Hands dirty, his shovel blade in the soft earth of Chile’s Atacama Desert, Carl Schweser dug in, brushed away some earth, and came face-to-face with a mummy. Not the Hollywood kind, but a real, long-gone hunter-gatherer. The body was wrapped in a grass mat, skin still intact, resisting rot for centuries in the antiseptic dirt of one of the driest places on the planet.
“It was right out of the pages of National Geographic, just mind-boggling to see,” says Schweser.
Schweser, a lifelong traveler and confessed archaeology geek, was working under the direction of a university archaeologist on an archaeological expedition organized by Earthwatch Institute, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that connects volunteers with field research projects. It’s just one of the programs worldwide through which travelers of all ages can try their hand at digging for ancient artifacts or even-more-ancient dinosaur bones.
For wannabe Indiana Jones types, the adventure of unearthing evidence of cultures or species long dead can be an incomparable thrill. Fortunately, as the interest in “voluntourism” and educational vacations grows, there are an increasing number of programs to make these dreams come true. A subset of science-based trips—participatory expeditions and get-your-hands-dirty digs—targets laypeople and experienced researchers alike to assist on established sites where manpower is needed to dig for discoveries that might lie beneath.
“Major discoveries are not uncommon,” says Jeanine Pfeiffer, a program director at Earthwatch, which each year facilitates more than 4,000 volunteers (more than 90,000 since 1971), who pay to work on project sites around the planet. These volunteers have discovered a “trophy” ancient Wari warrior skull in Peru, an Inca solar observatory, and an “Argentinean fossil treasure trove” that revealed a new vertebrate life-form that existed in the Late Triassic period.
Some adventurers hire private guides to dig in out-of-the-way places, while families and day-trippers can find more accessible programs. In the United States, several research sites are open to the public, including the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in North Dakota. This museum and hands-on field school offers amateur paleontologists the chance to help at a dig site for dinosaurs at the price of $100 per day.
It’s a desolate landscape that was once home to thousands of generations of dinosaurs, including massive triceratops and the Tyrannosaurus rex. In the Badlands and southwest part of the state, participants dig for fossils and dinosaur remains for six to eight hours a day, working with professional paleontologists to uncover signs of prehistoric life.
And for domestic archaeology, Warren Wilson College’s archaeology field school, in Morganton, North Carolina, offers summer sessions that put attendees as young as 14 years old on the site of a 16th-century Spanish fort. You can dig and brush at the dirt to find pottery and tools at the earliest European settlements in the interior of what is now the United States.
Ready to get your hands dirty?The following programs represent a spread of options, both international and domestic, where you’ll snoop for fossils with a pickax in hand. Applications are now being accepted at many sites. Prerequisites include curiosity, some work ethic, and a sense of adventure as you put shovel to sand, moving earth, just maybe making history as you dig.