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Volunteer archaeologist overseas
By: Sara E. Polsky (justin) 2012.04.01


Working with a variety of organizations in 7 countries, BaseCamp offers tailored volunteer training and mutually benefiting placements. Volunteers work in schools, social and healthcare programs, building projects, as well as conservation work with wildlife. Travel with a purpose. See website.


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Digging up the Details on Archaeological Volunteering

If you've ever played in a sandbox, you have the skills needed to volunteer on an archaeological dig. Historical sites all over the world are undergoing excavation, and many archaeology projects welcome student volunteers. You may not uncover something as extravagant as King Tut's tomb, nor will you chase down looters or rescue precious artifacts. But even if archaeology has little in common with Indiana Jones, volunteering on archaeological dig is a great way to see the past–and the world.

As a volunteer archaeologist, you'll learn all the basic techniques of fieldwork, including mapping, reconnaissance, shovel testing, and excavation. You'll develop an understanding of how professionals use fieldwork in combination with lab analysis and research. Your work will involve both exercise and critical thinking–in addition to doing physical labor, you'll often be required to keep field notes detailing the techniques you've used and your observations about the artifacts and features you've encountered. You may be invited to make your own interpretations of finds. You'll receive an introduction to a fascinating field and, depending on where you volunteer, to a new part of the world.

My archaeological excavations began practically in my own backyard. Through Internet searches, I found a field school run by Montclair State University in northern New Jersey. The project had no prerequisites for participation, so it was perfect for me, a newcomer to archaeology. Tuition for the field school ranged from just under $1000 for continuing education students to $2500 for students who wanted graduate credit. For six weeks, I commuted each day to the project site, a nineteenth–century workers' village called Feltville, located in what is now the Watchung Reservation.

Day–to–day life on a project will vary depending on where and when you work. On most projects, the work is physically demanding–for us, the New Jersey summer heat made excavation particularly difficult. And you'll find that there is very little down time on an archaeological project–there is always excavation, mapping, screening, or note–taking to do. By the end of a day in the field, I was usually tired and covered with dirt. But I found my work so rewarding that the dirt hardly bothered me. The smallest artifacts that we recovered–a piece of a pipe stem, a fragment of ceramic, a button, or a shard of glass–contributed to the jigsaw puzzle we were piecing together of our site and its former inhabitants. For instance, artifacts found within gravel walkways behind houses provided information about the goods residents could afford, and by excavating the walkways of several different cottages, we were able to compare the economic situations of several different families. Coins from 1825 and a button with a date of 1851 on it confirmed the ages of houses within the site. And even though excavation was slow work in the clayey soil and sometimes yielded few results, the effort paid off when artifacts emerged.

The types of treasures that you find and the condition that they are in will depend on the time period and location of your site. While excavations at Feltville yielded stoneware, whiteware, and glass apothecary bottles, none of the artifacts were as well preserved as the frescoes in Pompeii. And while a dig at a colonial–era New England site might reveal animal bones from creatures that were cooked and eaten, you won't find in North America the hominid skulls that a paleoanthropologist might find on a dig in Africa.

One way to begin searching for a dig is by contacting local colleges and universities. Call or e–mail the archaeology department or, if the college or university has no such department in archaeology, contact someone in the anthropology department. If you want experience on a project before traveling far away to volunteer, local universities may run digs closer to home. Otherwise, colleges and universities participate in excavations everywhere in the world, from Europe to Asia to Central America. In addition to offering volunteer opportunities, many universities also run field schools, in which students receive more formal instruction in archaeological field techniques. (Though field schools can be expensive, they are probably the best option for students who want to pursue a career in archaeology or who want college credit for their fieldwork.) Joining a dig run by a local university will allow you to meet with the archaeologists in charge before you get into the field. If the fieldwork you do sparks your interest, you might also be able to participate in artifact analysis in a university lab after excavations have ended. And even if the projects run by your local university don't interest you, the contacts you've made could be useful–professors can point you in the direction of other digs that might fit your interests.

If you live in the United States, another group to contact is your state's archaeological society. Though state societies don't usually run their own digs, their publications and conferences are a great way to become familiar with the field of archaeology and to meet local archaeologists.

Many schools, individuals, and archaeology organizations maintain lists of fieldwork opportunities, updated on at least an annual basis. These listings provide basic information about current excavations–the name of an archaeology project, its location, the historical period it covers, and contact information for the project directors. Several such listings are available on the Internet. The listing at is set up as a series of message boards, divided into categories for volunteer opportunities and field schools, and gives prospective volunteers a chance to post questions for professionals. The listing at includes fieldwork opportunities organized by region. Current Archaeology (, a British magazine, publishes a list of current digs in Britain. And the Archaeological Institute of America ( publishes an annual fieldwork bulletin that is available in print or as a searchable Internet database. These fieldwork listings are not all–encompassing, but they are a good starting point for aspiring student archaeologists.

If you don't want to hunt through fieldwork listings for an appropriate project, there are also several companies that place volunteers on digs. Through Earthwatch ( and ArchaeoExpeditions (, volunteers sign up to work on digs run by professional archaeologists. (Usually, they are affiliated with universities or museums.) A similar option is the University of California's University Research Expeditions Program (, which allows volunteers to work on University of California projects in archaeology and other fields. Often, these programs are not meant specifically for students, and even though some may have scholarships available, the programs may still be more expensive than those run by colleges and universities–including accommodations, Earthwatch projects cost something in the vicinity of $2,000 for several weeks in the field. Since digs organized by Earthwatch, ArchaeoExpeditions, and similar groups are not run directly through universities, check with your own school in advance about how you can receive credit for fieldwork you complete.

Before signing up to work on any particular project, be sure to research what fees might be involved. If you've paid to work at a site, either through a school or through a company, find out whether travel, food, accommodations, and field trips (often to other sites in the area) are included.

Some projects may have prerequisites that you will have to meet before you can volunteer. You may have to take an introductory course in archaeology or complete a field school. Even if you haven't satisfied the prerequisites for a particular project, if there are any, contact the project director to let them know of your interest. Perhaps your enthusiasm will win you a spot on the project team. In some cases, you'll need to be at least 18 years old to do fieldwork. For most projects, you'll need to be reasonably fit, though some have options available for volunteers who don't feel that they can handle the physical labor involved in fieldwork.

Once you learn you're qualified to work on a particular dig, find out what types of clothing and equipment you'll need. Hiking boots are useful, since your work may require lots of walking on rough terrain. On some sites, you may need to wear pants and long–sleeve shirts, regardless of the season, to protect against insects. You might want to purchase some basic equipment, including a knapsack, a pair of gardening gloves, and a trowel. The project you're working on may require you to keep field notes that will have to be turned in once excavations are finished–so if you'd like to keep your own record of your experience, you might want an extra journal.

Usually, you won't be required to do any reading in preparation for your fieldwork. But if you'd like to learn a little bit about archaeology before you get into the field, many books offer introductions. James Deetz (University of Virginia) and Brian Fagan (University of California, Santa Barbara) have each written excellent texts on archaeology. And basic information is available on the Internet as well.

But no amount of preparation can truly prepare you for the experience of working on an archaeological dig. You'll meet new people, see a different part of the world, and be involved in a search for the past that is fascinating wherever you undertake it–whether halfway across the earth or in your own backyard. For an intrepid traveler and willing volunteer, the world is an excavation unit. So grab a trowel and dig in.

Photos by Martha Bell

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