Whether you want to excavate ancient temples or skeletons of extinct critters like dinosaurs and mammoths, archaeological and paleontological digs all over the world are looking for volunteers to lend a hand and get dirty.
In exchange for tuition and sweat, participants receive hands-on instruction, room and board, and the deep gratification of contributing to important scientific discoveries. Most excavations are strenuous, dirty, and physically challenging, involving walking, squatting, and sometimes tolerating rugged accommodations without electricity, but they attract many passionate people of all ages — not just college kids earning credits.
Generally taking place in summer with a spring application deadline, projects take place in almost every nation accessible to researchers. Here are seven excavation opportunities that are actively seeking adult volunteers for 2020.
1. Biblical archaeology in Israel
The site: Tell es-Safi/Gath of the Philistines
Located in southern Israel between Jerusalem and Ashkelon, biblical Gath was one of the five cities of the Philistines (biblical peoples in conflict with Israelites) and supposedly home to Goliath, of the David and Goliath Bible parable. The site has been occupied from the Early Bronze Age, about 4,000 years ago, through today. This particular project has been going on since 1996.
The finds: Among other artifacts, crews have excavated ancient houses, rare cult objects, Philistine burials, and inscriptions referring to Goliath.
The details: The 2020 project runs from June 28 to July 24. It’s a mixed crew of college students and paying adults. Participation cost varies for the four-week project, depending on the type of dorm room the volunteer chooses. The range is about $500 to $1,200, also depending on the length of stay and registration fees. Food is not included but there’s a store at the lodging site. There’s a minimum two-week participation.
Contact: Dr. Aren Maeir from the Institute of Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University heads the dig. Maeir is reachable via email at email@example.com. Check out the excavation site and apply if you’re keen to participate.
2. A Mayan city in Belize
The site: Blue Creek, Belize
The Maya Research Project is an affiliate of the University of Texas at Tyler. It’s legit, certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists. The project’s overarching goal is to understand more about the societies of the Americas, and to educate interested people about the ethics and procedures of archaeology. The Blue Creek site is about 20 miles east of the Guatemalan border.
The finds: Over the years, the project has excavated a portion of an ancient Mayan city. Among many other finds, this has included artifacts that indicate pre-Hispanic trade; residential, religious, and civic buildings; pottery; lithics (archaeology speak for “stone tools”); jade; jewelry; irrigation systems; and sacred objects.
The details: There are three two-week field sessions in 2020, running from June 1 through mid-July. UT also offers four laboratory classes in the field on topics like archaeological artifact analysis and 3D mapping. Adult volunteers pay $1,850 for a two-week field session; students enrolled in accredited college courses get a break and only pay $1,600. Participants are housed in a two-story building with a kitchen, or nearby cabanas without electricity. Meals and water are included, and laundry is available for a small fee. Evening lectures cover topics like conservation, mapping, and the sad history of looting Mayan remains.
Contact: For more information, check out the project’s detailed website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. Pre-Inca military interactions in Peru
The site: Pan de Azúcar de Nepeña, Peru
This new Institute for Field Research sponsored field school in coastal Peru teaches university students and the general public (18 years old and older) to excavate and analyze 1,000-year-old Peruvian remains like ceramics, textiles, and skeletons. The field school’s research agenda is to understand how the coastal Casma people reacted to the nearby warrior Chimú culture, and how resistance facilitated the Casma’s persistence. Students will learn both excavation and laboratory analysis skills.
Finds: So far archaeologists at the field school site have located a fortified adobe platform, 13 nearby mounds, and a cemetery.
Details: The field school offers two sessions in 2020: June 7 to July 4 and July 5 to August 1. The cost is $4,310 for a full four-week program’s worth of instruction, room and board, local transportation, health and evacuation insurance, and a field trip to the coastal site of Chan Chan. (It’s $300 less if a participant does not want academic credit.) Participants stay in a fully furnished field house in the nearby town of Nepeña.
