Studying Archaeology at University: Tips for Prospective Students of a Fascinating Subject
Rachel McCombie, a Classical Archaeology and Ancient History graduate of St John’s College, Oxford, explores why we find Archaeology so fascinating and offers advice to students considering reading this subject at University.
There’s something compelling and tantalising about the clues left behind by our ancestors.
Perhaps it’s the natural human curiosity we feel about how other people live their lives that leads so many of us to develop an interest in archaeology; or perhaps it’s the idea of being a sort of detective that appeals.
It’s no surprise that archaeology features pretty heavily in popular culture. In recent years popular programmes such as Channel 4’s Time Team have sparked an interest in many a student, while mentioning the word ‘archaeologist’ to some people will immediately make their minds conjure up images of Indiana Jones exploring a dusty old ruin in the depths of some foreign jungle. Whether it’s understanding a mysterious site such as Stonehenge in Wiltshire, or piecing together a few precious scraps of bone, archaeology is a varied discipline that opens a fascinating window on the past, and it’s an incredibly stimulating subject to study at university. In this article, we’ll look at what archaeology is, why you might want to study it, and how to improve your chances of a successful application if you do decide it’s what you want your degree to be in.
What is archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of the human past, using material and environmental remains to understand how our ancestors lived their lives. Archaeology involves excavating sites, analysing artefacts and studying aspects of the environment and landscape. Among the types of evidence considered by archaeologists are artefacts (such as pot sherds), biological remains (such as ancient seeds or bone), elements of the landscape (such as a Medieval field system) and architecture. An archaeologist is very similar to a detective, piecing together the clues left behind in order to build up a picture of what life in the past was like.
Is Archaeology a good degree to have?
Other than because it sounds glamorous, why should you study archaeology at university? Clearly, if you’re dead-set on a career as an archaeologist then it’s fundamental preparation (you’ll probably need a Masters degree and PhD as well). But there are plenty of transferrable skills to be gained from studying archaeology at university, including research and analytical skills, critical thinking, attention to detail and many more. Even if you don’t end up becoming an archaeologist, these are all skills you’ll find useful in a huge variety of workplace situations, and they can be highlighted in job applications for just about any position.
Not all universities offer straight archaeology to study as an undergraduate degree, and it’s often a bit more focused on a particular period or paired with similar fields. As such, there are numerous archaeology-related degree courses to choose from, some general and some rather more specialised. Here are a few of the options that may be available to you across the spectrum of UK universities.
Ideal for those who haven’t yet developed an interest in a particular period of the past, a general degree in archaeology will give students a well-rounded knowledge of archaeology across a wide chronology. Archaeology is a broad discipline that can be approached from a science or humanities angle, and many universities offer a choice of BA Archaeology or BSc Archaeology to reflect this.
Archaeology and Anthropology
This popular degree combines archaeology with sociological and biological anthropology — the study of the human race. If you’re interested in archaeology, but you also like the idea of studying things like human evolution, culture and customs, ‘Arch and Anth’ (as it’s commonly referred to by students and tutors alike) may be just the degree for you.
Classical archaeology covers the archaeology of ancient civilisations, primarily the Ancient Greeks and Romans. However, you’ll probably also have the chance to study other ancient and early civilisations, such as Ancient Egypt, the Persians, the Vikings and the Early Medieval period. If you’re interested in Ancient Rome and/or Greece, you’ll probably be looking at a lot of pots, statues and temples during the course of your degree.
Classical Archaeology and Ancient History
This course — and variations thereof — combines the disciplines of archaeology and history specifically with regard to the ancient world (again, primarily Ancient Greece and Rome). It encourages students to look at ancient archaeological sites with reference to contemporary ancient texts, which really help bring the archaeology to life. You may have the opportunity to study Latin or Ancient Greek as part of this degree.
Bioarchaeology looks at archaeological remains from a scientific angle, analysing such things as food remains, ancient seeds or bone, to build up a picture of ancient diets, landscapes and so on. It’s ideal for sciency types with an interest in the past.
As the name suggests, this and similarly titled courses will concentrate on the archaeology of Ancient Egypt, one of the world’s earliest civilisations. If your interest is piqued by the pyramids, and you’re not freaked out by the idea of mummies, this may be the course for you. You might even get the chance to study Hieroglyphics!
Archaeological finds usually end up in museum collections, and Museum Studies covers how such artefacts are curated in this context. Among other things, you’ll look at critical approaches to museum curation and how to analyse the objects themselves. This may be a better degree for you if you don’t like getting muddy and wet!
The best A-levels to study if you want to do an Archaeology degree
As Archaeology isn’t usually an A-level option for most students, you won’t be expected to have any prior qualifications in this subject. As you might expect, the best A-level choices will depend a little on the kind of archaeological degree you’re interested in. For instance, if you’re more scientific and think Bioarchaeology sounds intriguing, A-levels in subjects like Biology and Chemistry will stand you in good stead. However, since Archaeology spans the sciences and the humanities, a mix of arts and science subjects is desirable. History and/or Classical Civilisations are obvious choices, and as you’ll be required to write essays, an essay-based subject such as English Literature will also provide a good foundation in the writing and research skills needed to undertake a degree in Archaeology.
