures and historical periods
  • do courses on survival in harsh terrains and in first aid

Programmes by Study Institutions


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