Fieldwork is an essential component of any successful archaeologist’s resume. Nevertheless, as an undergraduate, finding a field project can seem daunting. This guide has been developed as an aid in finding an archaeological project that meets your particular needs and interests.
Where to begin: The Archaeological Institute of America maintains the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin, a database of archaeological projects, on its website. The electronic bulletin is searchable by type of position, and keywords including geography, culture, period, and project type.
Narrowing Down your Options
A number of basic questions can help to narrow down your options:
- Where do I want to excavate?
Fieldwork opportunities are available around the globe, from urban excavations in London, to projects that study the material remains of semi-nomadic communities in Mongolia. At the same time, there are local archaeological projects in nearly every state in the US that you can often join with little expense. What part of the globe interests you? Do you want a new experience, or do you want to reinforce what you have learned in your courses?
- Do I have a particular culture I’d like to explore?
In a number of areas of the world, archaeologists are exploring multiple cultural periods. Your thinking needs to take a second step beyond geography, to consider the specific time period and culture that interests you.
- What kind of a project am I looking for?
Archaeological fieldwork isn’t just excavation anymore. Many projects are engaged in historic preservation, archaeological survey, architectural analysis, materials conservation, etc. Look for a project that fits your methodological interests.
- What living conditions am I willing to endure?
Dig accommodations can range widely. Participants can live in everything from a Tuscan villa to a campsite on a fly-infested beach. Selecting an excavation is a balance between finding a geographic location that interests you and finding living conditions that you can handle. Are you a five-star kind of person, or do you have a “more rustic the better” kind of attitude?
- What type of educational experience are you looking for?
Field projects fall generally into two categories: 1) Field Schools; 2) Volunteer Experiences. Field Schools tend to emphasize the experience as a didactic exercise for the participants. There is usually a classroom component to the program, and student’s learning is emphasized as well as the goals of the research design of the excavation. Field Schools often offer credit to their participants (at an increased cost). Volunteer Experiences may or may not have a didactic component. The advantage is that they are usually more flexible in terms of schedule and often cost less.
Making Sure the Project is Right
Once you’ve identified a number of projects that fit your criteria, it is time to narrow the list down to those one that you will apply to. There are a number of phenomenal projects out there, but also some that are poorly run. This section is a guide to help you determine which category a particular dig falls into.
One of the best things that you can do to evaluate the nature of a program is to email its primary contact and see what kind of a response you get from them. If a dig director isn’t interested in communicating with potential volunteers before they get in the field, their interest in the learning process of their crew is unlikely to increase on-site. A number of questions can be helpful in eliciting how your experience as a crew member will play out.
Some questions to ask a dig director about their project:
- How large is your project (number of students, number of staff, etc.)?
Small projects often offer one-on-one contact with excellent teachers and scholars. Large projects can be significantly less personal, but sometimes that is offset by a large research budget that allows them to employ cutting edge techniques. Size of a project is a personal preference. The ratio of staff to students is a far better predictor of the quality of a project than the physical numbers of individuals involved.
- What sorts of things will I be doing on-site?
Participation in a field project can mean a number of things. The best projects involve students in every aspect of the process, from excavation (or survey) to finds processing, etc. Some nightmare projects use students merely to clear brush and weeds, or to excavate plow-zone before the “real” archaeologists get to work. Make sure that you will be doing real and meaningful archaeology before you commit to a project.
- Will I have opportunities to learn about the analysis of the material I am collecting?
Some projects sequester their material from students as soon as it is collected. It seemingly disappears into a black hole constituted as an “experts only” zone. Good projects engage students in the analysis of the material they are producing. A good field project will offer opportunities for students to learn how to analyze finds, produce archaeological illustrations, draw plans, run the survey equipment.
- Will I get to help with the interpretation of the result of the excavation/survey?
Many projects reserve the paperwork and the associated interpretation for the staff and don’t allow the students to learn the process of documentation. This is fine if you intend your experience as a one-time thing, but doesn’t serve you well if you’d like to go on to be a staff member yourself.
It is also often helpful to look directly at an excavation’s website to see how they convey the image of their research and their project.
I know it goes without saying, but archaeology is hard work, not a holiday in the sun. You’ll finish your days dirty, hot, and exhausted. If this sounds great, excavation will likely be your thing. If not, there are plenty of other ways to explore the world.
Poggio Colla Field School – Southern Methodist University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Gabii Project – University of Michigan (email@example.com)
Poggio Civitate Excavations – University of Massachusetts Amherst (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Monticello-UVA Archaeological Field School – University of Virginia (email@example.com)