Archaeology, according to the Society For American Archaeology, is the “study of the ancient and recent human past through material remains”. I know, Indiana Jones makes it look a lot more exciting than that sounds.

View of archeological dig on the top of Starved Rock. Starved Rock State Park, Illinois USA. Summer 1974. Author: North8000

View of archeological dig on the top of Starved Rock. Starved Rock State Park, Illinois USA. Summer 1974. Author: North8000

Many aspects of archaeology are fascinating, but this post is not about the history of archaeology, the differences between archaeology and treasure hunting, or the depiction of archaeologists in popular media. Instead, I want to share how you can get involved in volunteer efforts and learn about how archaeologists really work. It’s history from a different perspective.

I first became interested in this a few years ago when I was researching alternative vacations and found programs for volunteering at archaeology digs. I never seriously considered archaeology as a career partly because I know enough about the type of work involved, but mostly because I’m more interested in recent history,. But I’ve watched Indiana Jones and I’ve read some of the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters, so the idea of archaeology has a visceral pull.

Horse burial in roman ditch on a development funded site in London. Note "out of phase" pipe intrusion left in for practical reasons. Author: Mididoctors

Horse burial in roman ditch on a development funded site in London. Note “out of phase” pipe intrusion left in for practical reasons. Author: Mididoctors

What’s In It For You?

Your volunteer stint doesn’t actually have to be a vacation, as you can possibly find opportunities locally. Even if you do this from home, the positives still apply. You have the opportunity to learn something new, to work with people who share your interests, to build community ties, and to feel the pride that comes with helping others. If you’re thinking about archaeology has a career, this is a perfect chance to give it a test run.

Many volunteer programs allow children, accompanied by an adult, so if you’re interested in this as a family, make sure you do your research. It’s a great opportunity for children and adults who are wondering what they want to do when they grow up.

There are domestic and international opportunities available, so the prices will vary. A quick internet search showed programs available in the United States, England, Peru, Mongolia, Italy, Brazil, and many more. Many programs offer lectures you can attend, as well as tours of the local area. Depending on how long you are there, you may have free time you can spend exploring, possibly with the new friends you’ve made within your volunteer group.

Keep in mind that these are not luxury vacations. You will be working, and much of that work is grunt work. There are usually a variety of tasks so that you can learn as much as possible, which may include surveying the site, excavating with various tools, recording site date, and cleaning and processing finds. But these programs are often in the summer when the actual archaeology students don’t have classes, and they are often in hot climates. You may work very, very early in the morning to beat the heat. The accommodations vary, with some being more…rustic than others. Do your research if any of these issues are deal-breakers, but there are enough programs available that you should be able to find something that’s a good fit for you.

What’s In It For Them?

Archaeology digs are labor intensive, and therefore expensive. There never seems to be enough funding for these projects, so they need all the help they can get to complete the work. Also, as teachers and potential future teachers, the experts on-site have the chance to teach people of differing ages, backgrounds, and levels of interest.

How Do You Find These Programs?

As with anything, you can use your favorite internet search engine to search “volunteer archaeology digs”. If you want to stay local, you can check with any local colleges and universities, museums, or any local or national archaeological societies.

Some of you will already know where you want to go and can use that as your starting point. If you’re like me, you’ll wander through until you find something that jumps out at you.

Here are some places to start.

  • Earthwatch Institute – My personal favorite. I am on their email list, so I get notified about any new expeditions. They are an environmental organization and also offer expeditions where you can help scientists study climate change, ocean health, and wildlife and ecosystems.
  • Past Horizons – All archaeology, all the time. This site has lots of projects to choose from and a great search function to help you narrow down the choices.
  • Projects Abroad – This site has archaeology projects, but they also have many other opportunities in teaching, building, conservation and other areas.
  • Passport In Time – A volunteer archaeology and historic preservation program through the United States Forest Service. Digging and rebuilding, something for everyone.

Feel free to let me know if you have participated in anything like this before. I would love to hear from someone with personal experience of these programs!