Archaeology with chemistry – Are you Mad?

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I often am subject to a squinting of eyes or contorted face of bemusement when asked about my degree. Yes I studied archaeology, yes I studied chemistry. No they aren’t the opposite of each other. In fact archaeology and chemistry dovetail exceptionally well; people often forget that while archaeologists spend weeks and months on a dig site, there is also post excavation work to be done and part of that work can be chemical testing. Archaeologists in lab coats may conjure to mind ancient CSI but the work of the chemical archaeologist is a major component of field testing.

Soil profiles may make some people yawn but range and depth of knowledge gained from their analysis is of great importance, especially concerning the factors that affect preservation of materials; a well documented soil profile with properties such as pH and reduction potential (Eh) can inform us of which cultural and material remains we may expect to find at the site, as well as the conditions at the time of deposition. DNA analysis comes under chemical analysis, as do new forms of lipid analysis and other biomolecular analysis.


Talking about soils and strata,  I don’t think anyone would question a Geology and Archaeology degree but would they question a combination of what they see as a “Hard science” and archaeology?

I began my university career in chemistry, a pure STEM student, interested in nuclear chemistry, quantum mechanics and materials; I left my university career with a mix of archaeology and chemistry loving theory and solid state chemistry. The transition was something of a bumpy ride, probably not helped by my occasional failings, however I pulled through and got my degree. During this time there was a significant difference in the classes I took in chemistry and in archaeology, in structure and materials of course but also in the kind of students that were attracted to these different areas of study. It is entirely possible that this is just some delusion that I tell myself to keep myself entertained that I have a ‘Special’ degree but I will nonetheless recount what I perceived as differences. Please be advised that this is my view and doesn’t necessarily hold true for all students of either discipline.


Chemistry students come from a range of backgrounds. The class I was in had students from all parts of the UK and beyond, many wanting a slice of the oil and gas cake up here in Aberdeen. However, others were interested in the university and some were interested in getting undergrad over and done with and into a masters or postgrad program. It was common for chemistry students to choose subjects like biology, psychology or physics as other class subjects (some having a brief stint of archaeology in one class one semester). My first interaction with archaeology was choosing the final elective class at the beginning of term, after Accounting came Archaeology, and as frivolous as this choice may have been at that time, it was the next four years that changed my degree. My classmates did find it odd that I choose archaeology but in many cases their choice of psychology was just as frivolous.  Our classes in first year were huge, possibly hitting over 200 students in one lecture hall, all learning from the smallest of lecturers (can you guess where I sat?); not very engaging purely due to size but the lab classes is where chemistry as a subject was joy to do; stuck in a ventilated lab with fume hoods and gas taps, with noxious chemicals in the hands of first year students (with supervision) made for a refreshing change of pace from the ins and outs of entropy. Chemistry labs were about experimentation and, among the long waits for chemicals to heat up or react, there was a desire to test and discover what these chemicals do and why.


Elective class choices were different for my archaeology classmates, choices of history, celtic studies and anthropology, often as a joint degree programme. The make up of classes seemed different, the kind of people studying archaeology were more inclined to read 20 page journal articles than the 3 to 4 page number laden chemistry articles. Classes were smaller but I remained one of the delinquents at the back; this laid back attitude brought me in contact with people not caught up in STEM degrees, where jobs weren’t seen as a plenty and moving up in the world after graduation wasn’t guaranteed. In non-STEM areas, I found more people considering academia and research even at the beginning of their university career. I thought myself different. I was going to do a post-grad in nuclear chemistry or in materials science. I was going to graduate and land a really well paying job. Then I got my first archaeology essay back, 90% score with me still finding my way around writing; I had taken deliberate time over that essay and hunted down the newest information I could and it ignited in me a desire to explore.

At the same time, I began to take an interest in continental philosophy which again lent me an edge concerning archaeological theory, which I ultimately fell in love with. My desire to understand not only something in essence but also its context in the world flourished in a study that allowed me to question above and around issues, not just through them. Ultimately this began to bleed into chemistry ever so slowly; the occasional essay would ask about science and ethics when it came to nuclear waste, testing and forensic cases, and I tried to borrow ideas and ways of thinking that I had found in archaeology theory and philosophy to tackle these issues.

The desire to explore and to test and “get your hands dirty” is what makes chemistry and archaeology a match made in heaven. On the one hand, digging a test pit, covered in mud and being outside is the perfect balance to the pristine, meticulous analysis in the lab; discovery through doing is what links these two houses. I found that in context people could make this same connection. When I described my final year labwork, trace metal in ancient hair, people often understood the link between my chemistry and my archaeology. Although when I was performing this labwork, was there really a difference? Was there really a combination? Or was my application of chemistry on archaeological material just archaeology? Of course I could break it down into what I had learnt in what class but does that really reflect what people think divides these subjects? What if I learnt chemistry in my archaeology classes that wasn’t covered in chemistry?

I am so lucky to have been able to study both of these wonderful subjects; I was constantly immersed in both ‘worlds’ and I learned that I could easily pick and choose identities of thought from each to broaden my understanding overall. A science background allowed me to understand the importance of experimental consistency and the power of statistical analysis; my time studying archaeology led me to understand why we experiment and the limits of testing our physical world. This balance is what sets archaeology apart from other disciplines, not only concerned with the how but the why as well. Although this does seem as if chemistry can offer more to archaeology than vice versa; I would challenge that, since for me personally, the mix has been beneficial in terms of making me open to different ways of thinking, of acquiring knowledge, of putting data into context. Some would argue chemistry does that as well, but I like to think that chemistry isn’t viewed in a vacuum endlessly pumping out new materials, but it has a soul, an essence that attracts a certain kind of person. The same essence of archaeology attracts a slightly different type of person and ultimately the combination attracted me.


As more people talk about the connections between archaeology and STEM subjects, let us encourage more crossover; let us not say to people, “archaeology and chemistry, that’s a weird mix”.



Disclaimer: There’s nothing wrong with pure archaeology or pure chemistry degrees but mixing them together shouldn’t be out of the question for people who are interested in both.

3 replies on “Archaeology with chemistry – Are you Mad?”

I just read your artical, I was looking for some answers of how chemistry could be used in archeolgy! I do have an overseas degree in Cunieform writing of Mesopotamia, but I feel so much want to studay a science major that could be linked to archeology. I don’t feel so much interest in translate cuneiform tablets anymore, but I want to study a science major that could be linked to it later in work so I thought of Chemistry since I used to love it in school, and I am so grateful to find your interesting articl..
thank you

Hi! Your writing gave me hope. I am exactly like you in the sense that I love both chemistry and anthropology/archaeology! I found your article at a very important time, as I was wondering how to optimally mix these two fields together to get a steady job. So now I am wondering what exactly you majored in? Did you get a bachelors in both fields or a masters? Also how much can I expect to be paid on average taking this pathway? Thank you so much!!

This article has absolutely inspired me. I’ve been a chemistry student for 3 years, and have really struggled with finding the right “why are we doing this.” I found analytical chemistry particularly interesting and have dabbled with physical chemistry and Formulation chemistry but the ending career from those paths just felt… wrong. Where has the combination of archaeology and chemistry led you? Have you stayed in the academic realm or have you found other work? (and by any chance are you looking for interns?) I’m taking a few archaeology classes next semester, and with my chemistry background I could double major in two years. I will take what insight you said and try to view these new classes/ideas with that lens, and I can’t wait. Thank you for sharing.

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