Is Archaeology a Legitimate Profession?

Show Me Your License!

Please note: The views expressed below do not represent the SAA, the RPA, or the PAC. They are my own.

This is not the logo of the Association of Professional Archaeologists, nor on the APA Certificate, which does not exist.

Sitting here on a late February morning, I’ve been reflecting on a February 8th webinar I attended that was sponsored by the Society for American Archaeology.  Titled, the “Future of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) Archaeology in the United States,”  it was intended to be an expansive review of where CRM is going.  Sitting through the webinar, virtually all of the speakers zeroed in on staffing, more specifically the current and anticipated lack of both field crew and directors and principal investigators, exacerbated by the expected demands of the Build Back Better Act and the more recent Inflation Reduction Act.

Most of the discussion outlined the problem in stark terms, but few practical remedies were offered, mostly revolving around better pay and improving the public perceptions of archaeology in general, with the goal of enticing undergraduates to take up the cause.

I think we could agree that improving the pipeline to a new generation of archaeologists is necessary.  I think we also could all see that better pay should improve the attractiveness for archaeology as a living.  But having spent my career in CRM as an agency manager, having spent my career hiring and developing archaeologists, I do have some strong opinions on both the problems, which by the way has taken a few decades to develop, and the potential solutions, all of which require much more than tapping your emerald slippers together and wishing it so.

What Are the Problems?

Beginning on the problem side, there are a few stubborn facts related to the practice of archaeology.  First and probably foremost is that archaeology is a labor-intensive enterprise, and labor is expensive.  Technology has nipped at the corners: GPS replacing transits and alidades; drones and LIDAR replacing aerial photography; tablets replacing paper forms.  Yet, to date, no one has figured out a way to expedite finding artifacts in the ground, so the process of surface survey and shovel test pits, and test units will continue to consume many hours of our attention.  On the back end, there is artifact processing, cleaning, cataloguing, and curating.  And this doesn’t even take into account the end goal of making sense of it all, although a wag could suggest that CRM rarely gets there anyway, so why worry.  We may reach the point where AI can assist in artifact identification, but in 2023 we aren’t there.  And for reasons below, AI might well lag behind.  Labor costs still represent the bulk of expenses for any archaeological undertaking, especially in CRM.  In the United States, even where the pay is poor, archaeology is an expensive proposition.  Pay equity, by which I mean pay commensurate with other fields requiring similar knowledge and skills, won’t make archaeology less expensive.

The second problem, one which we all acknowledge in different ways, is that archaeology is a knowledge discipline. It is like a practice akin to medicine or law.  Experience matters.  More experience usually (although not always) translate into more skill.  We have acknowledged this through making Secretary of Interior Standards more stringent than any other historic preservation field, requiring a Master’s Degree as a minimum for professional qualification.  We have acknowledged this by placing emphasis on field schools and a long apprenticeship.  We have acknowledged this by pushing a trade-like training progression from field crew to crew chief, to project director to principal investigator.  I would argue that there is a deeply psychological reason for the emphasis on practice and experience.  At its core, archaeology is a field of deep curiosity, an n-dimensional chess game with an impossible goal – telling the history of peoples who are no longer there to tell those stories, relying heavily on the unwritten record of scraps of material culture, tumbled in the ground in chaotic and/or predictable ways (thank you, Michael Schiffer).  The hunt for that story is what differentiates us from cultural anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and pot hunters.  I would argue that the quest for those histories is what marks a true archaeologist.  And it is that quest that makes us all compulsive in utilizing any and every technique or discipline out there to achieve our goals.

In the field and in the lab, the question of “what am I seeing” is immediately followed by “why am I seeing it” and “why is it here and not there?” To complicate the training of an archaeologist, more of the same experience is not helpful, but different experiences are.  Digging 10,000 shovel test pits really doesn’t teach you more about stratigraphy than digging 100.  Learning flakes, cores, and tools from one kind of meta-rhyolite is one thing, but differentiating flaked tool types from all the stone used in a region is something else.  Stratigraphy has so many “gotcha” moments that seeing a process the first time is both exhilarating and confusing.  Almost no archaeologists have “seen it all.”  Back to whether AI can help us.  AI appears to be very good at predicting what you already know, regurgitating truths about the mean.  This is largely because AI relies on past experience to predict the future experience.  AI is much less skilled at figuring out surprises.  And archaeology is if anything, a sequence of surprises.  