Things you can do to prepare for your application
So you’ve decided you’re interested in studying archaeology. That’s great! What can you do to strengthen your application? Let’s look at a few of the things you’ll find give you a strong grounding in the subject prior to applying to university.
Read, read, read
Read as widely as you can, both on general archaeological issues and on the archaeology of different periods. This will give you a good level of general archaeological knowledge, as well as helping you find which periods interest you most. A good basic introduction to archaeology is Renfrew and Bahn’s Archaeology — Theory, Methods and Practice. Eventually, you’re likely to find a period in history that interests you most, at which point you can start delving into the archaeology of that period in more detail. You could also take out a subscription to Archaeology magazine, which will keep you abreast of current thinking and developments in the world of archaeology.
For archaeological periods for which original historical sources exist (that is, everything after prehistory!), it’s also worth reading some of the contemporary texts written at the time of the period you’re interested in. For instance, if you have an interest in Roman archaeology, try reading some Ancient Roman historians and writers such as Tacitus or Pliny. This helps bring the archaeology to life, giving you a deeper understanding to which you can refer when you’re looking at what’s in the ground.
Visit plenty of sites
Don’t just confine your studies to the library — get out and about, visiting different archaeological sites in the UK and abroad. An archaeological site can be anything from a small burial mound to an entire city. Visit a variety of sites, particularly if you’ve not yet decided which period you’re most interested in. Neolithic long barrows, Roman villas, Elizabethan manor houses, World War II bunkers, Stonehenge, Hadrian’s Wall, Sutton Hoo, the City of Rome, Pompeii, Delphi… The more sites you can say you’ve visited — and critically appreciated — the better, not just in terms of showing your enthusiasm in your university application, but also when it comes to actually studying, as you’ll start to develop the skills you’ll be expected to demonstrate in formal assessments.
So, don’t just aimlessly wander around the sites you visit; take the time to understand them. Here are a few tips for getting the most from your site visits:
– Read up on the background — before you go, do a bit of background research so that you know the basics of the site’s historical timeline and why the site was built. Also try to understand the history of the excavation — when was the site discovered, who excavated it, and did they adhere to proper archaeological standards? Has this affected how well we can understand how the site was used?
– Contemporary sources — unless it’s a prehistoric site, read some contemporary literature to get a sense of the people who lived there. In particular, read up on contemporary references to the site itself, if there are any.
– Look at a map and think about why this site was built in this particular location, and not somewhere else. What features can you see in the landscape that might explain why this location was chosen?
– Look at a site plan and gain an understanding of what lies where.
– Find out where the finds are kept — archaeological sites will often have on-site museums housing the finds, while in other cases the finds may have been taken to a museum in a nearby town or held in storage. It’s worth trying to get a look at them, wherever they’re kept, as the artefacts taken from a site are an important part of the puzzle in trying to build up an understanding of how the site was used and who lived there.
– Visit a similar site for comparison — is the site a one-off, or just an example of something quite common? If possible, visit a similar site to see how it compares. For instance, if you’re visiting a fort on Hadrian’s Wall, try to visit another one and look for (and try to explain) any similarities and differences. This will deepen your understanding of the site in its context.
Site visits are one of the most fun parts of studying archaeology. Once you get to university, you may even have access to university funding just to go and visit some places of archaeological interest!
Go to museums
As we already touched on above, museums are where a site’s archaeological finds end up. Just as with site visits, try to make the most of a museum visit by approaching it critically. When you visit a museum, think about why it’s arranged in the way it is; why has the curator put a certain group of objects together, and how is the museum organised? Chronologically? Thematically? Would you have arranged the artefacts differently? Also look at the objects themselves and think about how they were made and used.
Volunteer on an archaeological dig
If you really want to impress in your university application, try and get yourself onto an archaeological dig as a volunteer. Sign up for your local archaeological society and express an interest in taking part in a dig. Note that it’s by no means essential to do this; such opportunities may not be available for everyone, so it won’t give you an advantage over other applicants as such. But it will help demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject, as well as helping you decide that archaeology is what you definitely want to study. When you get to university, you may well have a fieldwork component to your course, which may require you to go on a dig — so if you’ve already done one, you’ll be better prepared for what to expect.
Try one of our courses
Archaeology and Anthropology and Classical Civilisations are two of the subject options covered by our Broadening Horizons course, which provides a strong introduction to these fields of study for 16-18 year olds. If you think you might want to study an archaeological degree of any kind, this is a great way of dipping your toe in the water and finding out whether this is the degree for you. No prior knowledge of archaeology is required, and you’ll even get to take part in a mock excavation.
We hope this article has whetted your appetite for archaeology. It’s a rewarding and enjoyable subject to take a degree in, and the fact that it’s so interesting makes it much easier to do well in!
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