Tag Archives: Volunteer

A Day On An Archaeological Dig: Part II

8 May

If you’ve read Part I then you’ll have an idea of what you’re basic schedule would be like for a day of digging. Most of the time you should expect an early wakeup followed by a full day of working that will usually end before the sun sets. Digging in the dark is impossible.

I feel as if the media, and especially movies, like Indiana Jones, completely glamorizes and romanticizes archaeology. Archaeology is nothing like Indiana Jones. If that’s what you’re expecting or if that’s what you want, then don’t bother because you will be horribly disappointed.

Archaeology is tedious and time-consuming. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience. You’re not going to be finding really awesome artifacts every few minutes. It’s more like every few days or not at all.

I’m not trying to make it sound less exciting than it is because, to me, it is very exciting, even when it’s not me who is actually finding highly significant artifacts, but rather someone else. But, when you do find something, especially your first artifact, it is SO exciting. When sand is blowing in your face on a windy day, then maybe not so much.

One of those windy, cold, crappy days

Five really important factors stood out to me during this volunteer experience that I think are important to be considered BEFORE committing.

So, before you buy your plane ticket, make sure you can handle the following:

1) Are you okay with being isolated?

Because you will likely be located in the middle of nowhere.

A lot of archaeological sites are located in a remote area because they are likely the sites that haven’t been terribly destroyed by weather or looters. Also, as times passes, the larger sites are already completely excavated and so all that is left are the more unknown, remote sites. Excavated areas in big cities and common areas will definitely already be excavated, so don’t expect to be doing digging around the Colisseum or the Temples of Angkor Wat. They have already been fully excavated and, if not, they are left to the professionals.

2) Do language barriers freak you out?

Because there may be a lot of workers who don’t speak English.

While my fellow volunteers did speak English, the workers who did all the “heavy-lifting” didn’t speak a word of English. It’s hard to find workers who speak English in such an isolated area. Consequently, all paper work, including forms that I had to fill out regarding the artifacts I found, were in Spanish and I had to complete them in Spanish. I got the hang of this quickly, but it was a little bit overwhelming at first as it was crucial that we didn’t screw up the forms. Organization is such a key aspect when handling artifacts and it was a huge issue if we didn’t fill out the forms properly. The upside? Learning a lot of uncommon terms in a different language, in my case, Spanish. I learned how to say shell, metal, wood, and many other terms and phrases in Spanish to the point that they became second nature to me. It was a cool way to learn a language.

3) Are you in good health?

Because this is definitely not an “easy” volunteering experience.

I put easy in quotations because I’m not referring to the actual technique of digging. That’s the easy part. The hard part is the strain on your body. For me, my knees and back were under so much strain to the point that I didn’t know if I could continue digging. On top of that, I was doing close to an hour of walking up and down hills each day and the majority of the time I was carrying heavy equipment. If you have back problems, joint problems, asthma (like me), or some other type of health condition, you may want to really think about whether or not you will be able to work under these strenuous conditions. If you do encounter problems like this, you can always ask if there’s any lab work to be done. I did lab work cleaning textiles for a week and I loved it!

4) Do you fare well with less-than-satisfactory climates?

Because the weather can be very unpredictable.

I’ll give you an example of the type of climate I encountered each day in Nepeña, Peru. I was there during Peru’s winter months (July and August). The weather was very unusual to me. The mornings were very cold in Nepena, followed by hot temperatures midday plus really intense heat from the sun, followed by VERY cold nights. It was frustrating because when I would leave in the morning for the dig site it would be so cold that I had to wear pants, a jacket and sometimes even a hat or gloves. THEN, once it hit midday, it would be so hot that I would be sweating buckets. Then there’s the wind factor. When you’re working in a place like I did, which was basically a mound of sand, wind will be your worst enemy. Sand blowing into your face while your digging or into your food while your eating. Sometimes I would spend the majority of my time cleaning out one area in a room I was working on and then the winds would start up and completely ruin what I had accomplished. If you can handle these weather nuisances, then you should volunteer on a dig!

and most importantly…

5) Are you a patient person?

Because digging is a slow-paced type of job.

Although it may take a long time to find something that makes you feel accomplished, I assure you that it will be a great feeling when you do. What’s better than finding a piece of history than can contribute to the understanding of humankind? Be prepared that sometimes you might go days without finding something that feels significant to you. I found things everyday, but a corn kernel or a piece of llama hair didn’t really give me a sense of accomplishment. Be patient because you will find something. And even if it’s a fellow volunteer who finds something, it is just as exciting because you are part of it. If you don’t think brushing a wall for hours on end is your cup of tea, then this is not for you. Don’t expect to be finding dinosaur bones everyday because I assure you that you will likely never find a dinosaur bone. Ever. That’s not what archaeology is all about.

Of course there are other factors that you should consider.

Can you deal with handling bones? Hair? Dried feces?

This needle that was found is made of bone!

Are you okay with getting down and dirty? You WILL get dirty.

Can you handle criticism well?

Do you hate following orders or a strict schedule?

These, along with the five factors I mentioned before, as well as many other factors, are things to consider because you will most likely have to face ALL of them.

