By Jacqueline Matthews. Based on the recent articles in Australian Archaeology 76, ‘A working profile: The changing face of professional archaeology in Australia‘ by Sean Ulm, Geraldine Mate, Cameo Dalley and Stephen Nichols, and ‘The opportunities and challenges of graduate level teaching in cultural heritage management‘ by Lynley Wallis, Alice Gorman and Heather Burke.
Archaeology in Australia is still a relatively young discipline yet, even after a mere four decades of professional archaeology in this country, there have been some significant changes. Developing from a largely academic discipline the most dramatic change has been expansion of the cultural heritage management sector, i.e. where archaeologists work for private industry such as mining, power, transport and development companies. This post discusses two recent articles in Australian Archaeology that introduce the reader to the current practice of Australian archaeology. Contemporary archaeology requires a range of diverse skills that do not automatically come out of a typical undergraduate degree; one of the key issues that will be discussed here is the lack of adequate training that typical graduates receive and the ways that this is being addressed.
In their paper, Sean Ulm, Geraldine Mate, Cameo Dalley and Steve Nichols present the results of the 2010 Australian Archaeology in Profile: A Survey of Working Archaeologists (AAP) survey. This is the second AAP survey, the first was conducted in 2005. By comparing results from the two surveys, the authors were able to show how Australian archaeology has changed in the last five years. The most obvious change is in where professional archaeologists are employed, showing a shift towards consulting/private industry, reflecting the influence of the mining boom on archaeology. There has also been a shift towards Indigenous archaeology over the last five years, with 66.4% of respondents now working in this field (compared to 52.2% in 2005). This also reflects the influence of the mining sector, as well as heritage legislation requirements, which have seen more archaeologists engaging with Indigenous archaeology, especially in Victoria. For those interested in who we are, increasingly archaeologists are young: Ulm et al.’s survey indicated that almost 62% of those who responded were 45 or under—this, of course, relates in part to the relative ‘newness’ of archaeology as a discipline in this country. Another interesting finding was that there was an almost even split in gender (53% female and 47% male); however, women tend to dominate the younger age groups and men the oldest, indicating that this equality is a relatively new trend (see reading recommendations at the end for more on women in Australian archaeology).
Perhaps one of the most important things that came out of the AAP survey was a better understanding of the skills, self-identified, professional archaeologists need and whether there are any skill gaps in recent graduates joining the workforce: it turns out that there are! The surveys highlighted that current archaeology graduates (i.e. those who have just completed an archaeology undergraduate degree with honours, which is the minimum requirement to be an archaeologist in Australia) were not equipped with all of the skills they most commonly needed to work as a professional archaeologist—particularly practical skills that cannot be taught in a traditional classroom. This finding will not be of surprise to anyone working within archaeology, as there have been complaints and concerns over the lack of graduate training for decades now. So what are we doing about this problem?
One solution to the problem of ill-prepared graduates is discussed in another AA76 article, this time by Lynley Wallis, Alice Gorman and Heather Burke, in which they reflect on the experience of creating a graduate programme at Flinders University. Until very recently there has been a lack of graduate programmes in Australia, which is an issue because it is in such programmes that students can receive comprehensive practical and theoretical training tailored to the professional workplace rather than geared towards a research career. The absence of graduate programmes is a function of both how young the discipline is and the typical lack of cross-over between academia and industry. This lack of cross-over has meant that university courses are generally developed with academic goals in mind but not to suit market demand for well-trained graduates or provide students with skills they need in the professional workplace. The development of professional archaeology graduate programmes is an important way of addressing skills gaps and ultimately producing better trained archaeologists.
Graduate programmes offer a way to break down some of the distinctions between academic and industry based archaeology. As reported by Wallis et al., the students taking these courses have typically already completed an undergraduate or honours degree and, because of this experience are far more discerning about what they expect to get out of the programme. Often the students know themselves what skills they are lacking and enter these programmes specifically to increase their likelihood of finding full-time employment. The graduate programme developed at Flinders University has been demonstrated to provide a flexible way for graduates to extend their professional skills and training. Part of the flexible training involves field schools and working directly with industry partners, since practical experience is invaluable in archaeology, especially in the consulting industry where flexibility and an ability to make effective decisions quickly is critical.
Graduate programmes are not the only way of getting practical training in archaeology in Australia. As highlighted by Ulm et al., most professional archaeologists (93%) do at least some volunteering. Volunteering has traditionally played a key role in archaeological training and learning in Australia, by providing a way to get practical experience as well as training from more experienced archaeologists. But, unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of time to devote to unpaid volunteer work and for many students this option does not suit their economic situation.
Australian archaeology had always been a dynamic and changing discipline, and this will continue. Training people in the practical aspects of archaeology entails more than just teaching them how to use a trowel. Increasingly, the skills of archaeologists as cultural heritage professionals are becoming more diverse and require flexibility and adaptability. Consequently, students expect more from their degrees and are expressing increasing concerns about how employable their time at university will make them—this ultimately has led to the development of professional archaeology graduate programmes, such as the one at Flinders University, and can be seen to be continuing with a similar Masters of Professional Archaeology degree now offered at the University of Western Australia.
So the take-home message for students of archaeology is to be aware that the skills you will need to be a professional archaeologist and gain employment in this field do not come automatically with an undergraduate or even an honours degree. But, there is a range of opportunities to help you develop these skills. Enrolling in a graduate programme or doing volunteer work are just two of the main ways current graduates are securing the training they need.
For more information:
AAA Study Options: How do I study to become an archaeologist in Australia?
Bowman, J.K. and S. Ulm 2009 Grants, gender and glass ceilings? An analysis of ARC-funded archaeology projects. Australian Archaeology 69:31–36.
Smith, C. and H. Burke 2006 Glass ceilings, glass parasols and Australian academic archaeology. Australian Archaeology 62:13–25.