Amateurs in Archaeology

If you’ve ever watched an Indiana Jones or Lara Croft movie, chances are at some point you said to yourself “I wish I could do that.” This thought was most likely followed promptly by something along the lines of “I can’t do that” or “that’s not a very realistic job prospect.” At this point, you probably had finished the movie and moved on with life only pausing to revisit that thought when you re-watched the movie. I’m here to tell you that you, my dear friend, were wrong, you can, in fact, be an archaeologist, no degree required! (Disclaimer: the type of archaeology referenced in this blog post probably won’t involve chase scenes or high-drama world-saving antics.)


To understand the role amateurs have played in the development of the field of archaeology, one must first look to the past at the history of archaeology. When archaeology first developed there were a lot of amateurs, an understandable phenomenon given the field was still in the works, so to speak. This led to a period known as Antiquarianism, which spanned from the 16th to the 19th century. During this time the focus was mainly in the field of treasure hunting, people were less interested in the day to day lives of the past and more interested in the sparkly, exciting treasures they hoped to find. During this period, many of these exciting treasures made their way into the homes of the wealthy displayed in elaborate displays of “culture” and excess.  These displays known as Cabinets of Curiosities and, they demonstrate a defining idea of the Antiquarianism period: finding cool “stuff” to show off how cultured a person is. Although many such cabinets contained a variety of goods from all across the world, some were the genuine artifacts while others were forgeries. All together the cabinets showcase man’s fascination with the past.


When it comes to cabinets of curiosities they weren’t all bad. Many such collections were the start of museums. Although the cabinets laid the foundations for many museums times have (thankfully) changed and, people now understand the importance of context. While a statue or vase that’s thousands of years old may be cool on its own, no one piece can tell the whole story of a civilization or people. Think about it, when you buy a new dress or skateboard and tell someone about it, which makes the better story? “Yeah, it’s new” or “Yeah, I found this the other day at this little store I found downtown whilst exploring, it ended up being on sale, and I just couldn’t resist.” The second one, right! This is the same thing that happens when an artifact gets taken out of context. It might still look cool, but it loses the very thing that makes it so special: it’s context. Context allows a piece to be seen in unity with other artifacts from the same site, painting a big picture look at the history of a people or civilization.

Many professional archaeologists get caught up in the same problem my precalculus T.A. had: while he adored math and found the process of working through all the steps to be a delightful and exciting process he forgot one critical detail, the rest of us did not. Real archaeology is a multi-step process, and not everyone is that thrilled about each step. This means that the most important part of an archaeological find, context, gets lost in translation. One archaeologist and Professor of Philosophy, William Krieger comments: “If context is the only information tying an artifact to its past, then eradicating that information (or willingly allowing for its destruction) would turn those artifacts into nothing more than old pieces of metal, stone, and glass.” (928). The excitement of unearthing a new discovery remains the same whether the person who uncovered it is a professional or an amateur. What is important is ensuring that that “cool find” remains relevant, no one wants to spend time looking for an artifact only to have a son or granddaughter look at it and say “Oh, that? You can put it in the toss pile, I don’t want it.” The video below is an introduction to the tools of the trade, but also touches on the importance of context, from a real live archaeologist:

How do you go about getting started as an amateur archaeologist? Well, there is no one true way to get started. Some people get started as a hobby and do research to figure out what to do, and others attend a class or two at their state’s archaeological society or a university. For example, the Colorado Archaeological Society partnered with Adams State University to establish Program for Avocational Archaeological Certification (PAAC). It includes classes that cover the basics of archaeology: history, proper excavation techniques and recognizing different materials and artifact types. Other people simply learn on the job, volunteering at a site and learning what to do for the day. Bob Welch, an amateur archaeologist in South Carolina, talks about getting started this way at the Colonial Historical Site of Colonial Dorchester: “the resident archaeologist opened it up for the public to come on Saturdays to assist with digging and sifting the artifacts that were on various house sites in the town. I jumped at the opportunity to participate and was blessed to be able to learn a tremendous amount about the artifacts that we recovered, the proper techniques to do so, curating the artifacts and maybe, more importantly, deeper history about the site.” This next video covers the basics of how to excavate a site:

If you to take on the role of an amateur archaeologist, there are few guidelines to follow:

  1. This one is a biggie: Make absolutely sure you have permission to be digging where you are. It’s one thing to dig in your backyard it’s another to dig in someone else’s or worse on government property. If you don’t take care to get permission you could get into trouble and, in fact, be breaking the law!
  2. Take a class or volunteer on a professional site first, that way you know the basics and won’t make mistakes that land you on the looting side.
  3. Always record the Provenience of a find. The three-dimensional context (including geographical location) of an archaeological find, which gives information about its function and date.

