Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1390431-Digging-Up-the-Past
Rated: E · Article · Activity · #1390431
You can be an archaeologist - here's how!
We had been working all day, carefully scraping layer after layer of dirt out of a meter-square pit, looking for Revolutionary War artifacts. As the shadows deepened on the Vermont hillside where we worked, we began to despair of finding anything. But, as often happens with amateur archaeology, the last trowel swipe of the day revealed a treasure. It was a musket ball, encrusted with dirt, but still intact, probably carried by a Revolutionary War soldier during his tour of duty in the green hills of Vermont.

         Amateurs have always played a role in archaeology, but in recent years, they have begun to take their place as respected members of the discipline. Interested amateur archaeologists flock to summer field schools and open digs, eager to add to their knowledge and participate in the excitement of the dig.

         In past years, people interested in Native American culture or early American settlements have gone out on their own and begun unsupervised digs, adding to their own private collections, but giving little thought to the preservation of history. In an effort to harness this amateur enthusiasm, many professional archaeologists have begun increasing opportunities for amateurs to work on supervised, professional digs. Today there are dozens of professional and amateur organizations where interested beginners can go to obtain training, and literally hundreds of excavations around the world where they can go to participate in professionally supervised digs.

         The word archaeology often conjures up visions of Indiana Jones-type characters who get involved in wild adventures during visits to exotic locales. In fact, most archaeologists spend their time excavating in isolated places, many in the United States, and are excited by the discovery of artifacts that will add to knowledge about our own history and culture.

         Archaeology can be easily defined as the study of objects created by humans, known as artifacts. Studying these artifacts reveals how humans lived and worked in the past. The field of archaeology is roughly broken down into the study of cultures that lived prior to written records and those that existed after such records were kept. Thus, prehistoric archaeologists must interpret artifacts without the benefit of written history to help them. By the same token, historical archaeologists benefit from the written records.

         Although archaeology is broken down into several different areas, the discipline remains the same for all excavations. After locating and researching a site, archaeologists lay out a grid, a set of squares that cover the entire excavation site. Each square then becomes an excavations site in itself. Teams of excavators carefully clear away grass and debris and begin scraping soil away in layers.

         This is where amateur archaeologists make their contribution. With little training, groups of interested volunteers can work on a series of excavations, digging and recording their finds, greatly increasing the productivity of the dig. Professional archaeologists find that amateurs are just as capable as professionals at the exacting work of excavating a pottery shard or a small animal skeleton, and are often ecstatic at the prospect of spending hours picking away at small bones with a dental pick, a tool used for intricate work. On a dig in Mallorca, Spain, I spent the better part of an afternoon, crouched in a three-foot hole, picking away at a small jawbone, much to the envy of my co-workers.

         Most sites that welcome volunteer workers provide all the tools necessary for excavating. This includes a trowel for scraping, a dustpan and bucket for collecting the dirt, and bags to put your findings in. But many volunteers bring their own equipment, a collection of trowels, bricklaying trowels and dental picks accumulated over the years, and some experienced diggers even make their own tools!

         If kneeling in the dirt with a trowel doesn’t appeal to you, there is other work for the amateur archaeologist that is just as rewarding. All excavations sites have a field laboratory, where artifacts are cleaned, bagged and catalogued for future study. Often, volunteers who are not spry enough to spend all day outside, or who just enjoy the sorting and washing process, gravitate to the field laboratory. Other jobs include surveying and mapping of different aspects of the excavation.

         Most archaeological digs that welcome volunteers provide background information regarding the nature of the excavation, opportunities to take related trips in the area, and often bring in professional speakers to talk to volunteer groups about the value of the work they are doing. Professional archaeologists are, in the main, highly respectful of amateur archaeologists, many of who have been traveling to excavations sites for years and are very well versed in both technique and theory.

         If you spent time digging in your backyard as a kid, and have always wanted to work on a ‘real’ archaeological dig, the opportunities are endless. Check out the community colleges in your area, or in an historic area where you want to work. Many small colleges offer archaeological field schools during the summer, where for a small fee you can dig for two weeks, room and board included.

         Your state archaeologist of Department of Historic Preservation is another resource that can provide you with information on archaeological activity. Many travel agencies today can point you in the direction of an archaeological tour, if you are interested in working on a foreign dig. Archaeological sites in foreign countries often provide attractions away from the site, which can be beneficial if a spouse in not an enthusiastic digger.

         There are number periodicals that list fieldwork opportunities for amateur archaeologists. The Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin, published by the Archaeological Institute of America, 675 Commonwealth Ave, Boston MA  02215, offers over one hundred pages of affiliated organizations and institutions that use volunteers.

         Finally, there are several organizations, like Earthwatch Expeditions, PO Box 403, Watertown MA  02272, which sponsor excavations worldwide and coordinate visits by volunteer excavators.

© Copyright 2008 1toughcooky (leonoraf at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
Writing.Com, its affiliates and syndicates have been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work.
Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1390431-Digging-Up-the-Past