Letter to a Young Archaeologist November 2023

The Board Members of the Institute of Archaeologists Ireland (IAI).

Quote reading 'all specialisms have a common core, that element of archaeology that drives us all; the ability to step back to a moment in time.

In this edition of Letters to a Young Archaeologist several of the board of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI) give their advice to budding young archaeologists.

Who we are and what do we do?

The IAI (https://www.iai.ie/) is the representative all-island organisation for professional archaeologists working in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The aim of the IAI, through the representation of our members, is to advance and strengthen the profession of archaeology in Ireland. Our vision is that we will have a vibrant and sustainable archaeological profession that actively contributes to the protection of our archaeological resource, which in turn contributes to the social and economic wellbeing of the entire community. Our board is made up of a diverse group of professionals, academics and one student representative.

From the chair: Dr Ros Ó Maoldúin

Dear Young Archaeologist,
The one piece of advice I have for you is to develop a habit of writing and publishing early on. Many archaeologists, especially those who enter a digging career straight from undergraduate studies forget to keep this habit up, until they start to run their own excavations. Also, when writing be respectful of previous opinions but feel free to develop and voice your own ideas. Don’t worry about getting an interpretation wrong. It is perfectly fine to reevaluate and change your mind about something you have published in the past because of new data or perspectives. The highlight of my career so far was getting to run a university accredited fieldschool for several years. This allowed me to choose the sites I wanted to excavate, specifically wedge tombs, a type of Chalcolithic tomb predominantly found in the west of Ireland. I am currently bringing that project to publication and hope that will be another career highlight.

A photo of Ros (left) digging inside a wedge tomb with his colleague Dr Ger Dowling.

From the Hon. Secretary: Robyn Kelly

Dear Young Archaeologist,
My advice to you is to remember that you don’t have all the answers - and that’s okay! None of us do. Keep an open mind whether you are interpreting a feature or making decisions on your career path, and don’t allow yourself to get caught up in putting things into boxes (unless you’re packing artefacts, that is). Careers in archaeology are wide ranging, full of wonderful and varied opportunities. Try things out, make mistakes, gain experience in as many ways as you can before you settle on a path, and don’t be afraid to not know where you are going. Be prepared to get your hands dirty on the way. You never know where you may end up.

My career highlight came in the form of working as Inventory Assistant in the NMI. It shifted my view of archaeology, both as a career and a field of study, entirely. It was vastly different than my other experience in fieldwork and not at all what I expected, but it has opened up many more doors and new potential paths to follow. 


Am image of Robyn Kelly carefully excavating the base of a n early medieval well.

From our Treasurer: Dr Niamh McCullagh

Dear Young Archaeologist,
The world is your oyster when it comes to Archaeology, there are so many varied specialities and niches; you can combine all of your interests or focus on just one. The opportunities to expand your view is limited only by you. However, all specialisms have a common core, that element of archaeology that drives us all; the ability to step back to a moment in time. We are a witness to that moment when the broken pot was thrown in the prehistoric rubbish pit, when shoes were left at the end of a Viking bed, or a meal that was left unfinished in the open fire.
My advice would be to get as much field work experience as you can when you start out and then follow a specialism that suits you most. If you find an area that speaks to you, you will never have a dull day in archaeology, other than the weather. 


From our Ordinary Board member: Sally Siggins

Dear Young Archaeologist,
Confucius once said ‘Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life’ and so far in my experience that has been very true (except for the odd day when it rained continually). Archaeology is a wonderful discipline and has so many varied avenues to discover. I studied applied archaeology (2012-2016), worked in commercial archaeology (2016-2019) and now I’m a tour guide at a prehistoric archaeological site (2019-present). It’s mind-blowing to discover and excavate ancient artefacts, my favourites include: blue glass beads, stone tools and a log boat. I have been inspired by the archaeological landscapes that surrounded me from a young age in the north-west of Ireland. I continue to be inspired and try to share this now through my work. My challenge for you is to keep exploring and help pave the way for the next generation of archaeological discoveries.

Two images of Sally Siggins, one in which she is a four year old explorer, and the other a 29 year old Head Guide with OPW.

From our Ordinary Board member and former chair: James Kyle

Dear Young Archaeologist,
Our shared heritage is important, but your mental health & wellbeing is more important. If you feel something isn’t right, it probably isn’t and if you see others being treated unfairly, stand with them. Ask yourself are you ok and ask your colleagues and friends are they ok? To that end joining a professional organisation which represents archaeologists such as IAI and/or CIfA is good, but so is joining a union like the Archaeological Branch of Unite the Union in Ireland or Prospect in the UK. By respecting ourselves and ensuring others do the same we can enjoy the profession we love, whilst living the lives we want. Never allow yourself to be deemed less important than “the job”!


From our CPD Coordinator and Administrator: Dr Niamh Kelly

Dear Young Archaeologist,
My advice to you is to share your passion. Share it with your peers in class or at work. Go to the conference, give the paper, ask questions, and talk with your fellow archaeologists. Archaeology has such a wonderful and diverse community, with different interests and specialities, so you always have something to give to the conversation and always have something to take from it too. Communicating with our wide network of colleagues across the UK, Ireland and beyond will help you grow exponentially as an archaeologist. 
If you can, try and share your passion outside of our community too. In many ways, we’re the lucky ones who get to study and work in a field that we love, but many others did not have that opportunity, or stood on the precipice and were afraid to take that leap. There is so much enthusiasm for archaeology among the wider public, and it can be a very rewarding experience to share your passion with them too. While I am lucky to have many highlights in my career, one I am most proud of was establishing archaeology programmes for children in schools and having the opportunity to bring our past to life for them. 


Niamh (right) explaining replica artefacts to a young family at a UCD festival.