Joining an archaeological dig

I was wondering if average, off-the-street type people can volunteer to help archaeologists on dig sites. Say I have a few weeks off during summer, can I find a university doing a dig in Wyoming or New Mexico and volunteer for it for a couple of weeks to help out? Has anyone had any experience with this sort of thing. I think it would be a neat working vacation.


Ask at your local University.

Offering to donate to the dig might help.

I found the following by searching on “vacation” “archaeological digs”:

Try some similar searches and see what comes up.

It all depends on where you are, what activity is present, and the level of organization.

I am not an archeologist, but I joined the state archeological society. I get their newsletter which tells me what’s going on and who is doing it. Through the contacts, I have been to a number of activities, including a day-long dig.

The dig was at the Red Stone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL and was arranged by the base archeologist who has to make sure that any construction activity does not destroy anything. As the Tenn River valley is one of the richest paleoindian location in North America, he stays busy. The dig was a phase II investigation – he had given it the once-over (phase I) and decided it was worth pursuing.

The volunteers were broken up into groups and we scattered around 4 1 square meter test pits and began to dig, sifting as we went along. Unless you are good with an idiot spoon, it is hard work, but you get experience.

Our pit? Lots of debitage (flakes), a projectile, and a black pot - one shard as large as my spread palm. I was shocked it had survived intact.

approx location

Generally speaking archaeology is filthy, strenuous, rather boring work, and dig organizers, who are educators with grants to justify and deadlines to meet and potential information to hopefully not destroy accidentally, are cautious of people who think it will be fun and glamorous. It helps if you have a degree where you can point to some experience with outdoor field work (geology, biology, and of course archaeology) or some prior experience with physical outdoor professions (construction, farming, surveying) so as to assure the organizers that you’re not going to be a giant whining quitter when you realize that your job is going to involve hauling buckets of dirt to and fro, sifting, shoveling, pickaxing, etc. Not all archaeology involves this, some is very fine detail work - they will leave that to the grad students and not let you anywhere near it.

Now if you are a SKILLED volunteer - like a photographer, cartographer, surveyor, or artist, many digs will be very happy to benefit from your special skills.

If you are in a remote location you will be expected to pay for sleeping quarters and food provided by the dig. These can range from highly primitive to home-like, depending on the location and circumstances. If you get four walls and indoor plumbing, you’re well ahead of the game.

I’ve done it twice. No qualifications other than being young, healthy and interested.

The first time I went into the Office of Public Works (I don’t know if you guys have an equivalent) and they gave me a list of digs, one of which took me on. It was a volunteer gig, but I did get paid a few quid a week for travel expenses etc, with some of it subtracted for food. Accommodation was very basic - eight per room, in bunk beds slapped together from stray bits of unsanded wood, sometimes the water worked.

The second time I phoned up an archaeological consultancy firm and asked if they wanted volunteers on a specific, much larger dig. Someone had just quit their team, so I somehow ended up getting an actual paid gig for a few weeks. The general sense I got was that the archaeological consultancies are much less picky about who they hire than the smaller, archaeologist-controlled gigs. The site director will want people with some kind of qualifications, while the consultancies don’t give a damn about the archaeology, they just want the project to come in on time.

I second Hello Again: if you’re not in the field, you’ll probably be doing the crap work: here’s a pickaxe and a wheelbarrow, knock yourself out. Also, a very small minority of the archaeology students won’t be able to figure you out:

Stupid Archaeology Student: What are you doing here?

Me [pointing at pickaxe]: Digging. Just like you.

Her [blank stare]: Why?

Me: I’m fascinated by archaeology.

Her [blanker stare]: Why?

Me [trying to figure out if this, coming from someone who supposedly finds archaeology interesting enough to spend FOUR SOLID YEARS studying it, is some kind of trick question]: …

I had an absolute BLAST, specially the first time, on a smaller team where we were all living on site. I highly recommend it.

Sounds like filmmaking.

Well, I wouldn’t mind doing grunt work. I don’t think it would be glamorous. I realize it might be mind-numbingly dull for most people. However, even hauling dirt in a desert sounds more fun than sitting around. Speaking of filmmaking, when I was an extra, we had to sit for 10 hours in a hot gymnasium with sweaters on (it was supposed to be winter). Most of the time, we just sat there while we waited for shots to be set up. That was for 3 days. In the same seat. The people next to me were going stir crazy. However, I was fascinated the entire time. Just watching the activity, seeing the process.

I realize it would be more rigorous than that, but I don’t think I harbor any misguided thoughts of it being “glamorous.” It would just be a different experience. That’s what I find fun. It would be a new experience in a place I’ve never been. So, discomfort and “boring” work would not be a concern for me.

Earthwatch offers archaology trips. I haven’t been on any, but they sound like fun, although expensive.

ratatoskK, that looks like an interesting site. I’m going to go look into it more.

Thanks everyone so far.