As time goes by some things that were difficult to recognize, to see, to comprehend, become visible and understandable. The past requires us to look backwards. Archaeologists in particular spend a lot of time looking backwards. When I reflect on my career path and look back from the beginning until now, some important things come into relief. My aim with this blog for “30 Days of Kentucky Archaeology” is to share some of what perspective has revealed to me and, in particular, what aspiring students and young professionals can do to make a career for themselves in archaeology. From my own experience there are four things that contributed in big ways to my career in archaeology. First, experience. Second, mentors. Third, develop skills. Fourth and finally, have a plan. And now, an anecdote on how I “discovered” archaeology.
My first semester of college I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t good enough for a career in professional skateboarding, and painfully aware of the fact. I also didn’t really see any professional future in punk rock, but that was before Green Day. For some reason, and I don’t remember why, I decided to stop by the public beach on the lake where I grew up in rural north-central Florida. I was on my way home from the last day of class before Thanksgiving break. The beach was freshly plowed in order to keep down the weeds. As I was walking across the turned up sand on my way to the dock at the lakeshore I noticed a large somewhat triangular stone (a bifacial preform). I thought it was interesting so I picked it up. As I was nearing the dock at the beach, I noticed a little piece of pointy, triangular stone sticking out of one of the berms created by the plows. As I pulled this small piece of rosy-colored rock from the sand it grew larger and began to take on a well-defined shape – it looked like a Christmas tree. I would later learn that I had found a Levy point, one of several types that are as a group called “Florida Stemmed Archaic.” Well, that was super exciting so I cut my visit to the black waters of the lake I grew up on and rushed home to share this discovery with my family. My curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know more. At one point I told my mother I was going dig on the beach to find more. She discouraged that. Not so much because she didn’t want me to become a looter (although I could easily have gone down that road), but because she didn’t want me damaging public property. Mother knew best. Her next bit of advice was a turning point for me. She said, and I quote, “You should take a class in archaeology.” Perfect. Over Thanksgiving break I looked in the course catalog and found that archaeology course and Introduction to Anthropology. I registered for both. Life changing decisions indeed.
How do you get a job without experience? How do you get experience without a job? Many young degree holders and students are faced with this dilemma. Archaeology is no different. The answer is pretty simple, but it can be daunting. Volunteer. Where do you find out about volunteer opportunities or internships? If you’re in college, the best place to start is by asking the faculty in your program. If you haven’t made it to college yet but you always dreamed of being an archaeologist, well, do some internet research to find those opportunities. However you find the information, take advantage of volunteer and internship opportunities. Not only do they provide you with valuable experience and practical skills, they are also opportunities for networking and professional relationship building. Not to mention it shows prospective colleges and employers you are serious and engaged. So go forth, and get involved!
Things were going well in my anthropology and archaeology classes. I loved it and wanted more. The instructor for both courses was an archaeologist. He still is, as a matter of fact, and at the time owned his own Cultural Resource Management (CRM) company. After spring break he offered the class an opportunity to volunteer at the Crystal River State Archaeological Site. An unusually strong spring storm blew down trees growing in the shell mounds. I spent a glorious, cool Saturday in March 1993 excavating shell midden entangled with the roots of upturned trees. I was hooked. Archaeology was going to be my profession. As an undergraduate I volunteered on several projects – everything from county-wide surveys, to surveys to locate Seminole War forts and battlefields, historic roads, and prehistoric shell mounds. I also spent a good amount of time in the lab washing, sorting, and cataloging artifacts. Those experiences landed me my first jobs in CRM my junior and senior years of college. After graduation I went to work for the same company and stayed with them through grad school and the completion of my Ph.D. Experience, and especially a diversity of experiences, help young professionals and students become well-rounded. An experienced and well-rounded applicant has an advantage over other applicants. I owe a lot to the instructor for those introductory classes. He offered me opportunities and became my mentor, colleague, and friend. We still work together 24 years later. And that brings me to my next point, mentorship.
Mentorship doesn’t have to be formal. I can be very informal and even accidental. With the benefit of hindsight it’s clear to me that I had a mentor even though I didn’t know it. And all because a good mentor took me under his wing, gave me instruction, and offered advice and guidance. No less importantly, his encouragement helped push me forward when I was unsure of myself (like when I applied for my first grant). While working in CRM I developed a mentor/mentee relationships with a senior professional that I worked with. I learned a lot working with him – professional practice, how to run archaeological projects, and personnel supervision to name a few – and I apply those skills in my new role as a faculty member at a comprehensive regional university. I encourage students and young professionals to identify those people who are good at what they do and learn from them, formally or informally. You’ll be better off for it.
Develop some relevant skills. And while you’re at it, develop a couple of different skill sets. This will make you valuable to employers when you enter the job market. Archaeologists and non-archaeologists tend to put field work on pedestal. It’s more visible, exciting, and romantic. I’ve met a lot of archaeologists who are aces in the field and detest lab work, library and archive research, report writing, and the like. Understandable, I suppose, but does that make them the versatile and valuable employees that an employer wants to keep around long-term? Nope. At the beginning of my career I was hired a field tech. I did field work. When field work ended my employer asked if I wanted catalog and analyze artifacts. They remembered that I had laboratory experience. So while the other field techs were unwillingly taking time off, I was working in the lab and getting paid. Oh, and because I had report writing experience (honors thesis, site summaries) they then put me to work writing reports too. So for today’s prospective students, undergraduate and graduate students, and anyone else considering a career in archaeology – seek out a diversity of experiences in the field, in the lab, writing reports, and even repairing screens and maintaining equipment. I also strongly recommend becoming a familiar and competent user of technology – Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing methods and equipment (ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, resistivity, etc.), and photogrammetry just to name a few. A well-rounded archaeologist with a diverse skillset is more employable.
You need a plan. It may not be detailed, but you need a destination and a route to get you there. My mentor told me to have one, three, five, and ten year plans – basically short-term and long-term goals. So first, figure out what you want to do with your career. But remember, it’s OK to change your mind along the way, I did. Then determine what you need to do to get there and start making it happen. Want to have a career in CRM? Get a Masters’ Degree, as much experience as you can, develop a competency with GIS, and work on your writing skills. Want to be a college professor and do research? Get a Ph.D., learn how to write grants, hone your writing, and develop teaching skills. All that sounds simple. Perhaps too simple. But it’s a starting point. And from that starting point you will begin mapping out your long and short term goals. You need the big picture before you work out the specifics and details. A mentor can help you with this and chances are they’ve gone through the same steps themselves.
Today I am as old as my mentor was when he first took me under his wing and introduced me to a profession I love and a life’s work that brings me a lot of joy. I’ve gone from being the student to being the teacher. For the past 10 or so years I’ve used my position to help and encourage aspiring archaeologists. I will offer any and every opportunity that I think will benefit them. I give my time freely, share my insights and experience, and offer the best advice I can. That’s the example that was set for me by my mentors. I guess you could say I’m continuing their tradition and passing it down to the next generation of archaeologists.
By: Jon C. Endonino, Ph.D., Eastern Kentucky University