Archaeology Undergraduate Degrees – USA vs. UK

As I become more familiar with the UK-style Archaeology undergraduate degree, I can’t help but compare it to my USA undergraduate education. Obviously n=1 is a small sample size and this is all painted in very broad strokes, but I thought it might be instructive for others, as I had very little idea of the differences before I changed continents.

I attended the University of Texas, Austin, which is a very large, public university. By very large I mean over 50,000 students and over 24,000 staff. I received two undergraduate BA degrees, in Anthropology and Asian Studies with a minor in Japanese language–I wanted to study the Jomon > Yayoi transition in Japan, but…strayed. That’s beside the point! I received a fairly standard USA liberal arts degree, which means that I studied anthropology and archaeology, sure, but most of my classes were in other subjects such as Astronomy, English, and, for example, a fantastic class on Korean New Wave cinema. Out of the 40 (!!) different courses I took, I had 4 archaeology-specific classes, not including field school and other volunteering gigs. I also taught at the University of California, Berkeley which is a similar size to UT, so some of my experience stems from that equally large, public USA university.

At the University of York, our undergraduate students study archaeology from beginning to end–every single class they take is specific to archaeology. You can specialize in Heritage, Bioarchaeology, Historical Archaeology, or focus on more science-based (BSc) or humanities-based (BA) Archaeology in general. The standard course in the UK is 3 years long, not the 4 year course I took in the USA. York Students take the same, Archaeology-focussed courses at first, then have some choice in specialization later on, say in Ancient DNA, Visual Media in Archaeology, Historic Houses, Battlefield Archaeology, Neanderthals, Medieval Africa, World Mummification among others. There are a lot more faculty as well, 36+ lecturers at York vs., for example, 9 at Berkeley and 8 at UT (though others in Classics, Near Eastern Studies, etc). UK terms are shorter, 10 weeks vs 15 weeks long in autumn, spring & summer, but unlike in the USA, summer is not optional.

I enjoyed my USA undergraduate degree(s), and there are strong arguments to be had in anthropologically-based archaeological learning, but I’m also very impressed by the breadth and depth of the learning of UK-based archaeology undergraduate students. When I teach 3rd year UK undergraduates they have the same level of understanding as Master’s students in the USA and their reading (in my special topic course at least) is entirely peer-reviewed journal articles. I also made the entire second-year cohort read Ingold, but I wouldn’t necessary recommend it. In theory, USA liberal arts degrees seem to prepare students more broadly for general enrichment (and employment, I suppose) but the UK Archaeology undergraduates certainly seem to do just fine in subjects beyond archaeology, continuing on in law, education, biology, etc.

Other differences include simple things, like books. In the USA, I regularly had $300 book bills each semester (keep in mind this was in the early 2000s before pirated books were available). UK students pretty much expect to have access to all of their course materials from the library and we get major complaints if we don’t have enough copies or if the reading isn’t electronic.

There is also much Much MUCH more contact for UK students than I had–each year I am assigned 5-6 undergraduate supervisees whom I (in theory–they don’t always show up) meet at least twice per term. I meet many other students in office hours, particularly while teaching courses to the entire cohort. We keep close track of and accommodate for student disabilities, are trained in mental health first-aid, and with cohorts of 80-100 students each year, get to know students pretty well. This is probably less different for students who attend small liberal arts colleges in the USA. All of the other undergraduate students in UK courses are generally in the same year and are Archaeology students rather than the large USA Introduction to Archaeology courses (300+ students!), with a very small fraction of students who are actually interested in or have any background in archaeology.

Another difference (which may vary considerably within the UK) is that students learn archaeological field skills from commercial archaeologists, rather than from graduate students or other undergraduates as is often the case in the USA. Also USA students pay extra fees to attend field schools whereas the UK field school is part of the degree.

USA vs. UK if I could do it all again? Well, I wouldn’t trade some of the UT courses I had for the world–Dr. Maria Franklin’s African American Material and Expressive Culture changed my life. I had no idea what I wanted to focus on when I began my degree and I fully explored the broad scope UT had to offer. But if I had known that I wanted to be an archaeologist, I probably would have benefitted from the intense focus available in a UK Archaeology degree. And it might have been cheaper! Let me know if you are an American considering a UK university.

Coming soon, the postgraduate follow-up post!




Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

15 thoughts on “Archaeology Undergraduate Degrees – USA vs. UK”

  1. Thank you for this piece. Very interesting and it confirmed some of our thoughts. My daughter is a high school senior who wants to stud material culture, anthropology, and archaeology. She has applied to several U.K. schools as wells as very selective schools in the US. She is looking for talking points as to why U.K. programs might be better for her. You’ve helped a lot!!

  2. Just to add that here in Scotland four years rather than three is standard for undergraduate degrees.

  3. Quite interesting – I gave a well known archaeologist her first job and her training was from UC Berkeley and I thought she was well educated in a broad range of topics but not educated in depth as the UK/Australian tradition taught students. I thought like most students she was not well trained in fieldwork (but to her credit she recognized this and was working to build up her skill set). In Australia the basic degree is three years with a fourth year honors degree (the fourth year being a mixture of an independent research project and course work) if you want to go on in the profession. My other comment is get a drivers license – absolutely essential if you envisage any sort of fieldwork.

  4. Shared this on my Facebook page. Didn’t attend University myself (went to Art College) but as I work with those who did, am fascinated by how (and if) they were taught– my opinion of which can quite frankly dither. I also recently learned about a field school organised by a California university which had such a price tag I read it to be for wealthy patrons only… and was shocked to hear it is actually just on offer amongst the regular curriculum, with UK students getting the same things for free.

    Next week, by the way, I am going to a small conference by and for recent archaeology graduates. They are going to discuss what they can, and what they want to do–and I want to listen in :-)

    1. Hi Kelvin, thanks for sharing. I recently found out about a year long fieldschool in Greece that costs a princely $36,000! And the director was wondering why he wasn’t getting more archaeology students.

  5. I enjoyed reading this, as it echos my sentiments and experiences precisely. I did a double major (History/Anthro) at a small Liberal Arts college in the Midwest, and was really impressed (and somewhat intimidated) by the undergrads when I came to read for my Masters (Hist Arch 2001) at York. I somewhat envied the focused, full immersion approach at the time, though in retrospect, I too had some wonder, bizarre courses at college that I found enriching, fulfilling and pleasantly distracting (Music for example!)

  6. German student here (linguistics). Our BA degrees are planned to take 3 years as well, and typically only contain 20 out of 180 credit points for general courses that may or may not have anything to do with your degree (completely free choice). The other 160 credit points have to be in your major and minor (100 in your major, 60 in your minor, or all 160 in your major if you only study one subject). This was really interesting to read since I didn’t realise how broad and non-focused a US degree can be in comparison.

    1. I’m quite interested in German and other European degrees–they’re completely out of my experience so I can’t really compare. USA degrees can be a bit more focused than I was. I am a bit of a generalist. Thank you for your comment!

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