Dream come true? Or dirt come true? For some, the idea of stooping down and clearing away the soil of the centuries sounds more like a punishment than a pastime.
But if you're the kind of vacationer who doesn't mind getting your hands dirty to help uncover ancient history, now's the time to make your plans.
"This is really the perfect time to get the word out," said Noah Wiener, who shares his tale of volunteer digging in the January-February issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Every summer, academic institutions and museums make room for volunteers who are looking for college credit or maybe just an Indiana Jones experience. Biblical Archaeology Review's 2014 list includes a dig on Jerusalem's Mount Zion where archaeologists have turned up surprises from the time of Jesus.
Reality checkWiener says would-be volunteers shouldn't expect to unearth ancient mysteries right away.
"When new volunteers excavate pottery on the first day of a dig, they are usually disappointed by the reactions of the dig's veterans," he writes. "Often the find gets tossed. The project's old hands confirm the pottery’s antiquity, only to frustrate the new volunteer by shrugging off the relative insignificance of an out-of-context or non-diagnostic find. The old-timers know the real excitement is still to come."
But over the course of days and weeks, volunteers are likely to sample not only the down-and-dirty chores of doing a dig, but also the modern-day environment surrounding the excavation.
The possibilities aren't limited to the Holy Land: The Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin, compiled by the Archaeological Institute of America, lists excavations that span Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia. Many of these opportunities are geared toward students seeking academic credit. Accommodations range from four-star hotels to home stays to bring-your-own-tent.
Veteran volunteer Richard Cook has put together his own list of dig opportunities, plus tips for travel to Egypt and suggestions for would-be diggers. He's been seeing a trend toward one-day digs, which he recommends for first-timers. "People don't realize how boring it can get," Cook explained. Also, there are more opportunies for entire families to go on a dig. "That's one thing that people generally don't know about," he said.
Sightseeing plus scienceEarthwatch Institute specializes in expeditions that blend sightseeing with science — focusing not only on archaeology, but also on climate research, biodiversity and ocean health. "We get a lot of interest in topics relating to ocean health, like whales, dolphins, sea turtles and coral reefs," Katie Hunt, the institute's senior writing manager, told NBC News in an email.
Hunt said this year's most popular expeditions are due to follow Darwin's finches in the Galapagos, explore the origins of Angkor in Thailand, investigate the marine mammals of the Norwegian Arctic and study the wildlife of the French Pyrenees.
And then there's the mammoth graveyard in South Dakota. "This is our longest-running expedition and is always very popular, thanks to a loyal band of past Earthwatch volunteers who keep going back," Hunt said.
Earthwatch offers expeditions for every season of the year, but most of the trips are scheduled during the Northern summer. Hunt advises travelers to book their tour at least 90 days before the first day of an expedition.
There are lots of other travel ventures that offer adventures with a scientific twist, including National Geographic Expeditions and Tauck. Tauck offers tours that mesh with the BBC Earth television series and "Walking With Dinosaurs."
Digging for dinosaursIf paleontology is your passion, you'll have to do a little extra digging for volunteer opportunities. "Many museums take on volunteers, but you need to email the curator directly to do so," said Brian Switek, who writes about his own dinosaur adventures on hisLaelaps blog and his latest book, "My Beloved Brontosaurus."
Switek advises against going with commercial operations that sell the fossils they collect. This list from experienced volunteer John Krolikowski may be a bit dated, but it still links to some great opportunities. Washington state's Department of Natural Resources offers a list of dinosaur dig sites in the American West — but ironically, not in the Evergreen State itself, where no dino bones have yet been found.
The Encana Badlands Science Camp, presented by the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, offers all the makings for a dino-crazy kid's summer vacation — including fossils to hunt for, campfires to sit around and teepees to sleep in.
Are you an armchair archaeologist or paleontologist? Keep an eye out for this year's interactive digs from Archaeology magazine, explore South Dakota's Badlands National Park on your iPad, or tour the Virtual World Project anytime.