What happens when you ignore these rules? Well you end up with something like this:

If you can’t immediately tell what’s wrong with this picture, I will give you a hint (lack of context). If your goal is to fill up a case or two and make some interesting designs with the arrowheads you’ve found chances are your only goal is to find “cool stuff.” This means a lot of important information gets destroyed. Once you’ve excavated the site, it is gone forever. It’s very important to take the time and effort to carefully record provenience and preserve as much of the material culture as possible. When finding arrowheads or other “cool” stuff the little things that can tell us a great deal about a culture are ignored and usually destroyed.

Amateur archaeologists offer meaningful contributions to the field of archaeology. Although many of these contributions seem minor compared to the flashy finds that make the news, it is worth remembering that just because it doesn’t seem important at first, even the smallest of finds can make a difference. Bob Welch’s story of one of his coolest finds is one such tale:

“I was screening along and came across what looked like a small bit of ‘frayed’ string. I was about to discard it when, almost as a joke, I handed it to a young lady archaeologist that was volunteering there with us. She took it and examined it and started getting sort of excited. Then she showed it to the resident archaeologist, and together they continued to try and clean it up some more to better identify it. Finally, everyone was almost ‘freaking out’ because what we found was a small bit of GOLD thread from off of some very fancy decorative clothing worn by someone of great wealth living in the town in the 18th century!”

Many of the large-scale discoveries made by amateur archaeologists occurred during the Antiquarianism period, like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The stone was discovered by Napoleon’s soldiers as they were clearing a wall to enlarge Fort St. Julian. The soldiers realized the writing on the stone was important and sent it to Cairo to be studied further. The Rosetta Stone is one of the most important discoveries in the history of archaeology.

Not all important amateur discoveries are a thing of the past, recently a remarkable discovery in the history of human evolution was made by two recreational cavers. Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter were exploring a cave system called Rising Star when they discovered a burial chamber that turned out to contain bones from a previously unknown species of hominid. They passed their discovery onto Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist who determined the bones were a new species that he called Homo naledi. This discovery cast a new light on the history of where our species of hominid, Homo sapiens, came from. Whether big or small the contributions that amateur archaeologists make shouldn’t be dismissed. Amateur archaeologists form an important backbone of how the field of archaeology has developed and are an important part of its future.

For a great resource to help you understand more about the field of archaeology, check out the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)’s PDF “Archaeology 101”.

Another great resource, is this newsletter from Colonial Williamsburg, Discovering the Past: An Introduction to Archaeology.

If you are interested in reading the full interview with amateur archaeologist, Bob Welch, click here.


Work Cited

CoopersFerrySite. “The Excavation Process: How We Excavate.” YouTube. YouTube, 3 July 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

CoopersFerrySite. “The Excavation Process: The Tools.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 July 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

Department, AIA Education. “Archaeology 101.” Archaeology 101 (n.d.): 1-4. Archaeological Institute of America. Archaeological Institute of America. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Flintobsessions. “We’re Back with a Rough Start.” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.

Imperato, Ferrante. Dell’Historia Naturale. Digital image. Wikipedia. N.p., 23 Jan. 2008. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

JamestownRediscovery. “A Day in the Life of the Archaeological Dig at James Fort.” YouTube. YouTube, 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.

Krieger, William. “Marketing Archaeology.” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 17.5 (2014): 923-939. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

“PAAC Program Introduction.” PAAC Program Introduction | History Colorado. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Poole, Meredith. “ The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Official History and Citizenship Website.” Discovering the Past: An Introduction to Archaeology : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 30 Apr. 2003. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

Schoville, Keith. “The Rosetta Stone in Historical Perspective.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (2001): 1-21. Andrews University. Andrews University. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Shreeve, Jamie. “Mystery Man.” National Geographic Oct. 2015: 36-57. Print.

Welch, Bob. Personal Interview. 23 October 2015.


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