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What Happens During an Archaeological Dig?

Updated on July 26, 2017
Lindsay Langstaff profile image

I am a double major in global business and Spanish at the University of Evansville. Travel is my one and only love.

Why Archaeology?

Ever since I was a child, I've always been fascinated by archaeology. The idea of digging down into the earth to discover riches, villages, mummies, and who knows what else thrilled me. I read as many books and watched as many documentaries as I could about it, wishing that I would be able to do something like it. Never could I have imagined that many years later I would have the opportunity to do it as a college student.

The Beginning

When I made my decision to go to the University of Evansville, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to double major in global business and Spanish. That didn't mean, however, that there weren't other things I wanted to pursue. I loved every part of my majors, but I couldn't shake that childhood fascination with archaeology. That was when I discovered the Jezreel Expedition in Israel.

The Jezreel Expedition is an archaeological dig in Israel that is advertised at the University of Evansville as being "open to students of all majors." The University of Evansville wasn't in charge of the dig, but they did regularly send students and faculty members to participate in it. For the dig, students have the opportunity to live on a kibbutz (communal neighborhoods that are common in Israel) with the locals, participate in the field on the dig, and go on brief excursions to popular destinations in Israel, such as Nazareth. The entire trip lasts four weeks during the summer.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

We spent a day in Jerusalem for one of our excursions and saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
We spent a day in Jerusalem for one of our excursions and saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Adventure Begins

Naturally, I signed up to be a part of the Jezreel Expedition. This was the first time they had ever sent a business major to the dig, so they were almost as excited as I was. Though I had never been outside of North America before, I wasn't very nervous about traveling because I've always known that I was a traveler (another interest of mine). I was, however, nervous about what to expect from the dig. Was it exhausting work? Would there be scorpions? Did I have to wake up early? Would it be stressful? The answer to all these was yes, but I loved every second of my experience.

The Kibbutz

After an eight hour flight, I arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel and met up with our archaeology group. There were some students I recognized as well as some new faces; all eager to begin the dig. We gathered up our luggage, got in a van, and made our way over to the Kibbutz.

The landscape was very different from anything I had ever seen, but fascinating. It was full of sand, rocks, some scrappy plants, the occasional small village, and mountainous terrain. I felt fairly confident that we weren't on planet earth anymore.

At this point, I still didn't know what to expect from life on a kibbutz. Somebody had explained to me that it was essentially a communal living arrangement, but that didn't help me understand what it would be like to actually live there. Upon arrival I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a small, but scenic, gated community. Every family had their own house and there was a school, library, pool, bar, store, and cafeteria. They all lived together, took turns doing chores, and were paid a wage according to how much they needed to support themselves and their family.

Myself and the other students were living in a small, plain house with dorm-style rooms. After settling in, I promptly began exploring and almost immediately got lost. I didn't mind though because the view of the valley and the landscaping within the kibbutz was beautiful.

View From the Kibbutz

The kibbutz overlooks the Jezreel Valley where we were digging
The kibbutz overlooks the Jezreel Valley where we were digging

The Dig

The day after arrival, at 4 am, I was forced to pull my exhausted and jet-lagged body out of bed to get started. We sleep-walked to the van, piled ourselves in, and headed over to the site to begin preparing for our dig. I was expecting to be able to get right into digging, but the area was actually covered in grass about three feet high that all needed to be removed. This was not what I was expecting archaeology to be. We spent four back-breaking hours removing the grass. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but nothing could have prepared me for the soreness and pain I experienced for several days afterwards. I also wasn't prepared for the allergic reaction the grass caused. I was very glad that we only had to do this once.

After the grass was removed, we were finally able to dig into the ground and begin our search for artifacts. I didn't realize it until the grass had been removed, but there was ancient pottery covering the surface everywhere. You didn't even have to dig into the ground to find pottery that was hundreds of years old. The archaeologists informed us, however, that this pottery was meaningless because it was moved around by animals and earthly forces. The only pottery that mattered was deeper down where the time period it represented was more consistent and was mostly left untouched. I still found it to be extremely cool though and took some of it home with me (don't tell the Israeli authorities).

The Excavation Area

This was what the area we were going to excavate looked like before we removed the grass.
This was what the area we were going to excavate looked like before we removed the grass.

I was worried that my lack of archaeology knowledge would hinder me, but I discovered that even the archaeology majors were struggling too. They certainly knew a lot more about history than I did, but all of us were learning about digging for the first time. The squares we worked in were about four by four meters and had three people in each one. One person was the square leader and decided how the square would be excavated. Before we could excavate though, we had to remove a painful amount of rocks using buckets. Israel is a gigantic rocky desert, which presents problems when you're trying to execute a clean and precise dig. I spent a good portion of my days carrying up to 80 pounds of rocks at a time to our rock pile. Once again, I thought I was in pretty good shape before I came, but was proven wrong.

