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Be a Volunteer Archaeologist

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 12 May 2021 | comments*Discuss
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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Hi As odd as this sounds - we live in “Gold Country, CA (calaveras county ) and while doing yard work, have discovered over 200 types of rocks not native to our area, bones that are very old we believe and let’s say nearly full or half fragments of something coming out of the ground in several places on our half acre of land. We know native Americans were here (mewok) but we also know that even thou we are inland, at one point this was coastal. The size, oddness of speciments - the entire picture of it all is to the point if we are now wondering if we should call “someone” - like when there are teeth sticking out or serpent heads and after 5 years what we thought were just “rocks” are actually bones and what not Of course, our fear is calling someone at Berkeley or in Lodi, Sacramento etc and having someone come out and saying nope - nothing special ! It’s all very odd to us and the more research we do, the more we start to wonder. That’s all I’ll say for now ! Any info would be appreciated - or if you have any ideas on where to post our finds that someone may discover us. Thank you in advance S
SarahMdr - 12-May-21 @ 7:04 PM
Love to go archaeologist voluntary excavations I got the 3° archaeologist and I love to go to the excavations so the point is I’m very curious I think every single peoples I love archaeology is it that they are Curious that’s the job I love to go of course there’s any point if you could please contact me many thanks
Sam - 11-Apr-20 @ 11:09 AM
Hi. I am planning on going to university to study archaeology and would love to go on a volunteer dig. Any advice from anyone i would be so so grateful. Thank you Gemma
Gemma - 15-Dec-19 @ 8:05 AM
I am a prof. in a college in Bangalore India, I would like to participate in your explorations,
Suri - 22-Oct-19 @ 3:26 PM
It’s totally true that volunteer excavation experiences are sold like vacation packages. Do not be fooled, I had the good luck an opportunity to participate on my first one for 15 usd a day for boarding, transportation and breakfast with the option to include 2 other meals or decline. One can do some grocery shopping at store close to boarding. I plan to return next season July 2020 because I liked the flexibility to adjust to any budget. All this advices shared here are somewhat true but it depends on the site supervisor. I learned more in this past month experience than the actual archaeology lecture in school and my site supervisor was open to quickly assign sifting and digging. I found important items such as gold and ended the season with director of excavation letter of participation and recommendation, please make sure to ask for this. An advice to all, don’t participate on excavations that don’t have this economic flexibility and sell you packages priced in thousands of dollars. Many are sites that have funds such as donations and charge an entrance fee already. Think about it you are volunteering and spending on education plus flight ticket. Lastly if you see advertised an excavation you want to to participate make sure its runned by an institution. Mine was and by this way you could avoid dangers and scams by searching the institution on internet search engine and calling directly to verify the veracity of the excavation.
Excavation!! - 1-Oct-19 @ 9:05 AM
I would loke to volunteer and join excavations in Saidi Arabia. I am a tour guide and an explorer. I can work in desert and mountains and i am expert in desert and i can read ancient Arabic. I wrote a book about petroglypgs in desert. I have much more
MMY - 22-Sep-19 @ 5:42 AM
I completed my post graduation from ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology from India. Would you please give me any advice to get a job in this field. Thank you
Usha - 23-Aug-19 @ 5:57 AM
Greetings, I am an archaeologist and it is a very though career, I must say. While I am not able to continue my career as an archaeologist, I consider volunteering. But something that have always bugged me: Why volunteering in archaeology is so expensive? I know part of the money is for acommodation and maybe food, but it is still quite expensive considering the hard work...for FREE. I have only managed to join one excavation in Italy which had a reasonable price. Do you have any recommendations on how to deal with this situation? Or any recommendations of more accessable volunteer work? Cheers.
Fox - 14-Aug-19 @ 8:05 PM
Hi I am 17 and a student living in Cornwall. I am hoping to study archaeology or ancient history at university and would love the opportunity to experience a dig. I would be grateful for any help or information about digs in my area. Thank you
Noah - 30-Jul-19 @ 7:46 AM
Hello I am 14 years old boy trying to come to UK to solve the mistery
PR King - 29-Jun-19 @ 4:44 AM
Hello I am 14 years old boy trying to come to UK and trying to solve the mistery
PR king - 29-Jun-19 @ 4:37 AM
I'm an American Digger and would love to participate in a dig in/around Rome from July 19 - 24.Any thoughts/ideas/direction.Much appreciated.
Ld - 21-Jun-19 @ 12:45 AM
Hi, I am currently studying for my A-Levels and plan to study archaeology at university. I am looking for summer work experience helping out on a dig for a few days, I live near London. Thank you for any advice you can give me!
