When I was 19 years old, I ventured into the jungles of Central America to excavate a Mayan Site. It was a Classic, Late-Classic Site located at Chan Chich outside of Gallon Jug. It was when I fell in love with archaeology and field work (one of the few things I miss from my times in academia). It was also when I knew that I did not want to work in the jungles of Central America. Have you seen the size of their spiders? I mean, seriously? They’re huge! Also, they have one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, a Fer-de-Lance. Our site was over run with them and I killed at least two with my machete (yes – I own a machete and I know how to use it – properly). Recently, I uncovered a couple of pictures from my first field work. I have decided to post them, even though they’re incredibly unflattering (terrible clothes, no makeup, covered in sweat and grime). Still, they remind me of good times!
Summer is the height of archaeological field season (with few exceptions – if you want to go to Egypt, plan on a winter excavation). Students are regularly asking me how they can get on a dig and where. The reality is that there are many different opportunities for those who want to volunteer, participate in field school, and even get paid for field work.
Nearly every site is dependent on volunteers and students to keep them running and it’s generally a simple matter to get on board. A simple email to the site director will usually get you instructions on how to apply for a position. There are different types of positions on digs:
Field School – Field school is unique in that it offers direct training in excavation techniques and frequently college credit. Field Schools are generally for a set period of time (2-8 weeks for credit). Students are required to pay tuition to the college issuing their credits (usually the university or college sponsoring the dig) and make a small donation to the field school to cover their lodging and food costs. Transportation to and from the location are usually the responsibility of the student.
Volunteer Positions – volunteer positions are regularly available to any applicant willing to spend their vacation days doing hard labor. Volunteers are normally asked to pay for their lodging and food costs as well as their transportation to and from the site. Some sites will offer periodic lectures or learning opportunities to interested volunteers. No college credit is offered in these circumstances.
Paid Field Positions – these opportunities are less common and more available in the United States (where strict labor laws are enforced). Generally, ‘shovelbum’ positions are offered to those with experience in fieldwork, a degree in anthropology or archaeology, and an expertise in the area being studied. Usually, paid field workers have their lodgings and food covered, but transportation costs are covered by them (with some exceptions).
There are many different avenues you can explore to find fieldwork opportunities. I’ve listed a few websites here that are commonly used for listings. If you have a site that you’re specifically interested in, you should contact their dig director directly.
Biblical Archaeology Review Volunteer Opportunities - Most of the opportunities listed here are relevant to the field of Biblical Archaeology and are located in the Middle East and Europe.
Shovelbums - Shovelbums is a forum used primarily by American archaeologists (but certainly not universally) and lists paid and volunteer positions all over the world.
Cyberpursuits - This is a database forum listing digs all over the world by various institutions
Archaeological Institute of American - This is the AIA’s official fieldwork listings. It is probably the most comprehensive and up to date database of fieldwork opportunities for volunteers, fieldschool applicants, and staff positions. It also lists scholarship opportunities as well as unique Visa issues for American applicants.
American Anthropological Association - The AAA lists not only archaeological positions but also work in paleoanthropology, primatology, and cultural anthropology.
These are by far not the only opportunities for those interested in attending a dig, but they’re a great start.
The AIA (American Institute of Archaeology) has, available through their webpage, a great educational feature – online, interactive archaeological digs. You can excavate a site in ancient Greece, Byzantine Turkey, an American Civil War Prison, and much, much more. With ready access to field notes and sketches, you (and your students) can explore the stratigraphy and discover fascinating pieces that rebuild the site’s chronology.
Check out the AIA’s interactive digs here