By: Robin Van Auken
Not many people consider working while on vacation, but doctors do it when they travel beyond borders, and carpenters do it when they build new habitats. They join interested and empathetic people who want more than sightseeing from a vacation. People who want to get their hands dirty. Someday, I would like to take a vacation and come home with memories other than a day tour to a landmark, or a visit to a museum. I would like to get my hands dirty. I would like to unearth those landmarks, excavate the treasures that end up in the museums. I would like to go on an archaeology volunteer vacation.
Even though I teach American Archaeology at a local college, I would like to experience an Old World Archaeological dig as a student, under someone else’s supervision. I’d like to go someplace completely different, somewhere exotic. Someplace where my efforts are needed. A vacation that teaches me something new, and is a service to humanity.
Although there’s a lot of public interest in archaeological sites, there’s not a lot of money for excavation and preservation. One way museums and universities offset the expense of research is to team up with volunteer vacation groups. Without their help, many important archaeological sites wouldn’t get dug.
It’s a win-win situation. As “Stewards of the Past,” we conserve the stories of people long gone and pretend we’re Indiana Jones.
Archaeology isn’t altruistic—it doesn’t provide basic needs services in developing nations, like doctors administering vaccines to indigent children and carpenters rebuilding homes destroyed by natural disasters.
But, archaeology is important. It’s the quest for knowledge, a thirst we all share. We all want to know, “What is it? Who made it? Where was it found? Why does it matter?”
Everything we know about the material world and the people who live on it, beyond a few hundred years, we’ve learned from archaeology.
So why consider an archaeology volunteer trip?
Unlike college students enrolled in a field school and their instructors, volunteers on vacation can work at archaeology sites during the day, then skip the lectures.
I know, roughing it in the field is supposed to be part of the charm of an archaeology dig, but I’m a woman in my 50s. I’m not interested in pooping in a hole in the ground, sleeping on a cot, or eating dirt with my peanut butter sandwich. I want dinner at a five-star restaurant, 800-count Egyptian cotton sheets, air conditioning, a private bathroom, and wifi.
I want the selfish gratification of a vacation and the personal satisfaction of performing a good deed, and I can have both as a voluntourist.
So where do I want to go?
From an Iron Age hillfort in Scotland to an ancient pottery mound in Italy, from prehistoric villages in Mexico to underwater sites off the coast of Spain, opportunities are plentiful. There are dozens available, from small digs in parks or pastures, to large excavations at Roman ruins.
While perusing the Archaeological Institute of America website, I found an interesting project: a church site and graveyard survey in Ireland. There are many interesting projects on the AIA’s Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin, and I like that I can sort them by geographic location.
Another resource is Earthwatch, although its expeditions aren’t limited to archaeology. This group offers paleontological digs as well as environmental projects working with elephants or dolphins.
There are many more opportunities out there to be found. Now how do I select only one?
Have you been on an archaeology volunteer vacation? Share your experience volunteering abroad with the Frayed Passport community!
About the Author
Robin Van Auken, MA, RPA, is the CEO of Hands-on Heritage. She is an anthropologist and registered professional archaeologist (National 15069). She specializes in working with communities, galvanizing individuals to contribute their memories, photographs, and artifacts to develop legacy projects. Through in-depth, sensitive interviews, she learns the important stories that connect people through time and space. Robin especially enjoys the challenge of hunting for historic photographs and artifacts that highlight America’s history. As a professional archaeologist, she has directed multi-year public cultural heritage projects, working with hundreds of volunteers and educating thousands of visitors.