Diversity in Archaeological Work: One Archaeologist’s Journey

The mission of the Day of Archaeology project has been to show the diversity of work done by archaeologists around the world as a group, and what a success it has been!

In this post, I want to demonstrate that a single archaeologist can have diversity in work throughout their career too, and to emphasise that there is (paid) work to be found in this field. I started my career with a focus on the archaeology of the Byzantine and Islamic periods in the country of Jordan. While I am still on this chosen path of mine and continue to be active in both excavation and research, I spent the actual Day of Archaeology this year writing a conservation management plan for a cemetery founded at the end of the 19th century in Australia!

I write this post especially for those younger people who might be interested in pursuing their interest in archaeology as a career but who may be discouraged (either by themselves or through the warnings of elders and peers) by the myth that there is no work in archaeology. The skills one develops as an archaeologist are transferrable. I don’t necessarily mean to jobs in the mainstream, though that is also true (but you just might have to try extra hard to convince employers of that!) – I mean in the field itself, and in related fields. With hard work and effort, supported by flexibility, a dedication to networking, a little bit of entrepreneurship, and of course (as with anything else), luck, an archaeologist can find work across a range of interesting projects and disciplines while getting paid.

What I do now

On the Day of Archaeology 2017, I was ensconced at my desk in a company office in Sydney, working as a heritage consultant for a private firm. I was analysing and writing about significant views to, from, and within a historically significant cemetery for a conservation management plan. This would become the principal guiding document for the preservation of the heritage values of the site through the cemetery’s continued operation.

While it is important for archaeologists to excavate sites for the purpose of research or salvage, it is just as critical to manage places of historical significance so that they may be enjoyed by subsequent generations. This is where the closely related field of cultural heritage management comes in: caretakers of sites, places and buildings need policies to guide them in balancing future development and changes with conservation.

As a heritage consultant with the company I have been working for, I have spent more of my time looking at architectural heritage than archaeology. But I like to say that understanding the modern built environment is just another way of applying archaeological skills and thinking. When analysing the fabric of a building or site – even a modern one – to understand its history and development, the changes it has undergone can be considered like a deposition of layers, each related to a particular event. This is the physical evidence. In Australia, as the built environment is relatively modern, an understanding of the evolution of a building or site – and the people it was associated with – can be supported through historical documents like original architects’ plans, early maps, photographs, newspaper articles, and other documentary evidence. Together, physical and documentary evidence form a picture of how the building or site was in its original state, and what changes have been made throughout its life. Based on this understanding of the building or site, a heritage consultant is able to assess the historical significance of the building or site as a whole and of its various parts. This, in turn, guides the development of conservation policies: what is most significant to be kept, what can be changed through subsequent development, and how this can be done. In various countries, heritage buildings and sites are legally protected, so no proposed changes can proceed without the professional opinion and assessment of a heritage consultant. In this way, archaeology and history have a clear and important link to the modern world.

How I got here, and what I have done in the past (and continue to do alongside my current job…)

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t start out in cultural heritage management or even looking at architecture, and it probably won’t be the last thing I do my career. My journey in archaeology began traditionally enough, and as I have progressed through life in archaeology, I have had the privilege to make many interesting stops along the way. Here is a condensed history of my pathway as an archaeologist so far, which shows the various ways one can engage with this fascinating and relevant field.

I began my studies in Australia in Classical Archaeology and quickly understood that that well-trodden area was not for me – as it was my only exposure, at that point, to what I thought I wanted to pursue as a career path, this realisation was heavily discouraging. But all was saved when I went on my first field school in Jordan, working on an Islamic-Byzantine site near the Dead Sea. I fell in love with, amongst other things (!), the beautiful, colourfully glazed pottery sherds that were common throughout the stratigraphy: I had discovered that I wanted to focus on Islamic material culture.

Islamic ceramics on display at the Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth. Photo by A. Silkatcheva.

I ended up moving to Jordan not long after this foundational experience, and lived there for a few years. During this time I continued working on excavations at the same site and another Islamic site nearby, an extensively preserved Medieval sugar factory, with a small team under the aegis of the Hellenic Society for Near Eastern Studies. The sugar factory became one of my major projects, and I continue to contribute to it in various ways from afar. Here, and at the associated new regional museum, the Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth, I learned about my beloved Islamic pottery from an expert in the field, and as the project team was always small, I also gained all the field skills an archaeologist needs. Through life and work in Jordan, I became proficient in colloquial Arabic.

The site of Tawahin al-Sukkar

The site of Tawahin al-Sukkar, a Medieval Islamic sugar factory south of the Dead Sea in Jordan. Photo by A. Silkatcheva.

 

The Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth, south of the Dead Sea in Jordan. Photo by A. Silkatcheva.

