Archaeology Digs as a Form of Travel

Lately, I’ve been feeling very nostalgic. As it’s now summer time, most archaeological digs in Israel and elsewhere in the world are underway. It seems that every time I log into Facebook or Twitter, I learn about yet another fascinating discovery that had occurred either spontaneously or thanks to an organized dig.

For anyone interested in travelling to one of history-rich countries, I strongly recommend signing up for an archaeological dig. The benefits are endless. You’ll get to  travel around the country of your stay, meet interesting people, and possibly, get a chance hold a tiny, two-thousand-year-old shard of pottery. Just make sure you have realistic expectations because if you think you’ll find gold on the first day, you might end up becoming disappointed.

In most cases, your room and board will be covered, so you won’t have to worry about finding a place to sleep or eat. Most dig sessions last somewhere between two-to-six weeks and are quite flexible with the duration of their participants’ stay. Whether you’ve got a whole month  or just a couple of weeks available for a learning vacation, you’ve got a plenty of choice.

My participation in the Bethsaida Excavation Project from three years ago was one the most rewarding travel experiences of my life. I got to be part of the project’s team and to meet many wonderful people, with whom I still stay in touch. To those who know little about the site, Bethsaida is located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and has a prominent role in the Bible. During the tenth century BC, it was the capital of Geshur, a kingdom that encompassed sites from present-day northern Israel and parts of Syria.[1] According to the New Testament tradition, it was a hometown of at least three apostles and a place for one of the healing miracles.[2]

Some of the daily activities at the site included digging and sifting, taking levels, cleaning finds, and reading pottery. On Fridays, the site directors would take us to a small storage room located at the basement of the Igael Aalon Centre in Kibbutz Ginosar, where we were staying, and show us all the findings from past years. Such included storage jugs, bowls, Greek amphorae, and many others.

During the weekend of the dig, our group had a chance to tour the Golan Heights and discover many historic sites, including Gamla, the Nimrod Fortress, Katzrin, and Banias. At the end of the dig, I stayed in Israel for one more week with my husband. Together, we chose to travel a bit more and discover more places around the country.

Many countries, including Israel, Greece, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, and even the United States, have archaeological projects that are actively recruiting volunteer participants. For anyone interested in signing up for this adventure, I compiled a list of some facts about archaeology digs.

Digging in the field can be hard.

If you prefer lying on a beach to hiking, then an archaeological dig might not be for you. You’ll be expected to get up in the wee hours of the morning and work in the field until the afternoon. Surely, you’ll have a few breaks in between, but you might still find the level of work challenging. The Bethsaida Excavations Project had a pottery cleaning for those who weren’t up to digging, but not all digs are the same. Some even require medical assessment to ensure all participants are in a good physical shape. So before signing for a dig, be honest with yourself and determine if that’s what you really want.

In many ways, archaeological digs are similar to hostelling/backpacking experience.

While some digs do offer the solo option, the most popular type of accommodation is a dorm with rooms meant to be shared by three-to-four participants. When digging at Bethsaida, we stayed in a small village known as Kibbutz Ginosar that offered accommodations in both luxury and backpacking styles. I chose the second option because 1) I couldn’t afford to stay in a regular hotel room and 2) I wanted to experience backpacking before having kids.  And I didn’t regret it the least. I got to meet many people from around the world, chat with Bedouin maids in Hebrew, and experience the real life on the dig. For me, staying in the dorm was the way to go.

The big difference between an archaeological dig and a backpacking trip lies in the amount of stuff you’ll need to pack.

While it’s technically possible to travel around Europe with nothing but a backpack, packing lightly for a dig will present some challenges. First and foremost, a water flask, which can take up a lot of space in your suitcase, is mandatory. Working for long hours in a hot weather can be taxing on your system, so you’ll have to remember to stay hydrated.  Since buying water bottles every day can be costly, it’s best to bring your own flask and fill it up with water. Another necessity is a sun hat and closed-toe boots. If you decide to stay longer than two weeks, consider packing extra clothes and toiletries to avoid doing too much laundry or running for a toothpaste to the closest convenience store at midnight. Although these items would be useful on a regular trip too, they are essentially for surviving on an archaeological dig.

Dig participants are incredibly diverse.

Volunteers who sign up for archaeological digs come from varying age groups and backgrounds. During my stay at Bethsaida, I got to mingle with students from the Truman State University who were taking a credit course, independent travelers in their twenties and thirties, and retired participants who had time and resource to feed their passion for archaeology. Most people from the “mature” group were well-seasoned professionals from fields, such as medicine, law, engineering, and higher education. No matter with whom I would end up sitting during lunch or dinner, we would always find something in common. We would talk about our favorite books, artists, and past trips. Even after three years, I still keep up with many of the former volunteers and staff.

Some Final Thoughts

The idea of spending a holiday slaving under the sun can appear daunting to some people. However, it’s important to keep in mind all the benefits of participating in an archaeological dig. Not only will you save money on food and accommodation but will also get a proper exposure to the culture of the country where you’ll stay. When travelling to a particular place, we often chose to focus on the tourist sites only. As a result, we often miss out on experiencing the true essence of that place. The best way to experience the real Israel, Spain, or Italy is to stay in a small village for a few weeks. Barring the Temple Mount Project and a couple of projects in Rome, most digs happen far away from the busy capitals, where it’s much easier to become acquainted with the real culture of the area.  So do at least consider becoming part of a dig!

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