Pharaohs of the SunMFA Boston
Exhibition HighlightsAkhenaten's WorldExcavations at AmarnaSift the EvidenceLearning ResourcesAsk an Archaeologist
Archaeologists always find something more to wonder about, and we hope you will, too. Here's your chance to ask questions of a real archaeologist. If you don't find what you want to know in this list of questions answered by an MFA archaeologist, send your question to While MFA archaeologists can't answer every question (they're busy making new discoveries), selected questions will be answered every week.
What kind of training and/or experience do you need to became an archaeologist?
Archaeology today makes use of a number of different disciplines. First, you need training in fieldwork techniques, excavation methods and recording systems for the different types of sites and terrains you might face. The dry sandy desert of Egypt is a very different challenge from the rain forests of South America! A thorough training in the history and material culture of the country you work in is also a must. Then you need training or people who can handle jobs like surveying, photography, drafting, stratigraphy, and analysis of flora and fauna. You also need specialists in ceramics, history, architecture, databases, and recording. Depending on the site, the list could go on!
How would I find out more about becoming an archaeologist?
There are many field schools around the world where you can get actual archaeological experience, sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee. Choose the area and type of work that interests you: prehistoric archaeology, cemeteries and burial grounds, historic buildings, temples, settlement sites, both ancient and not so ancient. In addition to actual fieldwork experience, there are classroom programs in the archaeology of your chosen area. To make real progress and one day lead your own dig, you will eventually need a degree, a BA, and MA or even a PhD in archaeology.
What are living conditions like out in the field? Where do you sleep? What do you eat?
 This always depends on the site you work at. Some sites are in the US next to a major American city, where you live at home, and have the evenings and weekends off. Others are in the Egyptian desert, where you are on the site full time, and quite far from home and friends. Perhaps you are living in Cairo, with an apartment and all the restaurants of the city waiting for you. Or perhaps you are out at one of the oases, sleeping in canvas tents and eating food prepared on site by the expedition cook day after day. Archaeology provides a wide range of living experiences, but generally conditions are rougher than what you get at home!
What happens to all the stuff you dig up? Do you keep it all?
 These days all responsible archaeological digs work with the permission of the local antiquities authorities. If the finds are divided, they are done so according to the rules of these authorities. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Egyptian Antiquities Service assigned many objects to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, while many others went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Why do you put old, broken stuff in an art museum? Isn’t art supposed to be beautiful?
Broken objects often can tell us just as much about a culture as complete objects can. We don’t want to discard half the evidence just because it wasn’t lucky enough to survive intact for thousands of years. Scholars who come to study this material would only see a fraction of the culture if they only studied perfect examples of ceramics, inscriptions, or statues! Some objects might not ever be put on display in a museum, but they are still valuable members of an archaeological group of objects from a particular site, tomb, house, or temple.
Do you ever find things that stump you? What do you do when you can’t figure out what something is/was used for?
There are always mysteries in archaeology! Many questions remain to be answered, and no one archeologist is an expert on every type of object, every inscription, or every period. That is when you get help-specialists who can come in and give you advice, opinions, help you guess, or even publish the material with you in a chapter in your book about the excavation. We all rely on each other to help round out the picture!
What’s the most exciting thing you ever found? Why was it important?
For me personally, it was excavating the burial of an over-five thousand year old Egyptian female in the desert west of the Nile, surrounded by many funerary ceramics and objects carefully placed in a semi-circle around her. She was laid to rest more than five hundred years before the Pyramids were built at Giza!
How long will it take to finish the excavations at Amarna?
Some excavations will never be finished completely. Archaeologists often lack the funding, the technology, and the people to work as long, as hard, or as efficiently as they would like. And there are other obligations too that slow a dig down, such as teaching, weather (too hot or too cold to dig), fund-raising, research and writing. But never finishing a site completely is also a good thing, since with each generation, new excavation techniques come along, and so it is very useful to have some areas still undisturbed. Many times we wish that an early excavator had not dug at a particular spot because we feel we have such better equipment and techniques now, and could have done a much better job. But our colleagues in the future will no doubt say the same things about us!
How do you know where to dig?
Often surface finds or existing features (walls, foundations, assemblages of artifacts) can tip you off to the presence and function of an archaeological site. If you aren’t lucky enough to have giant pyramids staring you in the face, aerial photography, surface-walking surveys, can help you pinpoint promising sites. And there are many methods for analyzing underground features, such as walls and other structures, before digging even begins. Magnetic resistivity and other remote sensing techniques can help you make a plan of sub-surface archaeological sites that are invisible to the eye!
When you dig, are you looking for something in particular or are you just digging to see what you can find?
 No one has the time or the money to just "dig blindly." Usually, you have a theory you want to test or a body of material you want to analyze. You want to dig a town site to learn about how the people lived, how big their houses were, what kind of jobs they had and how their lives were organized. You clear an ancient temple because you want to find out what these ancient people believed, what kinds of gods they had and how they worshiped. By bringing more ancient evidence to light, you gain a greater understanding of ancient societies. You learn how they differ from ours, but also how they were similar. Then you can refine your questions, and return the following season with an even better digging strategy.

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