Contact: Check out the application form for the Nepeña field school if you are interested in partaking.
4. A day of archaeology in Greece
The site: Travelers who are 18 and over can spend a day learning the principles of archaeology alongside University of Athens experts at a new project at Marathonas, Greece. Student visitors will learn everything from recognizing surface artifacts to properly photographing them, and maybe even get their hands dirty by taking the site down a layer. They’ll also see the Tomb of Marathon, aka “the Pile,” which is a monument to soldiers who fell at the Battle of Marathon.
Details: Cost depends on number of participants in the group, and includes transport from guests’ hotels, meals (including beer, wine, or soda) at the tour company’s favorite seaside taverna, and all entrance fees. For details regarding dates and availability, visit the Marathon Excavation Tour’s website.
Contact: Contact Discover Greek Culture, which runs the excavation tour, for more information.
5. Angkor empire households in Cambodia
The site: The esteemed nonprofit Earthwatch Institute sponsors field school for adults interested in understanding the world’s oldest pre-industrial city: that of the Angkor empire, which started more than 1,000 years ago in what is now Cambodia. Climate change has and continues to damage this site, but people have never truly abandoned the area. The 2020 fieldwork is set in Battambang Province and will continue to excavate lesser-visited ancient villages set on private lands and farms.
The finds: The main questions the head archaeologists are asking include how Angkorian and post-Angkorian communities sustained political strife and why certain people stayed when the political capital of the area moved south. This is household archaeology: an investigation of the everyday lives, possessions, and structures made by small communities. Some of the most revelatory artifacts include ancient ceramics and domestic structures.
Details: Spaces are available for seven- or 14-day excavations running from late May 2020 to late June 2020. Participants will stay in a hotel in the nearby town of Siem Reap. Catered meals are included. Breakfast is continental and lunch is in a Cambodian restaurant. Evening lectures are included, and 14-day sessions usually allocate a day or two for recreation. Costs range from $2,425 to $3,625 depending on the length of the fieldwork.
Contact: Dr. Miriam Stark of the University of Hawaii at Manoa is the co-director of the project. Contact Earthwatch for more information to apply.
6. Dinosaurs and more in Montana
The site: In the previous field seasons, crew members at the nonprofit Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute hit a fossiliferous jackpot, locating a region full of plant and animal skeletons representing many creatures that lived just before the dinosaurs went extinct. Of course, they found dinosaurs, too — this area was home to Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, among many others. This field season, crew members will be excavating that area (called the Morrison Formation) to scientifically document their many finds.
The finds: The BBPI has located fossils of prehistoric crocodiles, mammals, lizards, birds, and dinosaurs. It has three more quarries to excavate in the region.
Details: Individuals who are 12 and older in healthy physical condition can join the dig for one or two days as an Expedition Daily Visitor or one week as a crew member. Slated weeks are June 28 to August 8 (check availability of sessions). Lodging and meals are provided in the Beartooth Mountains at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association. Cost is $1,750 per week including room and board, all meals, tools, training, and transport to and from the site from the research association headquarters.
Contact: For more information, email email@example.com or check out the organization’s FAQs here.
7. Historic archaeology in North Carolina
The site: Fort San Juan near Morganton
Fort San Juan is (probably) the oldest European settlement in the interior of the United States. The Spanish fort was used from 1567 to 1568, but native peoples occupied the site well before the Europeans arrived. In fact, researchers have found a mound site from the Mississippian Period and a native town, in addition to five burned buildings from a Spanish settlement. This site honors all kinds of interests and covers both prehistoric and historic occupations.
Details: Field dates are June 1 to June 26. No experience is necessary. Volunteers must be 16 or older and commit to contributing for at least one week (but can stay up to four weeks). The cost is $425 per week. Optional room and board is an additional $75 per week.
Contact: For more information, contact Dr. David Moore of Warren Wilson College at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website.
A version of this article was previously published on January 3, 2019, and was updated on December 26, 2019 with more information.