Licensure – One Solution

What is the point of this long digression into the complexities of our profession?  It’s this.  We are facing a national crisis in workforce numbers. It is coming too quickly.  The entire archaeological community needs to work together to address this now.  We cannot rely on methods of education and training that have served us for a generation.  It’s clearly not working. It’s too slow and too inefficient.  The Academy has largely dragged its feet in adapting its educational focus and methods.  What is needed now is a focused and consistent effort that will necessarily sacrifice exactitude and precision for broadly effective measures.

The general building blocks to create an archaeologist have been there for a long time: graduate education and hands-on experience.  The Register for Professional Archaeologists have established standards for each, but we haven’t done what other professions have done – specific course content requirements, testing, and most importantly, licensure.     Licensure, the same way doctors and dentists are licensed, the same way lawyers are licensed, the same way electricians are licensed.  Fields that require greater skills than archaeology, fields that have greater consequences, all have a minimum agreed upon standard to enter into that profession.  The standard(s) are both national and statewide.  And these standards are written into state laws, along with the infrastructure necessary to implement them, e.g. governing boards.   We have neither the baseline standards nor the state-sanctioned licensing.  I think the root of our problems is our inability to measure our competence in a field as far-ranging, as problem-solving, and as squishy as ours.  And to definitively state who is in and who is out.  Other difficult fields have managed to do so.

What is the impact of not having formal licensure?  In my former life, in the land of engineers at PennDOT, we had a lot of employees who had civil engineering degrees but were not PE’s, i.e., professional engineers.

From the National Society of Professional Engineer’s website (

What makes a PE different from an engineer?

  • Only a licensed engineer may prepare, sign and seal, and submit engineering plans and drawings to a public authority for approval, or seal engineering work for public and private clients.
  • PEs shoulder the responsibility for not only their work, but also for the lives affected by that work and must hold themselves to high ethical standards of practice.
  • Licensure for a consulting engineer or a private practitioner is not something that is merely desirable; it is a legal requirement for those who are in responsible charge of work, be they principals or employees.
  • Licensure for engineers in government has become increasingly significant. In many federal, state, and municipal agencies, certain governmental engineering positions, particularly those considered higher level and responsible positions, must be filled by licensed professional engineers.
  • Many states require that individuals teaching engineering must also be licensed. Exemptions to state laws are under attack, and in the future, those in education, as well as industry and government, may need to be licensed to practice. Also, licensure helps educators prepare students for their future in engineering.

Speaking about lives affected by civil engineers, all you need to do is look at Turkey and Syria and the disregard for building codes to see what kind of consequences can arise.  At PennDOT, engineers that were not PE’s were limited by job description.  At the highest levels of management, PennDOT could have an administrator who was not a PE. When they did, they necessarily created a second equivalent position whose only responsibility was to be the PE when needed.

An occupation more closely related to archaeology is geology. Professional geologists are also licensed and the National Association of State Boards of Geologists lets us know what’s at stake (

Unqualified geologists, who are employed in jobs that affect the public, place an undue risk on the health, safety and welfare of that public. The risks include:

  • The possibility of an error that will cause a loss of life or property
  • The higher costs of supervision
  • The costs of repeating incorrect and incomplete work
  • Lower cost/benefit ratios brought about by an inability to do efficient work

The national organization for professional geologists, the AIPG, was formed in 1963.  In Pennsylvania, their licensure came in 1992.  It still operates effectively.  The Society for American Archaeology was formed in 1932, the American Anthropological Society in 1902, the Archaeological Institute of America in 1879 , and the Society for Historical Archaeology in 1967.  In 1976, SOPA (Society of Professional Archaeologists), the precursor to RPA was formed in response to the challenges of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974.  Thirty years after AIPG, licensure for professional geologists was established in Pennsylvania.  Today state licensure for geologists is in place for 40 of the 50 states.  Fifty years after the establishment of SOPA, no states have archaeological licensure. Licensure for archaeologists only exists elsewhere outside the US, such as in several Canadian Provinces.