Archaeology is fun! But like any field, there are things you might not like about it or things that you might not be able to handle. Think about it. If you have back problems, ask beforehand if you can do lab work half the time and dig half the time. If you hate sand, try volunteering in Poland. If you hate cold climates, try volunteering in Thailand. Archaeology is everywhere. Look around, do research, and make sure that this is an experience that you would enjoy. And if it is, then it will be totally worth it.

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A Day On An Archaeological Dig: Part I

2 May

For anyone interested in archaeology or volunteering abroad, I’m going to give you an example of what to expect during a day as a volunteer archaeologist.

I’m studying anthropology and archaeology in university so naturally I knew that volunteering for something related, like an archaeological dig, would be a great opportunity for me.

I was nervous because I just assumed that everyone would already know what they were doing while I had ZERO experience with any hands-on work in archaeology.

However, to my surprise, while half of the people volunteering were involved in archaeology before, the other half had no previous experience.

I think it’s a great idea to volunteer on an archaeological dig. Not only do you get to meet a lot of people, but you also get to immerse yourself in a culture and find actual artifacts yourself! You get to learn different techniques, like how to use a trowel and how to clean artifacts properly. You get to learn so much about the past of the people who the artifacts once belonged to.

A friend and I posing with our archaeology tools

Something like this is also really great for your resume/CV. I recently got a job at a garden centre partly because  of this unique experience I had (and partly because of my irresistible charm).

AND you get to discover some very, very weird objects.

Like a fully preserved llama leg (with hair, nails and everything!)

…or a broken off piece of pottery of a PENIS! No joke.

Yes, it's small, but it is a penis

Well, maybe you won’t find the latter, but I guarantee there will be some artifacts found that will be bizarre. Side note: The Moche civilization (who the artifacts once belonged to) are known for having very erotic pottery, ceramics, etc. Hence, the tiny penis.

No doubt, volunteering on a dig will make for some interesting stories and great conversation with friends and people you meet, maybe even on a first date ;). No doubt that you’ll make memories to last a lifetime.

However, it is a good idea to look into what you should expect and I am here to help!

Here is the basic schedule that I was to follow daily:

6:00 a.m. – Wake up and get ready. I would usually have just enough time to change and pack a lunch.

6:30 a.m. – Breakfast with the group. We were to meet at the “restaurant” at 6:30 every morning if we wanted free breakfast. It consisted of scrambled eggs and crappy coffee that I learned to eventually love.

7:00 a.m. – Car ride to Pañamarca. Pañamarca was as close as we could get to the site. We had to walk the remaining twenty minutes or so. Also, the car could only fit a small group of people so the first group would leave at 7 and the second group would leave at around 7:30. Consequently, the first group would get to come home first at the end of the work day and the second group had to wait.

I would love to do a post on Pañamarca, which is the ruins of a huaca (a.k.a temple), but it’s very isolated so I’m sure no one would ever go here. Here’s a picture of a section of the huaca to give you an idea of what it looked like.

More pictures can be seen here on my Flickr account.

Anyway, assuming I went with the first group…

7:15 a.m. – Walk from Pañamarca to the dig site in Nepeña Valley. This took about 20 to 30 minutes depending on what we had to carry. We had to take turns carrying the wheelbarrows which may seem easy but they were filled with equipment and we had to push them on upward slants which was a killer workout (and a sure way to accumulate blisters all over our fingers)!

This was taken on the walk to the dig site

8:00 a.m. – This is usually around the time when we started digging. Our director would assign us to work in a specific area.

10:30 a.m. – We would dig straight until 10:30 and then we would have a half hour break, which I would usually use to take a nap with the sand as my bed and a rock as my pillow.

11:00 a.m. – We would start digging again. Sometimes we would be moved to a new section.

1:00 p.m. – Break #2. It was also a half hour. Most of us would usually eat lunch or nap. The sun was very hot at around this time which was pretty draining.

1:30 p.m. – The digging resumed.

2:30 p.m. – We would start labelling, categorizing, and bagging all our artifacts.

Bags of artifacts!

3:00 p.m. – Clean up, pack up, and start walking back to Pañamarca.

3:30 p.m. – First group would be taken back to our house and we would arrive close to 4 p.m.

And that’s it! It might totally suck getting up early at first, but once you’re used to it you’ll be happy that you’re done work earlier because that leaves you with a lot of free time.

You’ll also likely get the weekends off! Nepeña was about an hour drive to Chimbote and from there another 2 hours to Trujillo, a fairly big city, and I went there almost every weekend.

I should also mention that archaeological digs involve lab work, which you might have to do. This could include cleaning artifacts, labelling artifacts, etc, and it really isn’t as boring as it sounds. Sometimes it was actually a really nice break to work in the lab for the day. My personal favourite thing to do was working with the textiles, which involved carefully cleaning them, drawing them, and writing a description for them.

Cleaning textiles

Am I glad that I went? Absolutely. It was a great experience. I learned so much that will help with my studies. I learned so much about myself. I learned to adapt to a lifestyle that I wasn’t used to. I went out of my comfort zone. I found artifacts. I worked hard and it paid off.

But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows so stay tuned for Part II which will include a list of what you should consider before committing to volunteer on an archaeological dig.