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Be a Volunteer Archaeologist

Author: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 24 March 2015 | commentsComment
Volunteer Archaeologist Excavation

Work alongside historians and professional archaeologists on projects including archaeological site excavation rock art exploration and restoration, ground survey, archival research, or historic structure and architectural restoration. Archaeological volunteers have helped stabilize early cliff dwellings in New Mexico; excavated Solomon’s palace on the tel at Megiddo, Israel; and uncovered the lost world under the Coliseum at Rome.

An archaeological vocation generally involves many years of in-depth study and countless days digging in excavation pits, often under severe, harsh, and hot conditions. However, many people are opting for an archaeological ‘vacation’ as a short-term volunteer. This can be a great way to experience genuine archaeology, share your budding skills, see and stay in a foreign country with like-minded enthusiasts, and more importantly, interact with professional archaeological experts.

Simply turning up and jumping into an excavation pit is not the best way to start your volunteer stint as an archaeologist. There are a number of matters to consider if you are thinking about joining a dig as a volunteer archaeologist.

General Health and Fitness

As most archaeological volunteer programmes are located in dry, barren places, the work conditions are often quite demanding. To minimise exposure to stifling mid-day heat the digging day can begin as early as 4am. Prolonged exposure to heat and direct sun can be debilitating and exhausting. The volunteer may be required to push loaded wheelbarrows of soil or repetitively carry full buckets of dirt over long distances. Such work is demanding and necessitates a good level of general health. See your doctor before going if you are at all unsure.

What Will You Do?

Naturally, as a novice, you will not be leading the excavation as the site supervisor. Instead, the work of the volunteer is usually labour orientated and always in conjunction with others, usually archaeology students from the host university operating the dig.

If you arrived at the beginning of the digging season you will be involved in site preparation, which includes restringing the squares and baulks, clearing out any debris deposited since the last season, and erecting shade covers over the digging pits.

Once the preliminaries are attended to, you will be assigned to a site supervisor who will place you with a small team. Regular digging tasks can include using all of the archaeological tools from hefty picks to tiny trowels as you are coached through the day by a senior student in your group.

Most university-hosted excavations will provide lectures in the evening from their academic staff. They are usually free to sit in on and listen to, but there will be a fee if you wish to receive academic credit for them.

Will I Find Gold and Treasure?

No one can predict what artefacts an archaeological site will yield. The most common items recovered from a dig are potsherds (pieces of broken pottery). They may range in size from a fragment as small as a fingernail to a chunk the size of your hand. No matter how great or small the find there is always a heart-thumping thrill as the trowel ‘tinks’ on the ceramic sherd and the accompanying excitement of its slow and careful disclosure.

All artefacts are cleaned and examined by specialists in the field, often on the same day and usually in the late afternoon when conditions are cooler. It is at these briefing seminars that you will be told the history and background to your finds. Should your artefact prove to be a valuable addition to the expeditions work, it might even be named after you. Less important pieces will be catalogued and archived. The dig supervisor may permit volunteers to keep very common items such as some potsherds or flint artefacts as a souvenir of their participation.

How to Join a Dig

There are many opportunities to volunteer on an archaeological dig. Almost every university-hosted site throughout the world permits novice enthusiasts to join their digging programmes.

Not all universities have an archaeology department and even fewer actually run regular excavations but any large university will be able to provide the names of those that do. Speak to the archaeology or anthropology department to enquire about volunteer placements.

What Experience is Needed?

Lack of experience is not as important as you might think. Much of the volunteer’s input is just ‘being there’ in a practical way to help complete or continue a project where funding is limited. You may think that lifting up and removing an ancient mosaic from a Roman bath-house in Greece and cleaning then restoring the surface, chipped by falling columns and roof tiles, might be the job only for restoration specialists and in part you are right. It certainly takes a specialist to set out the strategy for the restoration programme but once the project is underway, a great deal of non-experts become involved. Indeed, semi-skilled labour is paramount to success.

It doesn’t cost anything to participate in most archaeological volunteer projects but you do have to get yourself to the excavation site and more often than not you have to pay for your own food and accommodation while there. These are normally provided at a reasonable rate to volunteers.