You may well say that engineering or geology is a hard science and it is unfair to compare it to archaeology.  In Pennsylvania, here are some of the occupations that require a state license:  accountants, auctioneers, barbers, real estate appraisers, crane operators, funeral directors, landscape architects, massage therapists, psychologists, and car sales people, not to mention those in the medical profession.  Tell me honestly, if these occupations require state licensure, why should archaeologists be exempt?

Not having licensure comes with real costs. In Pennsylvania, there is no job title “Professional Archaeologist.”  The archaeologists hired by the Commonwealth are hired under related but non-equivalent job titles, such as historic preservation specialist or museum curator, and which have much lower standards, with pay commensurate with those lower standards.  

Of what worth is archaeology? We don’t save lives in the operating room, or design bridges that won’t collapse, but frankly most professionals in other fields are rarely called to this level of accountability.  Computer programs design most of our bridges, with engineers monitoring the process.  I do believe that archeology has a necessary place in the discussion of our national history, not just in complying with Section 106.  Frankly, archaeologists have done a poor job explaining our value to society.  Hell, we can’t even get our national organization (SAA) to value the one part of archaeology – CRM – that is valuable to society.  Should a bunch of dilettantes playing in the dirt get paid?  Nah!  And then we complain about our pay comparable to other fields, and why students aren’t flocking to us.

Lack of minimum standards is reflected in our work product.  It is uneven at best.  Some practitioners that 10 out of 10 archaeologists would agree are unqualified to conduct archaeology continue to be employed and contracted.  We have no way to police this because we have no ruler to use, either to measure or to smack with.  The flip side of lack of common minimum standards is that anyone and everyone is qualified.  Anyone can claim to be a professional archaeologist (and do).  If you belong to RPA, there is an internal process, but no one is required to belong to RPA.  

Finally, there’s the lack of respect as a legitimate discipline.  A professional engineer can claim a “PE” after their name and it is backed up by state law.  PE’s have great responsibility, but also have earned respect.  The same with geologists, or architects.  We can put an MA or PhD after our names, but speaking from experience, that doesn’t guarantee any level of competence.  We disrespect ourselves by not having a national minimum competency standard.  Then we complain that our profession has no respect with agencies or the public.

Licensure presumes a common standard, and although implemented state by state, is generally established nationally.  Wouldn’t adopting the NPS standards do the trick?  NPS standards are a start, but is probably too loose to be effective.  And there is a glaring omission in the standards for any knowledge of the National Historic Preservation Act or Section 106, under which the vast majority of archaeological work is done.  Finally, what does adopting mean?  The Park Service has talked about revising the standards for several decades with no final outcome.  Without a national infrastructure to enforce the standards, the NPS standards are just some piece of regulation tucked away in a sea of other regulations; the Park Service has demonstrated its inability to be the organization to scaffold that structure.

This is where the SAA, and SHA, and RPA could be effective.  These groups should define the national minimum standards of knowledge and practice required to be a professional archaeologist.  These are the groups with the standing to undertake this national effort.  I keep saying the word national because smaller regional or state efforts will only create confusion.  Yes, I understand that field methods in Arizona are not the same as in Pennsylvania, but if I am in Arizona and talking with an archaeologist there, we both speak archaeology.  We understand each other.

Licensure and national minimum standards would align all of us on a common standard and allow a coordinated effort to establish licensure in each state.  From this we could establish who can and cannot be a professional archaeologist, state by state.  Universities would clearly know what coursework would be needed.  Those interested in offering an education in archaeology that could actually lead to a job would pay attention.  Governmental job descriptions could be aligned with professional needs.  Licensure would be a pathway to pay equity.  The common standard would also facilitate reciprocity between states, enabling an archaeologist licensed in Pennsylvania to work in New York or Ohio, or beyond.  However, until we establish national minimum standards, we are going to be flailing away on small and limited efforts.  

If we are going to develop the workforce needed for the future of CRM, we need better national ground rules and efficiencies in all of our programs.  Frankly, we can’t afford to waste one course or one day in the field for the benefit of training our future archaeologists.  Before students commit to a career in archaeology, they deserve to know precisely what they need to know and do to be considered a professional.

For Part II: Shortening the Educational Trail, click here.

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