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Seek a future in the past

Does Machu Pichu ring a bell? Or the very mention of the Mayan civilisation send your gray cells into overdrive wondering about its fall? Then you could consider making a career in archaeology. Of course, you need to have oodles of patience to dig, shovel, chip and brush away centuries of dirt and dust from ancient artefacts and cajole them into telling a story. And the ability to brave extreme weather, scarcity of basic necessities and staying far away from home.

Think you have it in you? Then here’s what you have to do. To become an archaeologist you need to graduate in history — ancient, medieval or modern. Then you could do your postgraduation in history or straightaway do an MA or MSc in archaeology. Some universities even offer a bachelors degree in archaeology but it is better if you have a history background. “A grounding in history, especially ancient history, will stand you in good stead,” says Nilima Sen, former curator of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. “It will give you a broadness of vision.”

The Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management, affiliated to Guru Govind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, offers two special programmes — a masters in conservation, preservation and heritage management and another in archaeology and heritage management. Graduates in history, museology, architecture, town planning, geology, archaeology and anthropology are eligible to apply. The Institute of Archaeology, under the Archaeological Survey of India, offers a two-year postgraduate diploma in archaeology with extensive, hands-on experience.

Students interested in field work can then go on to do their PhD.

Most foreign governments only give permission to archeologists with doctorate degrees to excavate. A PhD is also essential for those who want to go into academics. There is scope even for those who want to start working after their postgraduation. “Clear the UPSC exam and get a job with the Archeological Survey of India (ASI),” says Bishnupriya Basak, senior lecturer in the department of archeology, Calcutta University.

“The ASI is the biggest employer of archeologists in India,” says P.B.S. Sengar, director, Institute of Archeology. “Apart from excavating or overseeing the excavation of places of historical interest, the ASI also looks after the conservation of historical sites and monuments.” One can also join the ASI through the Staff Selection Commission. You can also join the state department of archeology by clearing the state public service commission exam. That apart, archeologists can find employment as curators of museums, private trusts and as consultants to research institutes which take up archeological projects every once in a while. They can also take up research work at the Indian Council of Historical Research, the National Archives and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

An assistant archeologist at ASI, who starts off at around Rs 9,000 a month, can go on to become assistant superintendent archeologist, deputy superintendent and superintendenting archeologist. At this stage one has to supervise specific projects. At the top are director, joint director, additional director general and director general. Those at the top make about Rs 24,000 a month. Those employed with private trusts earn a lot more.

To become a successful archeologist you need to be patient, an analytical bent of mind as well as the ability to rebuild the past by putting together the pieces of stories that excavated objects tell you.

“Students should work on at least one excavation,” says R.K. Chattopadhyay, who teaches archeology at Calcutta University. This will help them pick their specialisation. A student can work as an artefact illustrator (makes detailed pen and ink drawings of artefacts), faunal specialist (studies animal bones), floral specialist (studies plant remains) and a field technician (conducts excavations and prepares maps) on an archeological dig.

After gaining a foothold in the field, an archeologist can specialise in genealogy, paleontology, anthropology and ethonology or choose to become an art conservator.

“What attracts me to this field is the detective work you have to do,” says Sanghamitra Roy, a student of history at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. She plans to take up archeology and work on an excavation in future. “I am grateful to Agatha Christie for introducing me to this fascinating field,” Roy adds. Dame Agatha was married to archeologist Max Mallowan and quite a few of her detective books are based in archeological digs in Egypt.

So what are you waiting for? Make a future out of the past.

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