Preparing for a Dig

Archaeological fieldwork is not the romantic treasure hunt sometimes seen in the movies. On the contrary, archaeology is a blend of scientific disciplines requiring methodological attention to procedure and detail. Most expeditions are staffed by skilled individuals with specialized knowledge. You can learn a great deal from the experienced excavators and specialists you will be working with. And as part of an expedition you will have an opportunity to contribute personally to the recovery and preservation of our past.

Before You Leave

Before an excavation starts, many countries require that foreign workers receive permission and clearance, which is usually gained through an antiquities services government agency. Unless the option is clearly stated, appearing at a site unannounced would be personally irresponsible and might place the project director in an uncomfortable situation. Once advance contact has been established with a representative of the expedition team, find out what equipment is necessary, what clothes are the most sensible for work and leisure time, the general schedule of operations, and what sight-seeing opportunities will be available.

Read about the local culture and climate, and plan your packing accordingly. It is strongly recommended to pack as lightly as possible, since space is often limited and transportation may be less than efficient. As with most travel, you must be able to carry your own luggage. A good test is to limit yourself to what you can comfortably carry for a brisk quarter-mile walk.

Check into necessary vaccinations and have thorough physical and dental examinations. Identify your need for health and travel insurance. Some expeditions provide the former; you should know, however, what facilities will be available in the event that you require medical treatment.

Bring a small medical kit with an assortment of bandages, disinfectants, and ointments. Additional items—on any experienced traveler’s list—include an alarm clock, flashlight and extra batteries, sunglasses, scarf or work hat, sunscreen, a regional guidebook, reading material, notebooks, pens and pencils, measuring tape marked in inches and centimeters, and a water bottle. Of course, this is a general checklist; check with your project director to see if more specific equipment will be needed.

At the Site

The success of an archaeological expedition depends, to a great extent, on the excavation team. Organization is a key factor in the smooth management of the work schedule, and the field director must be able to depend upon a responsive and responsible staff. If you have never worked on an excavation before, do some homework and keep a flexible and cooperative attitude. The former will ensure that you will have some familiarity with professional archaeology, the material under investigation, the local culture, and the climate. The latter will certainly make you a better worker and a more pleasant person to live with under what can sometimes be less-than-ideal circumstances. You, personally, will find the experience a great deal richer for your efforts.

The director and supervisors will appreciate your questions and your attention to detail and procedure, and there are a number of “dig life” lessons to learn by word of mouth from others who have had the experience. If you find that you have time on your hands and wish to make the most of the season, staff members are usually more than willing to give informal instruction in the different skills required on an expedition (drafting, recording, etc.).

Try to set up a personal schedule outside of work hours, which will enable you maintain a comfortable working/sleeping/leisure schedule, as well as a stock of clean clothes. Take the opportunity to keep a daily journal describing the work you are doing, camp life, your impressions of the local culture, etc. Months or years later, you will be able to recall the sense of the excavation.

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