Holly - 18-May-19 @ 2:06 PM
I am currently a student in archaeology, but i am study througj distance learning. Thus i would love the oppertunity to get dirty at a dig. Egypt has always been close to my heart and i would love to form part of a dig at the end of the year.
Ani - 8-May-19 @ 11:56 AM
I would love the opportunity to help out in Pompeii. I have been involved in the building industry for over 35 years. Tony
Zoof - 6-May-19 @ 11:06 AM
I will be traveling to Egypt in October and would like to volunteer on a digging site. Please email info. Thank you
Cam - 5-May-19 @ 10:23 AM
Hello . I’m available from august 17 to 25 . I’m used to working with intricate things as I’m a dental technician . I’m 46 ,6ft 7 18 stone fit ish used to play a lot of rugby . Let me know if you would like a hand .
BUBS - 2-May-19 @ 8:30 PM
Hi I would love to do some digs and I am really interested in archaeology it fascinates me so please if anything comes up get in touch thanks
Dando - 28-Apr-19 @ 2:15 AM
Always wanted to go on a dig.. ever since I was young and heard of the king tut find I was hooked on ancient sites and what those sites could tell you about the people that lived there and called it their homes.. I'm not shy when it comes to working hard with a shovel and pick but I'm also adapt at lite and fragile work too...S.f. S.Wales
Foxy - 19-Mar-19 @ 8:04 AM
Hi I am currently studying for A levels and am looking for a dig I can join in the summer break in the UK. Are you able to advise how best to apply please. Thanks
Charlotte - 3-Feb-19 @ 1:47 PM
Hello, I'm a man, 63 years long and looking for some digging in the UK. I'v some experiences in this, did some digging at my village and Surinam as well. Can I join somewhere?
The Stratman - 31-Jan-19 @ 11:34 AM
Hi there, I am 17 years old and a junior in high school in the UK.I am interested in volunteering at a dig in July 2019 and looking for help to locate opportunities.Could you please guide me and suggest some places, especially anything involving Roman history. THank you Armaan
Armaan - 22-Jan-19 @ 5:10 PM
We dying to dig. We want the honour.. MOHAMED kadir Danielle revill 65 Cedar Grove L80sn Liverpool Uk
Mo - 6-Sep-18 @ 7:17 AM
I have always love an adventurous life,I have always wished to travel to Egypt and every other ancient places to find out about this and learn new things.Am not an archeologist and I didn’t study that but I won’t mind to volunteer.I need something that will keep me at peace and it has to be something that I love doing something I can’t do over here.I really want to
Moe - 10-Aug-18 @ 6:58 PM
I am about to take my degree in archaeology and I already have attended two excavations.I want to find one inEngland, can you give me some information about where and how to apply?
Ion - 16-Apr-18 @ 4:59 PM
I'm an older woman not in the best of health, I'm 62 but I have been finding things since I was a small child Indian artifacts it was then. Have you ever felt like you were born in the wrong time or you should be doing something that you're not? But I guess with you you're not worrying about that my dream is always been this to find the Discover to research the history of wise where is and when who held something last it's been a passion of mine ever since a child... be for my years run out I want so desperately to discover or to be involved in a dig and Scotland or England that would be a dream for me it's a bucket list I guess it's 62 is that possible, how could I do this if I have health problems that are mild I saw your information about it I'm not real big on heat maybe it's because my lineage is from the northern countries I prefer cold with a blanket or quilt but I'm just curious what my chances would be I'm not even expecting a reply on my email I guess I'm just putting out into the universe my dream
dee - 13-Dec-17 @ 4:23 AM
Hello my name is Rebecca Cuevas, I was born in Mississippi and since I can remember I have been digging things up whether it be the gravel in the drive way looking for fossils or the field behind the house looking for arrowheads. I chose a career in Histotechnology searching for a cure for cancer. I still dream of finding a lost civilization like Indiana Jones I believe this field needs fresh ideas along with experienced veterans just like cancer research pls contact me and let me know it's not just a dream
Becky - 19-Nov-17 @ 5:58 AM
I'm completed masters in archaeology. And I 'm already participate in one excavation. I really intrested to work as a volunteer in field work at Egypt . Can you give some suggestions and also information about field work in Egypt.
Timothy - 5-Nov-17 @ 5:36 PM
Jw if any digs near NMB South Carolina? N if not How can i find out more on Other Digs w all expensive paid?
Kel - 6-Mar-17 @ 6:12 AM
Iam not an expert but in my country many people are stolen ancients tombs searching for gold and trasure i beleive theres a whole history is barried here my dream is to descover it wish someone can help me
bd - 31-Dec-16 @ 1:45 AM
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