So you want to visit a dig – how to drop in on an archaeological excavation

So, let’s say you’re a history buff.

And that museums are cool, and all, but you’re more of an outdoorsy person. You like to see the splendor and size and the reality of sites and you get shivers thinking about standing on a path where others have stood, thousands of years before you – of touching the same wall, of looking through the same window. You probably like to touch things, if they don’t seem too fragile. (You probably have a thing for buildings and architecture, too, but you always hated math too much to take that path in school.)

And let’s say that it happens to be June or July (or maybe even August – these are, after all, Field Season) and you happen to be somewhere really old and really, really interesting (like, say, a World Heritage Site).

And, away from the crowds, off to a back side, there seem to be a rather lot of people. Who are rather spread out all around the place – or maybe, actually, sort of in the place. And these people seem to be doing some sort of – are they digging? Squatting and staring at the ground? Shaking things? Holding long sticks up against rocks and taking pictures of each other? Maybe counting pebbles?

You’ve found yourself at an active archaeological excavation.

First things first: Never assume that you can just go anywhere you like – an excavation might not be open to the public, and be aware that you might be asked to leave and it might have nothing to do with anything you’ve done. On the other hand, there’s a very good chance that you can wander around and take a peek.

If you behave yourself, express interest, and flatter an expert or two – you might get to see some really cool stuff. There’s no harm in trying – and everyone, especially the sort of obsessive nerds who go into archaeology, love it when people take an interest in what they’re doing. (Every excavation I’ve been on, we’ve welcomed the odd tourist or two. Of course, at the more remote locations, it’s less welcomed and more that we were simply confused as to how they’d even managed to find us that we kind of assumed they might even be more experts than we were.)

Spotting guide: Who’s who at a dig.

  • Sixty percent of the people there are actually undergraduate students – aka, indentured slaves who have paid for the privilege of digging, but may or may not know much about the history of the site in general before they arrived. (They may or may not be afraid to give you a definitive answer about anything just in case a supervisor overhears them making a mistake and therefore judges them as incompetent and thereby destroys their hopes of a career.)
  • Twenty percent (give or take) are hired local manual laborers, who may or may not speak English, may or may not be comfortable talking to a Western woman – but are surprisingly skilled at seeing tiny things and in moving large amounts of dirt (and at talking about people in front of them).
  • Ten percent are grad students, who are your best shot at getting as a personal guide. They have enough autonomy that they are more likely to have been left on their own, might not have anyone else to look after, and are probably specialists in one and only one specific and esoteric aspect of the site (architecture, stone, geology, dirt, plants, fauna, microfauna, snails) that has so consumed their lives that they no longer recognize that said topic isn’t actually common knowledge. Just smile and nod, keep asking questions, and repeat what they’ve said back to them in simpler words to see if you’ve understood it.
  • There are a few professors running around, somewhere. A couple of them are supervisors, and they’re either incredibly busy and wanted everywhere at the same time (and stressed because a camera just broke and someone mis-labelled a bag and lost a carbon sample), or, if it is Monday, quite friendly, chatty, and excited because they’ve just realized that their tally of whatever-it-is-they-re-after is going to be larger than any ever published. There are probably a few other professors – this is, if it’s a Monday or Friday – older and higher ranking, with far less direct responsibility – they have beards and pot-bellies and they’re probably pointing at something from a distance or waving their hands around (if they’re actually in a trench, then the undergrads are giving them a wide berth and avoiding eye-contact). If they’re the friendly sort (as opposed to the grumpy sort) then you’re in luck – they love to talk. If they’re already giving a tour to potential donors, who you can slip in amongst with ease, you’re really in luck.


What you should know about an excavation:

  • They start at dawn. (Especially if its a hot country, or if they’re not urban city wimps doing a silly half-day go-home-and-shower-at-night sort of a dig.) Lunch is early. Digging probably ends just before sunset – earlier if the site is remote and they have to count (clean, identify, label, look at) finds (all the stuff they pulled out of the ground) on-site.
  • Expect to get dirty. Excavations are messy. They are sandy and gritty and dusty. If not, then they’re muddy and damp and grimy.
  • The rectangular holes in the ground are called trenches. Never disturb the edge of the trench. (This is the first law of archaeology. Do not break it.)
  • They call each layer of a different type of dirt a “context“. (Yes, they’ll know what you mean when you say layer, but you get bonus points for saying “context”.) Don’t worry if you can’t see any difference between the different contexts – many of the undergraduates can’t see any difference, either – a lot of it has to do with consistency of the dirt and touching it. Good questions to ask are “How old is this context you’re in?” or “How long have you been digging in this context?” or “How many contexts have you pulled out of this trench?”
  • Yes, that might be a metal detector. Or it might be something way more complicated. (No, do not ask if you can try it out. )
  • If you see people standing above a pile of sand with a big sieve thing that looks like a giant window screen and they’re shaking it back and forth and sand is flying everywhere, and then they’re rooting through what’s left on it – that’s dry-sieving. You should stand up-wind unless you want grit in our eyes. (If there is water involved – if they’re hosing down the sieve and pushing mud through it – then that’s wet-sieving. It’s even messier.) These are good people to approach and ask what they’re doing. If they’re friendly, you can even ask if you can help shake the big window thing back and forth – if there’s not a supervisor around, or just a lazy grad student, some undergrad might be happy to let you wear out your arms for a bit.
  • Wheel-barrows are evil. There’s a good chance that someone might actually say yes if you offer to push one for them.