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I currently work in Cumbria UK as a manager of catering, but have been always been Fascinated with Ancient structures and texts. I have a keen interest on North American Indian history and Archeology. I've recently been studying in my own time Ancient Celtic history of Greenland and Doggerland dating around the End of the last Ice age. Little is Unknown regarding both of these due to the suppression of discovered artifacts not being openly shared with the public. I would love to Volunteer for any expeditions in North America, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, England and Scandinavia. I'm a hard worker a great team player and have a sharpe eye ;) if you find a moment I would be highly grateful if you could send me anything on these subjects. Thankyou for your time. Jordan
Jud - 24-Mar-15 @ 9:01 PM
jojo is my name doing a project for school 6th grade
jojo - 27-Feb-15 @ 6:33 PM
@Sanne. It depends where you would like to go. Search engines are your best option, but here are a few we know of in 2015 (not necessarily in winter as they are not so frequent). There is an exciting dig ongoing in the North Pennines
The Jorvik Centre in York is often seeking volunteers
and The lost city of Trellech dig will be starting again over in Monmouthshire in 2015 - Saturday 18th July to Sunday 16th August
ArchaeologyExpert - 11-Nov-14 @ 12:43 PM
I'm interested in going on a dig. I've never done it before, but I'm up for the experience. As for the location I'm open to that as well. Are there any digs happening in January to March
Sanne - 10-Nov-14 @ 2:33 AM
@Stuart. Sorry we cannot offer individual advice via email. There are some digs listed in the London Archaeologist magazine here.
ArchaeologyExpert - 28-Oct-14 @ 2:32 PM
Im a first year history student. I'm 28 and have a keen interest in archaeology. I would like to know if you know of any volunteer digs in the London area. Please inbox me if you have any information. Thanks.
Stuart - 26-Oct-14 @ 5:17 PM
Hello: I am a 59 year old chef.Just wondering if you are ever looking for someone who along with joining a dig, can also organize menus and prepare meals on your digs. Thank you for your consideration.
Chef Ken - 5-Jul-14 @ 3:49 PM
I would like to be a volunteer in a Turkish archeological expedition. I speak Russian (native), English, Turkish, a little bit French. I live in Antalya and I'm interested in archeology and history. I work as a journalist for russian magazines and as a PR-manager for the Swiss watch company Quinting.
Tatsey - 30-Jun-13 @ 11:50 AM
hey I'm a 1st year student from the university of Nairobi in Kenya doing anthropology but very keen on archaeology.I'm just about to go for my long holiday break and i would really love to do some archaeological volunteerism,inbox me if i can be of help to you or your group
rayo - 7-Jun-13 @ 3:11 PM
HIAM A FIRST yearstudent in zimbabwe studying archaeology cultural heritage and museum studies . am looking foward to meet other archaeologist student around the world . also l want t6o be a volunteer archaeologist
rodrizzy - 2-Jun-13 @ 2:09 PM
Sam from - N.T Australia. Interests - Volunteer in Egypt. I have a passion for Ancient Egyptian History, my favourite Archaeologist is Bob Briers. Vie always dreamt of volunteering in Egypt, just to be around so many men and women that share the same passionate interests as I do. My questions: For me to join a team in Egypt, I have to contact the Egyptian University, Archaeology section? Do we get to choose the location, or were selected to join a certain group? Is there a limited number of people per sight? What time of the year and how long does it last? Are we required to have a work visa? Finally, do we arrange our own way to another country, insurance etc? Cheers Sam
Sam - 13-Apr-13 @ 1:43 PM
Hi I am Interested in archaeology have been for as long as I can remember and would like to be come a volunteer but until never knew how to go about it and now with so much time on my hands I would like to start is there any way you can help or advise me to get started I am novice and willing to learn thank you. Kind regards, Dave Guildford
Davieg - 24-Mar-13 @ 11:43 AM
I am a second year Geophysics student at Southampton Uni, looking for some work experience/volunteer work during the summer.Anyone hearing or anything or need help on projects let me know.Willing to travel anywhere.
