Posted by in Features.

What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of the material remains of past human societies. For many years, it has been recognised as an important and exciting subject to study at University. The discipline covers a remarkable span of time and investigates some of the profoundly important developments of the human story, such as the beginnings of the human species, the discovery of farming and the emergence of early urban civilizations. Many of these developments, like the greater part of past times, are beyond the range of traditional historical methods and can only be studied through the archaeological record. Today, archaeologists regularly collaborate with scientists working in such disciplines as botany and physics in, for example, the analysis of environmental remains and the dating of ancient objects.

The wide scope of archaeology, in time, space and methodology, is one of the features that makes the subject so attractive to professional and amateur alike and to those who study it in University. There is something to interest everyone—whether their interests lie in outdoor fieldwork and exploring ancient monuments, the study of artifacts, the history of technology, local studies or simply in the rich heritage of Ireland’s past. Archaeology is a constantly changing discipline, fed by new discoveries, new theoretical approaches and analytical methods.

Careers in Archaeology

Career opportunities in archaeology are steadily growing and fall into three main areas—fieldwork (Excavation and surveying), heritage (museums, interpretive centres etc.) and teaching (at both second and third level). To become a successful archaeologist in any of these areas, it is first necessary to study archaeology at third level. The standard entry route into this profession, and the one I followed, is via a Bachelor of Arts degree—in my case National University of Ireland, Galway. Similar degrees which also offer archaeology as a subject can be undertaken at Queens University Belfast, University College Cork and NUI Dublin.

In Galway, the minimum academic requirements for admission to the BA programme are a pass in at least six subjects (including Irish, English and another language) at the Leaving Certificate Examination, with at least grade C3 in two subjects on the Higher course and at least grade D3 (ordinary or Higher course) in the remaining four subjects. Four subjects are studied in the first year, from the twenty-one on offer. In the second year two of the previous year’s subjects are pursued, and completed in the third and final year. In my first year, I studied Irish, English, Sociology and Politics (counts as one subject) and, of course, archaeology, retaining archaeology and English for my final two years.

Having obtained my BA or primary degree, I then decided to undertake a post-graduate degree or Master of Arts (MA). This consisted of a year dedicated to research, essay-writing and exams, followed by a year spent writing a thesis. Having an MA degree makes it easier to secure good quality employment and many students decide to pursue this path. I have recently taken the academic route to its final conclusion by completing a four-year Doctoral or PhD thesis.

Throughout my years at University, I have spent my summers working in the field—starting as an unskilled volunteer and gradually working my way up to supervisory roles on various teaching experience along the way, both tutoring and lecturing and am now well prepared to work in any of the three areas mentioned above.

Michelle Comber, Archaeologist


We are grateful to Michelle for the time and effort she devoted to writing this item on her chosen career. Hopefully, it will be of interest to some young people who are presently (or will shortly be) trying to make decisions in this direction. We would hope to bring you similar items over the coming months on a variety of careers—Mary.