I had always known that I wanted a career in research and to complete my PhD, so while in Jordan I continued my studies through a research master’s degree at a university in Australia. Through the suggestion of my supervisor, my focus became Byzantine/Islamic mosaics in a small sub-region of Jordan, and specifically their geometric motifs. It is true that languages – especially reading skills – are important for research, and here I was helped by the formal studies in modern and ancient languages I had undertaken during my first degree.

Mostly, I funded life through a generous research grant and remote work as a research assistant back home. But as I established myself in the archaeological community in Jordan, I was invited to work on other interesting projects locally. One new aspect to my skills became the technical side of academic editing and publishing as related to archaeology and similar fields. On contracts to existing and new colleagues, I assisted in various ways with the preparation of monographs, translations, and conference proceedings on wide-ranging topics related to understanding the past.

Eventually, circumstances brought me back to Australia, where I knew in advance I would have to remain for an extended time. I had heard that archaeological work here was scarce, and archaeological work on anything related to my research interests even more so. Nonetheless, I tried, and after some time in limbo, appreciation for my language skills saw me appointed as the librarian for the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens at its Sydney headquarters, a position I continue to hold today alongside my consulting role. While the essence of my work is administrative support for researchers, it is certainly a great privilege to contribute to the management of one of the most important and extensive archaeological libraries in the country and thereby gaining exposure to many interesting publications, old and new, in the field of Mediterranean archaeology. One year, I briefly turned my attention to re-organising the Institute’s library at its office in Greece.

I’ve supplemented this work with a variety of other projects. With my experience in editing and publishing, I offered to digitise the back issues of an Australian archaeological journal for online publication and was awarded a contract to do so. I continued my editing work for colleagues I had met in Jordan. I contributed my excavation skills on project-based contracts for local commercial archaeology companies. My archaeological illustration skills led me to employment on a project to document multilingual sandstone inscriptions made in the contemporary past by internees at a major Quarantine Station. I assisted in archival historical research to support that same project and its associated public history publication. I leant my skills in photography and understanding of colonial architecture to a close colleague’s heritage documentation project in India. And I put my Arabic to good use by developing and teaching my own course, Colloquial Arabic for Archaeologists, at the Centre for Classical and Near Eastern Studies of Australia. It has been important to me to pass on my knowledge and facilitate other professionals, students, and volunteers working in my chosen field and in my chosen region of specialisation.

I mentioned earlier that my goal has always been a career in research and therefore I needed, and wanted, to complete my PhD. And I have also known for a long time that my primary research interests lay in the material culture of Islamic societies. This is a tricky goal to pursue in Australia, as there are no universities that have either coursework or research resources in this specialisation. So, I will have to pursue the continuation of my education elsewhere.

In the meantime, I have aimed to engage with my research specialisation in other ways. I have continued writing and I am looking for a good avenue to publish my master’s dissertation. But I realised that I would need to network more broadly and gain other experience. I began a second master’s degree, by coursework this time, in museum and heritage studies, to broaden my skills and expertise. The capstone of this degree was an internship at an institution chosen by the student. Strategic thinking led me to explore opportunities at museums with major collections of Islamic art and archaeological artefacts, and soon I flew off to complete my internship in the curatorial department of a museum renowned in this field. Here I worked closely with my favourite Islamic ceramics, applying my knowledge of pottery already familiar to me and gaining exposure to new material. I met supportive new colleagues, and this amazing experience led to an invitation to return to the museum and continue my work on the ceramics collection as a curatorial consultant on contract. Luckily, my existing employers were happy to support this temporary segue into my other career path, especially as it meant I would develop new skills that would be transferrable to the work I was already doing. Working in a formal capacity with my chosen subject and artefacts has been the highlight of my career so far!

And, finally, of course, how did I end up in my role as a heritage consultant? It was a happy accident which happened as a result of my participation in the mentoring program run by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Australia), available to students in my master’s program in museum and heritage studies.

Importantly, and to repeat my words above, a career in archaeology has been possible for me not only through my own efforts, but also by getting out there and getting to know people in the field, by thinking a little bit outside the square, and by being flexible and open to change and variety. And as always, I couldn’t have made it without some luck thrown in as well.

What this means for aspiring archaeologists

All this is to say that it is possible to have a career in archaeology, and although it will probably not be straightforward and easy, I can guarantee it will be varied and interesting! There is work available for people with archaeological skills, experience, background, and mindset. While a career in this field may not be as ‘stable’ as one in, say, bank management, with your skills and training – which can be directly or indirectly related to your chosen field – you can add value to interesting projects, organisations, and companies, large and small, and be valued for your contribution in return. It is even possible to find a full-time job in the related field of cultural heritage management (whether it’s built heritage like I do or commercial archaeology), which is key to tying the significance of the past to the modern day.