Imagine making a living as an archaeologist … digging up treasures of the past! The Gorgeousness Programme asked world traveller and archaeologist, Dr Kayt Armstrong, to share with us how she embarked on this adventure. Here’s what she said …
I’ve wanted to be an archaeologist since I was about eleven, and realised it was a thing you could actually do, thanks to Time-Team. Before then I wanted to be a vet or an explorer, and archaeology seemed like a neat way to be an explorer even though there were no more places to explore. I guess at the root of it I am fascinated by how people and places interact: to me, that’s the essence of archaeology: how we are shaped by the world we live in, and how and why we choose to shape that world in return.
For example, why might a particular kind of pottery be preferred by one group of people over another?
What is it that makes some places become important settlements, for very long periods of history?
What can we learn about a society that didn’t have a written language from their homes and the objects they made?
I had this ambition all the way through high school and so it helped me be really focused about what subjects I wanted to study.
I knew I needed to know about history, about landscapes and about how people think. So I did history and geography and then in sixth form added philosophy. With hindsight, I should have been looking for chances to go and be involved in digs through things like the Young Archaeologists Club or my local history society, but I didn’t realise that ’till a bit late and might have got some slightly easier offers for uni if I’d been able to show that I had done something with my interest already.
Unless you are really lucky, archaeology isn’t a subject you’ll get to specifically do at school, so when you start the degree everyone is on a level playing field.
Even the people who’ve managed to take an ancient language or classical studies don’t really have an advantage because archaeology is a really broad subject, with everything from hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology, to very much more ‘arts’ oriented subject areas like thinking about representation and communication in museums.
There is plenty to do if you like technology too: my specialism is in geophysics (using things like radar to detect buried archaeology without the need to dig it up) and in archaeological computing: writing databases of bones and pottery, building virtual reconstructions of amphitheatres, analysing ancient battlefields using Geographical Information Systems and using technology to help people discover the past for themselves in exciting ways, like virtual reality, or AR apps that let you, for example, overlay reconstructions of monuments on their ruins when you point your phone camera at them.
I went to Southampton and took my BA and then MSc there, and during that time I got to work at Avebury (a UNESCO World Heritage site), excavate a Saxon chapel and do geophysical surveys in Italy and in the UK.
I also studied the remains of the women’s peace camps at Greenham Common (a huge protest against nuclear weapons that happened mostly in the 1980’s and early 1990’s); my work on that was published and I am really proud of it.
Then I did a PhD in archaeological geophysics, working at sites like Flag Fen and Stonehenge. After that, I got a post-doctoral research job in the Netherlands for four years. I got to start to teach students, which I really enjoyed, and I also got to go back to working in a remote part of southern Italy. I spent about three months each year there, working out in the field every day collecting data, then spending the rest of the year analysing it and writing up the results, and planning how to improve the next trip.
After that I worked on Crete for a year, doing a project looking at settlements from the period immediately after the Roman Empire, again being out in the field a lot.
It was amazing to go and work at all of these ancient towns and cities that I had been studying since I was 18 and I have life- long contacts both on Crete and in the Netherlands, people I hope to collaborate with for the rest of my life.
Travelling so much was hard, and scary, to go and live in another country, leaving my partner here and managing a long-distance relationship. Especially during fieldwork when I might be out of contact for a long period of time, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I met so many wonderful people, got to work in so many amazing places and do some really interesting work. I now have an extended family all over Europe, and further afield as I met researchers from Australia, North America, South America; pretty much the whole world. And they’ve all gone on to have other adventures too. I came back to the UK and worked in what we call ‘commercial’ archaeology for a while. There are all sorts of companies across the UK who are paid to do archaeological work ahead of developments, like housing or solar farms, but also big infrastructure projects like Crossrail and HS2. For a while, this type of archaeology job was scarce thanks to the economic crash as no-one was building anything, but right now they actually think we don’t have enough trained archaeologists in the country for all the work that needs doing and I see jobs advertised all the time, so it is a good time to train! I recently got a further research position and I am hoping my current job will lead to a permanent job, or at least me winning my own funding to carry on some ideas I had during my PhD. I know that a permanent job in a university might never actually happen: this is a ridiculously competitive field but I can cope with lots of fixed term contracts if it means keeping doing what I love.
My best advice for any of you wanting a career in archaeology (or in research more generally actually) is first and foremost not to be afraid to show your enthusiasm and interest.
I was a total Hermione at school, before JK Rowling made it OK to be Hermione. I was excited by learning new things (and I still am, everything can be interesting if you approach it the right way), I wanted to do well and I was devastated when, as a teenager, I realised that most people didn’t think that was cool.
I feel like young women get a lot of pressure not to be clever, or at least to pretend not to be, and to pretend not to care about things. I know I did. But what they don’t tell you is that employers and universities are looking for the enthusiastic ones, the ones who let their passion shine out. I know for a fact that I have had two important jobs on the strength of my enthusiasm and much as on my CV: researchers need to be interested and motivated.
I would also say that unless you are really very sure you want to be a cell biologist or something else very defined to keep your options as broad as possible: study what you are interested in and enjoy, because it will help keep you motivated, but don’t go all arts or all science: I regret not taking at least once science A Level (turns out from my PhD that chemistry would have been super useful!), but I know a lot of people who did more sciences that struggled with writing longer essays at uni because they didn’t get into practice during their A levels.
Related to this is my suggestion that you stay generally well informed. Have a read of a (good/reliable) newspaper, either online or in print: read the science section or the book reviews. You don’t have to read all of the economics stuff (unless that’s your thing!), but having some idea of the big picture can give you unexpected ideas or help you make connections in your brain about topics you do care about.
Finally, develop skills. Not subject specific ones, but ones that make you useful, such as a first aid qualification.
A lot of the opportunities I created for myself came out of being a volunteer on fieldwork projects. These were often over-subscribed, so if you had a useful skill you were more likely to be picked. Those skills can be really generic, like having a driving license (and perhaps being able to drive a minibus- you can usually do this through the students’ union) to highly specific, like knowing how to use a specific scientific instrument used to take readings in the field. Look for chances to learn those skills, show your teachers your enthusiasm and willingness to work hard (archaeology is often really really hard work in bad conditions) and those doors will open.