Mind your manners: Excavation etiquette

  • NEVER step, sit, perch, lean or in any way at all disturb the edge of the trench. Never. Ever. Ever. I said it before but it should be said again. This is the one, the ultimate rule: keep away from the edge of the trench.  Do NOT cause a landslide of all the different layers (contexts) to go sliding back down into each other and mix up all the types of dirt.
  • Do not enter a trench unless invited – and make sure you take the right entrance. If, and only if, you get invited down into a trench, ask for the proper place to step in at. And then ask if there’s any places that you shouldn’t step. It might be fine – but there might be some very fragile things you can’t see – just because they seem to tromping all over everything doesn’t mean it’s safe.
  • Ask before you touch anything. Does that have to be said? Well, it’s been said.
  • Never interrupt anyone who is counting something. Stand patiently and wait for them to finish.
  • Don’t assume that someone down in a trench can see you. Shout hello and wave. Don’t expect them to come out to you – just keep shouting down into the hole.
  • Lunch is holy: Late morning, just before lunch, is probably the best time to visit. If lunch time is called and the person you’re talking to suddenly disappears – just wait for them to come back. If, however, they invite you to go with them, and you already have managed to speak to people who seem friendly, and are now sitting with them – do not expect to be fed. They do not have much food. You should have brought your own food for just this sort of occasion. (And maybe even some chocolate bars to offer to share.)
  • Don’t drop trash anywhere. This sounds obvious, but it’s absolutely unbelievable how often, and how mysteriously, gum foil and candy wrappers and rubbish and pennies and rubber bands end up in a context that was supposedly pristine and sealed and hadn’t seen the light of day in three hundred years.


What you should do:

  • Introduce yourself. To everyone you wander up to.
  • Move along if they stop talking to you. You’ve probably made an undergrad nervous, the poor thing. Go meet someone a little chattier. There will be someone chattier. There always is.
  • Seem interested. I know, you wouldn’t be there if you weren’t interested – but ham it up a bit, anyway. Ask follow-up questions. Ask why.
  • Flatter them. Be impressed by what they know. Be excited about what they’ve found – more importantly, be excited about what they might find (because odds are, they haven’t actually found anything yet).
  • If it’s a building, ask which rooms are which. One of the best parts about walking around an active excavation is getting a picture of what it was – not just what it has become. Having someone who knows and can point things out and wave their arms – it will completely change your perspective of a site: there was the kitchen fire, there was the toilet, there was a window…
  • Take pictures! I mean, ask permission if there’s going to be a person in it, and that person can see you – but, seriously, I don’t think any excavation has ever suffered from too many pictures. None of us digging in the trenches has time to take any pictures, and the official cameras are going around taking close-ups of dirt and boring things and they’re running out of battery, anyway. Take pictures. Big wide ones with horizon and walls and people working. (I’ve found galleries online of excavations I was at, struggled to pick myself out of the background, and been ecstatic. It’s probably the one and only situation in which people are happy to find that a stranger has taken a picture of them bent over with their but in the air…)
  • Offer to send the pictures to someone from the site – grad student, supervisor, anyone. If you’re a good enough photographer with a good looking camera, they might just invite you to stick around after lunch – or maybe to pop back by on Thursday once they get the other trench in the main building going…


If you want to stay longer…

The more rural the site, the better the odds are that the team is camping out. And the more rural, the better the odds that that’s the only place to camp. It might take you a bit of back and forth between the park rangers and the dig supervisor, but if you have your own gear, you might be able to spend a night. (Make sure you ask permission of the dig supervisor before pulling that kind of a stunt – and make sure you have your own food.)

It’s actually not that difficult to stay at scientific research stations, of all sorts, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere – as long as you ask, and make it clear you’re not going to be in the way – after-hours in the jungle (or desert or island) ruins can be an incredible experience.

If you want to get more involved…

There are a lot of field schools and excavations that welcome untrained volunteers. Unfortunately, a lot of them – especially the exotic ones in faraway lands – ask for quite a lot of money. (Usually, the undergraduates fees at field schools support the grad students’ work.)

However, once you’ve done a field school and know your way around a trowel (and, yes, it is just like a gardening trowel – but never tell anyone I told you that) and a trench, there’s a good chance you can talk your way into your second (and third and fourth) field seasons for free.

Not to mention, the closer you are to home, the more likely that half the people in the trench are hobbyists, amateurs, enthusiasts, and retirees – basically, weird history buffs, like you, who are a bit outdoorsy and like the idea of finding, touching, and digging up the past…

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