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Participating in an archeological dig can be fun, educational, and a wonderful community bonding experience. But those who have never participated before ask, what is it like, how do I join in, what is required? Some sites do require participants to be a certain minimum age because of indemnification, so inquire of the site team. Other sites allow special days and times for the children to learn and get involved.
Expect a very casual group of participants with a few expert archeologists overseeing and directing operations.
Expect long days in the heat and sun, bring a straw hat and sunblock and plenty of bottled water.
“ Weather, weather, weather! It defines the experience. You can quickly start looking sunburned, and sometimes you’ll run for cover from a thunderstorm! Plan for everything.
Expect to walk a long way across natural terrain. If rainy weather has passed recently, even sites with some vehicle access can become impassable because of weather. Many a truck has had to be pushed out of the mud at a site!
There will be buckets galore – to carry excavated soil for screening, to collect artifacts, for water.
Guidance will be provided at every stage of participation, you can start out knowing next to nothing about digging and learn. Some of your fellow diggers will have spent years studying and digging. They will gladly share their knowledge with you so you don’t have to worry about your level of experience.
At the beginning of a dig, you will sit in on a detailed discussion about the site and how the excavation will be accomplished. It is important to listen carefully as it will help you understand why archeology is being conducted at the site. At some excavations, a site is first plowed and disked, and after a rain, artifacts are identified and plotted according to their exact location on the surface of the ground. This helps establish the boundaries of a site and make it easier to make a plan for how the excavation will move forward.
An easy first place to help is with the screening process, but expect to be guided there as well. Identifying the many items that may be of significance is a learning process in itself. Items like bits of wood, charcoal, tiny seeds, and certain types of stone are important artifacts to identify and gather from the soil. Artifacts that are easier to identify, like arrowheads, come in many developmental stages and as you become more experienced, you will train your eye to recognize them. Some artifacts may appear to be interesting, but may turn out to be inconsequential. This is all part of the learning experience.
There are a number of ways to excavate an archeological site. This depends on what type of site it is and what is expected to be found. In general, though, once a site’s boundaries have been established, the excavation can be set up by units. This basic digging area can measure between three to five feet square (on a historic site) and one to three meters square (on a prehistoric site). These units are marked off by stakes and strings, all oriented to a datum stake. Some of these units can be excavated together so that a large open area can be investigated. A patchwork of units will be investigated, depending on what is being found, if anything, then either continued or abandoned.
Sometimes digging can begin by mechanically excavating long strips of ground (or trenches) to seek the most promising areas of a site or locate additional possible features indicating human activity. This type of excavation usually takes place where plow zones exist; this removes the disturbed soils faster than hand digging. The lead archeologists will have a precise map of the areas and the work with units and features identified and numbered. Survey markers will orient the mapping.
A whole new way of using shovels and trowels will eventually become part of your digging process as you progress and are trained at a site. It can be painstaking and slow work, but every action is a vital part of the digging.
All of these techniques can reveal stained areas of soil that indicate various human activities that took place at the site. Features can represent the remains of prehistoric hearths, storage pits, burials and/or post holes. Places where fires were started hundreds or thousands of years previous will come to light, and bits of charred wood or ashes will be saved to determine the age of the activity.
If human remains are discovered, they are treated respectfully and quickly covered back with soil and left intact. Archeologists no longer recover or explore these ancestral remains out of respect for their cultures and any possible descendants. Although those people are no longer known or identified, they are all a very important part of our ancestral heritage.
All artifacts are collected at the site, bagged and labeled according to where they were found specifically. In addition, maps are meticulously drawn as are all features. Every action is recorded and photographed for future study and reference. You will learn that field excavations are only a very small part of archeological work. Much of the work is done out of the field and after the excavation is finished.
You will learn, and the moment you turn up that first wonderful item that has not been touched by a human for perhaps thousands of years before you, you’ll be hooked on the excitement and special activity of digging at an archeological site! Many members of the Monocacy Archeological Society have been participating in field school excavations for decades and they will be happy to tell you the stories of their experiences. They all began with their first excavation; therefore, most are willing to welcome and help new members.
Although the work it hard, it is extremely rewarding. Usually after lunch (bring a bag lunch unless instructed otherwise, sites are often far from commercial food centers), there will be a formal educational session or discussion. You will gain insight into what the experts are thinking from the finds. Each step along the way you will learn more about the how and why of archeology.
If digging is not in your blood, there may be opportunities to help with cleaning artifacts, first usually under a shady tent near the site, or later in lab areas. Handling all artifacts is a very specific process, separating and bagging by locations and types so the information and meaning of the finds can be analyzed by researchers. All artifacts are carefully washed so that they can be examined closely and later permanently labeled for analysis and for future researchers to access.
As you gain experience, you’ll form a more complete picture of your dig site, its history, and the people who lived there. You will have a greater understanding of the past and your community as part of a continuum of lives and cultures.
Photographs are from the Archeological Society of Maryland.