Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

A Guide to Archaeological Digs

I have never met an archaeologist who carried a pistol  (let alone a bull whip) while working in the field. In fact, just mentioning the name “Indiana Jones” usually elicits laughter from real archaeologists. Their profession is not an escapade or a game of chance; it’s a science that requires study and a lot of hard work.

Indiana Jones

After visiting ancient sites for more than a decade, in 2006 Traveling Classroom joined an archaeological survey project on the island of Crete (see Archaeology Basics). Such field studies are done to identify promising sites for excavation, which is what people generally associate with archaeology.

Because facts about ancient civilizations are often uncovered by digging in the earth, we wanted to learn more about this aspect of archaeology. Last year we contacted a research center that provides support services for excavation projects in eastern Crete. The director invited us to visit the Center (as it is called by local folk) and meet with archaeologists running excavations in the region. It was a great opportunity for us.

Map of Center in Eastern Crete

The Center is surrounded by ancient sites (green dots)

After a quick breakfast in Koutouloufari, we drove to Ayios Nikolaos on the Gulf of Mirabello and then southeast along the coast, passing through several villages. We found the Center on a rocky hillside not far beyond Gournia, a Minoan town we had explored earlier. In fact, the Center is surrounded by archaeological sites excavated over the years.

The Center

Perched on a hillside, the Center has a beautiful view

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the director and escorted through a tiled courtyard which provided clues about goings-on at the Center. It was lined with artifacts, reassembled pottery, shipping crates addressed to different universities, and unfamiliar equipment. The place was buzzing with activity as people came and went through doors of various laboratories, workrooms, and offices that opened onto the courtyard.

Inner Courtyard of the Center

The courtyard was lined with artifacts and equipment

After giving us an educational tour of the facility, the director introduced two archaeologists using the Center as a base of operations for their projects. Dr. Barbara Hayden, from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, was working at a site in the early stages of excavation. Dr. Jeffrey Soles, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, was in the process of closing down an excavation he had supervised for many years. Both agreed to share information and allow us to visit their excavation sites.

Artifact from a recent excavation

Partially restored artifact from a recent excavation

The chronicle of this exploration is provided in three parts. In Part 1 we show you how an archaeological excavation is conducted. Part 2 explains what happens to the things uncovered during an excavation, and Part 3 discusses how an excavation is documented and closed down.

If you want to join (or just watch) an excavation, you should Google “field school” or “field program” to get listings of projects in search of volunteers. For projects close to home, you can contact local colleges and archaeological associations. Some projects welcome diggers of all ages. One important note: archaeologists usually select helpers before summer, so make your inquiries early.

To learn about our investigation, see the following articles:

Archaeological Digs Part 1: Excavation

Archaeological Digs – Part 2: Conserving the Past

Archaeological Digs Part 3: Closing the Site

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