Archaeologist

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Michael, 30

No bones about it. Michael has one of the most challenging and culturally sensitive jobs in Australia: returning the skeletal remains of 19th Century Aboriginal people to their descendants. Find out more:

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Fact file

Job description: Manages the National Museums Human Remains Collections:  Aboriginal skeletal remains collected in the Nineteenth Century. Determines where the people lived and arranges for their remains to be returned home.

Subjects studied: Mathematics, English, Ancient History, Modern History, Economics and General Studies.

Further training: Michael has a Bachelor of Arts in archaeology and history from the Australian National University; Honours degree in prehistoric archaeology from the University of Sydney; a Graduate Diploma in Education at UNE; and a Master of Arts in biological anthropology (in progress).

Michael has also undertaken specialist courses in palaeopathology at Britain's Bradford University.

Salary: $58,000

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Profile

Michael Westaway is exploiting his training in anthropology, archaeology and palaeopathology to build a reputation as a 'bone man,' an expert in the skeletal remains of human ancestors.

When I rang Michael , he was frantically packing boxes. In typical Westaway style, Michael was moving fast, from one job to another, with barely a breath in between.

"It's an excellent opportunity and a very exciting project to be working on," he said of his new position at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

As Manager of the Edinburgh Collection, Michael will be working with Aboriginal people in their quest to have the remains of their ancestors returned home.

Last century, many scientists saw Aborigines as 'subjects' to be studied, not people to be respected. Consequently, they often collected the remains of Aboriginal people and sent them to overseas museums for study.

Today, scientists know how inappropriate this is. They want to return the skeletal remains to their rightful place. But where did they come from? The River Murray? Western Australia? Tasmania? Perhaps the Blue Mountains? This is a very difficult question to answer.

Enter Michael. He has the forensic and anthropological skills needed to help determine where the people lived before death. He also has experience sorting complex and delicate matters with Aboriginal groups, keen to bring their ancestors home.

Digging around for a career

Michael's professional passion began in secondary school, first with a love of geology, palaeontology, history and archaeology. But his school on the north coast of NSW was too small for geology, so Michael went back in time, scholastically, to ancient history. When at last he got to university, Michael dived straight into archaeology.

With his academic training underway, Michael sought hands-on work experience. In 1996, he moved to Brisbane to work with a group of consulting archaeologists. In 1998, that led to a job with the Heritage Services Branch of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, which was then part of the State's Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

There, Michael's job was to protect and interpret Aboriginal heritage and archaeology within Victoria. Victoria has over 22,000 Aboriginal archaeological sites. Michael worked with Aboriginal people, landowners, developers and government agencies to devise ways of protecting as many sites as possible.

Michael also investigated reports of Aboriginal skeletal remains. Were they from pre-European or modern times? This is where the tools of physical anthropology were indispensable.

In the future, Michael hopes to apply his knowledge of human bones, both ancient and modern, to human rights issues. His goal is to work for the United Nations: helping to bring war criminals to justice by excavating suspected mass graves.

Meanwhile, he has a Masters degree to finish. That will take him to Indonesia, home of ancient humans called Homo erectus. Michael wants to study their fossilised remains.

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Job specs

Archaeologists search for, analyse and interpret the remains of human cultures, in an attempt to reconstruct the history, customs and way of life of previous inhabitants.

Duties

An archaeologist may perform the following tasks: 

  • Survey, map and record archaeological sites
  • Develop research processes 
  • Organise and carry out excavations, field surveys and surface collections
  • Clean, conserve, restore, reconstruct and display material found at archaeological sites
  • Photograph or draw features and artefacts on-site and during post-excavation analysis
  • Analyse the finds through a variety of means, including physical and chemical techniques and documentary research
  • Document the information obtained from the findings in a concise report
  • Advise individuals and groups on heritage matters, including conservation options and legal provisions
  • Prepare material for publication

Personal requirements

  • Patience, perseverance and determination 
  • An eye for detail 
  • Enjoy science and have an aptitude for research 
  • Strong writing skills 
  • An aptitude for working with computers 
  • An ability to work as part of a team 
  • Preparedness to endure rough and isolated living conditions for extended periods while involved in fieldwork
  • Objectivity

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Getting started

Find out more about a career in archaeology:

Museum Victoria
PO Box 666 Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: 1300 130 152

Australian Archaeological Association
3 Queens Road, Railway Estate
Townsville QLD 4810

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).

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