Geoarchaeologists specialize in conducting archaeological research using methods and concepts developed in various earth science fields, such as:
The basic premise behind geoarchaeology is that a large part of cultural history can be understood through the study of the soils and landscapes of archaeological sites. There is an inescapable connection between archaeological material and the ground that surrounds it. By placing cultural material into its proper environmental context, geoarchaeologists can help to bring about a more correct, in-depth, and nuanced understanding of the cultural past.
Many geoarchaeologists direct their research interests toward assembling the landscape histories of archaeological sites. Since the beginning of human occupation, the earth’s surface has constantly been reshaping through both natural processes and human activity. Therefore, the landforms and terrains of a contemporary archaeological site may not be consistent with those of the past.
Through the use of various earth science techniques, geoarchaeologists determine how a landscape has changed through time and how this has affected such pressing archaeological research concerns as human settlement patterns, artifact displacement, and site integrity.
While some geoarchaeologists focus on landscape histories and earth surface dynamics, others concentrate on the location and study of archaeological remains and stratigraphic layers through geophysical survey. Geophysical survey refers to a wide range of sensing technologies in which subsurface data can be collected from the ground surface.
One example of a geophysical surveying technique is ground penetrating radar (GPR). Through GPR, high frequency radar pulses are emitted into the ground through an antenna. These pulses reflect off of subsurface soil changes and anomalies (e.g., archaeological features) and are then received back at the ground surface. Upon capturing these radar reflections, geoarchaeologists can produce a subsurface map that can help guide the placement of excavation units and to identify areas that should be avoided.
Through the use of GPR and other geophysical surveying techniques, such as magnetometry and electromagnetic conductivity, geoarchaeologists focus on conducting archaeological investigations in a less destructive, less time-consuming, and more cost-effective manner than traditional archaeological field methods.
Education and Training Requirements
Most geoarchaeologists have a master’s or doctorate degree in archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, or geophysics. While pursuing their degree, individuals should focus their studies on one or more aspects of the field that interests them the most, such as soil science or geophysical surveying techniques.
A number of universities offer archaeological field schools that incorporate a geoarchaeological component into their research. Students interested in geoarchaeology are encouraged to check out the resources that we have provided on our “Field Schools” page to find programs that are best suited to their interests.
Salary and Advancement Opportunities
Depending on location and employer, full-time geoarchaeologists can expect to earn an average annual salary of approximately $40,000 to $70,000. Many individuals begin their career as technicians on field crews for projects that incorporate a geoarchaeological component.
With increased education and experience, geoarchaeologists may gain access to a number of different career paths. Many cultural resource management firms hire geoarchaeologists to record and interpret soil samples in support of archaeological investigations and to write sections of reports. Environmental firms also staff geoarchaeologists to conduct investigations and to serve as consultants for clients. Many colleges and universities hire geoarchaeologists into their anthropology department or one of their earth science departments, such as geology or geography, to teach students and conduct research.
Geoarchaeologists can expect gradual job growth in the coming years. Practitioners of archaeology are increasingly beginning to understand the importance of soil studies to their research, while the nondestructive and cost-effective qualities of geophysical survey techniques are progressively becoming more appealing across the board.