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Archaeological vacations you'll really dig

So you’ve climbed the Acropolis, seen the Sphinx and walked the Great Wall—and they were breathtaking. But did those trips leave you with a lingering feeling that simply gazing upon ancient edifices just isn’t enough?
Image: Mammoth Graveyard, Hot Springs, South Dakota
Who doesn't love a woolly mammoth? Why these wonderful furry elephants disappeared from North America 10,000 years ago might be found in the dirt of Mammoth Graveyard, in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Program contribution is $2,750, and the late July expedition still has openings.Mark Daffey / Earthwatch
/ Source: Forbes

So you’ve climbed the Acropolis, seen the Sphinx and walked the Great Wall—and they were breathtaking. But did those trips leave you with a lingering feeling that simply gazing upon ancient edifices just isn’t enough? How about helping to actually find something? On an archaeological vacation, you can get your hands dirty while also contributing to culture.

“Voluntourism is a booming activity,” says Jeanine Pfeiffer, program director for social sciences at Earthwatch, a non-profit organization that seeks to introduce science into the lives of non-specialists. “Although, a better term might be ‘citizen science.’” For most of us without academic or professional experience in surveying and excavating, numerous organizations offer vacations that combine travel with on-site artifact recovery and restoration. Some sites focus on pottery, others are filled with fossils. At least one is dedicated to recovering sunken war machines. No matter your interest, taking one of these voluntourism trips will give new meaning to the idea of a “working vacation.”

One of the more physically demanding archaeo-trips is Earthwatch International’s Truk Lagoon Dive. In 1944, an American attack on this Imperial Japanese Navy base left the sea bottom littered with approximately 50 ships and nearly 300 aircraft. This project helps monitor the state of these wrecks, carried out by two dives per day over seven full days in the water. Volunteers also collect oral histories from area residents, who use the name Chuuk Lagoon.

Even on land, working on a site can be strenuous. Says Jim Walker, a director at the Archaeological Conservancy, “people quickly learn… that archaeology can be hot, dirty, hard work.” A good dig, according to Walker, has “a high ratio of trained, degreed professionals to participants.” The on-site professionals typically offer lectures and instruction, and can readily demonstrate the ways that the effort will have as much local impact as it will scientific meaning.

Those keen on the American Southwest should consider a visit to the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s operation in Mesa Verde, which is working to uncover Anasazi artifacts surrounding a village dating from 1200 A.D. Numerous excavations from June to September give the serious digger lots of opportunities to get dirty while looking for a variety of artifacts. This operation sets a standard in proper handling, surveying, excavating and preserving artifacts.

Knowing that proper dig procedures are being followed is the key to finding the right outfit for your trip. “To know if you’re going with a good outfit, check out the publication efforts of the organization,” says Johna Hutira, an executive with Northland Research Inc., a professional archaeological excavation company. “Is there a series that distributes the researchers’ findings? Is there a museum associated with the effort? Do the professionals running the outfit publish or teach? If so, then [your participation] is contributing to scientific effort and our greater understanding of our past.”

This summer, researchers associated with a company called Find A Dig are working on a site just outside the city walls of Jerusalem, at Mount Zion, to unearth a group of very well-preserved homes from the first century B.C. Artifacts coming out of this site belonged to some of the wealthiest city residents of the city. These homes were buried by landfill in the construction of the huge Nea Church, and potentially hold some highly important clues to religious and cultural life in the Old City from late Roman times. Another concern is the dig’s impact on the area’s indigenous culture.

You'll be roughing it in your tent and sleeping bag in this magnificent Tanzanian landscape, but you'll also be walking in the footsteps of Louis and Mary Leakey as you search for artifacts of early hominids and later Stone Age cultures. This is where the Lucy was found, in 1974. The effort is essential to continued discoveries, as erosion is washing away numerous artifacts. The archaeology party camps and dines in the historic Leakey camp, and spends days excavating and screening for fossils; there's time to venture into Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti National Park, and visit the Maasai. Three 14-day trips are scheduled from May to September; the requested contribution is $2,850.Peter Zaharov

“When looking into this kind of trip, you have to ask yourself, ‘How much does the project give back to local people?’” says Pfeiffer. “Do archaeologists come in, dig, disappear, and get a few papers in some journals? Or do the researchers have a long history at the site, and are local residents well connected to what’s going on at the site?”

One such dig is the Cueva Victoria cave in Murcia Province, Spain, where a multi-generational effort by researchers has received strong support from the local population. Spending time here means enjoying contemporary Mediterranean Spain as well as getting a unique glimpse into European history. The human remains found in and near the cave are thought to be among the oldest in Europe, and the fossils of 50 other vertebrate species found in the cave date to 1.2 million years ago, including those of a large African ape. Nearby, the Monte Miral site is a Neanderthal hunting camp roughly 100,000 years old where stone tools have been found.

To expand upon the Old City's history, archaeologists are excavating the Roman-era homes that once stood inside the city walls, along Jerusalem's busy main street. Many of these houses still have major parts intact. The dig site is not far from the city's Ottoman-era walls, and the two-week summer sessions here go from June into July, and August into September. But the application window is getting smaller and smaller, so sign up soon. The cost of getting in on the dig is roughly $600; room, board and transportation are up to the participant.© Michael Poliza / Getty Images

Not everyone wants to dig up fossils, bones and tools. Fans of megafauna—that is, very large animals—should travel to Hot Springs, South Dakota. Here, a succession of woolly mammoths, mostly young males, made a bad decision about where to eat, and ended up dead in a sink hole. The series of unfortunate incidents for these big animals created what the largest known natural aggregation of woolly mammoth fossils in North America. The bones occur where the animals dropped, and weren’t moved around much by erosion or other earthly forces. It’s the drama of nature, staged 26,000 years ago.

Many of these trips take place throughout the year, and require a donation that doesn’t typically surpass $3,000 per person. The fee usually covers room and board as well as on-site professional guidance and materials. Those digs that are actively looking for volunteers most often require no experience; curiosity, determination and open-mindedness are more important.

The Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) is a good place to start looking for a dig that matches your interests. (The AIA itself doesn't sponsor digs), and Earthwatch is the largest single non-governmental sponsor of archaeological field research. Another good resource is Or, check with the archaeology department of a nearby major state university where you live.