Chez - 14-Mar-13 @ 6:41 PM
I am an ex- stone builder and have worked at New Lanark Worl Heritage site for many years about 12 years ago, i am just back from trip to Rome and Pompei. I notiuced many restoration repairs made to ruins and was very impressed by some of the work, when i worked at new lanark the same type of building and restoration of stonework was same type as used in Rome and Pompei, I would love to work in Rome or Pompei and it would give me great satisfaction to be able to help to restore such important relics of the past. I would be very willing to work voluntary and pay for my own transport and accomadation just to have the privaledge of working on such magnificant sites.
Pedro - 4-Dec-12 @ 12:54 PM
I'm a retired physician with years of ER, family practice and wilderness medicine. I would like to join underwater research teams. Once, I'm aboard I can care for most any situation until more critical patients can be safely transferred to hospital. Thanks for your interest.
Doc - 13-Jul-12 @ 4:25 PM
I'm 17 and I have just left school, living in Wellington, New Zealand. I have been interested in ancient history since I was little and this seems like a great way to get involved. I would be most interested in South America and northern Africa, but happy with anything, getting there is not an issue.
Tim - 6-May-12 @ 3:51 PM
I have for many years been very interested in archaeology and would be very interested in volunteering for any current digs in the Gwynedd/Anglesey area of North Wales.I am 68 years old and retired.I have a few problems with aches and pains but I am otherwise fine and would like to become involved in any work which requires painstaking tenacity and patience which I have in plenty.e.g. sorting, washing, brushing and trying to piece bits together. A couple of years ago I did a little work on a site at Aber Falls in Gwynedd which I found very satisfying, even though it was snowing.I would be pleased to hear of any digs within the Gwynedd, Arfon, Dwyfor or Anglesey area for which I could offer some volunteering work.My Home address is:- Cilfodan Isaf, Carmel, Caernarfon, Gwynedd.LL54 7AG.My home telephone number is 01286 881229. Thank you. Sylvia O'Dwyer.
Sylv. - 1-May-12 @ 4:49 PM
Hi, I am a divemaster and study archaeoloogy at Exeter in my third year. Afterwards I would like to go into underwater archaeology. How do you suggest I go about getting experience and training?
Mel - 23-Oct-11 @ 6:08 PM
Hello, I am very keen on volunteering on a European archaelogical dig in summer 2012... ideally in Greece, if possible, but not essential. My interest in archaelogy is purely personal (I work in publishing), but I am passionate about the subject and am happy to put in hard work needed on a dig. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks Alison
Alison - 20-Oct-11 @ 4:01 PM
I am very interested in becoming a volunteer on any dig anywhere england prefeeably older the better keen willing and eager please i just want an opporunity to get hands on
debz - 30-Sep-11 @ 10:39 PM
We have been excavating our farm in North Devon which we know is at least 17thC, and possibly 14thC, any advice on pottery sherds would be greatly appreciated
Devonamateurs - 4-Aug-11 @ 8:53 AM
I live in north carolina and I have a major passion in Archaeology. I'm 12 and I'm ready to begin a career in Archaeology> p.s. Nothing will ever stop me from studying Archaeology! also my favorite place no study is Egypt so I might be a Egyptologist too!! p.s.s Can't wait to go to College!
historychic - 30-Jun-11 @ 7:10 PM
list of colleges that impart a training in underwater archaeology?
aks - 3-Jun-11 @ 11:35 AM
can you tell me that how many types of archeological reconstruction
odnoo - 23-Apr-11 @ 3:49 PM
I Live in Liverpool, I am 25 and have a great passion for archaeology and have done since a young age. I am looking for a route into archaeology and would love to help volunteer on an archaeology dig. I am working full time but am considering leaving work to study archaeology full time or part time.
Hannah - 21-Mar-11 @ 7:24 PM
I live in East devon, I am 49 years old and have a passion for archaeology. I have a degree in heritage and landscape studies from the university of Plymouth and started a post grad at Exeter. Sadly I had to give this up due to personal reasons.
david!? - 17-Mar-11 @ 3:23 PM
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