Removing Rocks

For the first couple days, we almost exclusively removed rocks from our square because there were so many of them.
For the first couple days, we almost exclusively removed rocks from our square because there were so many of them.

Jezreel Valley Sunrise

This was the view I had every single morning when I began digging.  It was the only reason why I could get out of bed at 4 am.
This was the view I had every single morning when I began digging. It was the only reason why I could get out of bed at 4 am.

I didn't realize what a neat and precise process digging was until I had my square leader repeatedly telling me things like "keep the square perfectly level as you're digging down" and "keep the sides of the square completely straight." I had always thought you could take a pick ax and whack away at it, but most of the time you're actually using painfully small tools to excavate a square in order to keep it perfectly level and straight as well as make sure that artifacts stay intact.

I also didn't realize that there was more than one way to excavate a square until I heard square leaders arguing about it all day long. Tensions run high when you're in the heat for 7 hours a day with the same people in a tiny four by four square. We all learned a lot about patience and conflict resolution.

A Day of Digging

We would spend most of the days bent over and sitting in odd positions in order to try to carefully excavate the area without compromising any finds.
We would spend most of the days bent over and sitting in odd positions in order to try to carefully excavate the area without compromising any finds.

What Did I Find?

I frequently got the question "So what kinds of cool things are you finding?" from friends and family members. When most people think of an archaeological dig, they think about the ones in Egypt where riches and mummies are found, so they expect a similar answer from me. The reality is that on most archaeological digs, you do not find anything like that. We were looking for artifacts to help us understand what happened in the area. Most of the time, that meant finding things like ground stones, paving stones, pottery, walls, and an occasional carved object, such as an animal figurine. While it may not seem all that exciting, it was fascinating to see the history and learn about what kinds of civilizations used to exist in the area. It was also entertaining to see the archaeologists arguing over whether they thought something we found was a wall or a pile of stones.

Carved Stone

This is a carved piece of basalt that was found in the square I was in.  We aren't sure entirely what it's purpose is, but we think it may have to do with religion.
This is a carved piece of basalt that was found in the square I was in. We aren't sure entirely what it's purpose is, but we think it may have to do with religion.

My Challenges

I can tell you right now that archaeological digs are not for the faint of heart. Everyone had their struggles, whether they were seasoned archaeologists or new ones. Here were some issues I faced, some of which were expected. Some of which were not.

1. The dryness of the landscape was excruciatingly hard on my face. I don't have dry skin, but in Israel my skin became so dry and irritated that my eyes were almost swollen shut. After the first week I was able to adjust, but it was initially very challenging to function.

2. Staying clean was more of a challenge than I had expected. By the end of the day, my skin would be three shades darker. Not because of the sun, but because of the dirt blowing in my face for seven hours. I could never scrub off all the dirt in the shower. The kibbutz didn't have washing machines either so I had to hand wash all my clothing, meaning that none of us ever got rid of all the dirt. After the dig, I had to throw away almost all the clothes I had brought with.

3. My trip to Israel was the first time I had ever experienced jet-lag. Combined with the abnormal sleeping hours, I found myself constantly exhausted and struggling to be productive while digging.

4. I've mentioned it a couple times, but I'll mention it again. Archaeology is HARD physical labor. In order to work out in the field, you need to be in excellent shape and have a high level of endurance. While I exercised regularly before coming, nothing truly prepares you for that type of work.

5. I struggled to stay motivated when I would sometimes be performing the same task over and over again all day for several days. Lots of other people had the same problem, so we came up with silly games to play while we were digging in order to pass the time.

The "Dirt Face"

This was my face every single day after digging for seven hours.  It was dry and windy so we would all get very dirty.
This was my face every single day after digging for seven hours. It was dry and windy so we would all get very dirty.

Final Thoughts

Being on the archaeological dig was an incredible and eye-opening experience. I got to see first-hand artifacts that hadn't been seen in hundreds, or even thousands of years. Being able to uncover history with my own hands and learn about it was wildly fascinating to me. While it technically didn't have anything to do with what I was studying, I think it was still a beneficial experience that I would highly recommend. I learned a great deal about detail, precision, endurance, and patience; skills that are valuable to anyone from any background. I also had to work closely (both literally and figuratively) with people of many different backgrounds and personalities, which wasn't always easy, but I learned quickly that it was crucial. This was simultaneously one of the most difficult and valuable experiences I have ever had. I would go back and do it all over again in a heartbeat.

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Jezreel Valley Sunrise

This was another beautiful sunrise that I was blessed to wake up to.
This was another beautiful sunrise that I was blessed to wake up to.

© 2017 Lindsay Langstaff

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