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.
In Search Of: Fossilized whale skeletons, shark teeth, and seashells from creatures long extinct.
The Dig: Ica Desert of Peru.
The Details: The Ica Desert of Peru was once the thriving seafloor of an ancient ocean. Today, it’s one of the driest places on the planet and among the best fossil-hunting grounds ever found. Gregory Dicum, a travel writer from San Francisco, hiked for two days with a local guide to discover preserved giant shark teeth, fields littered with fossils, and seashells from creatures long extinct. At one place, standing in a remote desert gully, Dicum and his guide walked up on a pod of fossilized whales—skulls, fins, ribs, vertebrae, baleen, and skin preserved through the eons under shifting Peruvian sands.
In Search Of: Pottery, tools, and other remnants of one of the earliest European settlements in the United States.
The Dig: Fort San Juan, a Spanish compound.
The Details: Summer sessions up to a month long are offered at Warren Wilson College’s archaeology field school, where adults and kids as young as 14 are put on sites to dig and excavate history while uncovering a 16th-century Native American town and an early Spanish settlement. The 2008–2009 sessions concentrate on a one-acre area featuring what is believed to be Fort San Juan, a Spanish compound that is the earliest European settlement ever found in the interior of the United States. $300 per week.
In Search Of: Anasazi artifacts.
The Dig: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.
The Details: At this Colorado site, kids and adults help dig with archaeologists in search of untouched Anasazi artifacts that have not seen the light of day in 700 years. The current excavation—called the Goodman Point Archaeological Project, Phase II—focuses on an extensive Pueblo Indian community inhabited during the 13th century. Excavation programs continue this year through September; $1,175 per week.
Easter Island, Polynesia
In Search Of: Prehistoric houses, earth ovens, ancient gardens, and remnants of the ancient Rapa Nui people.
The Details: Earthwatch Institute promises a “National Geographic moment” for volunteers on the Easter Island Culture expedition. Working with scientists on sites near the island’s famous giant stone moai statues, Earthwatch volunteers focus on an island quarry and random clusters of unworked stone where the evidence of ancient Rapa Nui people has been literally scattered by the wind. Two-week expeditions are offered from September to May; around $3,700.
In Search Of: Dinosaur bones and fossils.
The Details: At $100 a session, Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman, North Dakota, offers day tours to paleontological sites where you can dabble in a hands-on dig for dinosaurs, giant marine reptiles, and extinct exotic plants. The arid landscape along the Little Missouri Badlands of southwest North Dakota was long ago the tropical habitat for giant land creatures like triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. Invertebrates up to 73 million years old as well as early mammals that include camels, rhinoceroses, horses, and giant pigs have been found in the area. Tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday from June to August each year.
In Search Of: Pottery, ancient oil lamps, and other Hellenistic household items.
The Dig: Beit Guvrin, Maresha, Israel.
The Details: At the National Park of Beit Guvrin, Archaeological Seminars runs three-hour “Dig for a Day” programs, where dabbling archaeologists (or participants, as they would prefer) crawl through unexcavated cave systems as well as sift and dig for artifacts dating from the Hellenistic period. Thought to be the ancestral home of King Herod, the vast underground labyrinths and man-made rooms of Maresha have yielded pottery and items like 2,200-year-old oil lamps to visiting tourists. (Artifacts are then catalogued with the Israel Antiquities Authority.) $30 adults; $25 children, plus entrance fee ($6.50 adults, $3.50 children) into the national park.
In Search Of: Aquatic life fossils.
The Dig: Sedimentary cliffs along the Mississippi River.
The Details: In the hills of Lilydale Park, an undeveloped preserve along the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota, amateur paleontologists can hunt for fossils, hammer and chisel in hand. In the park’s eroding sedimentary cliffs—part of what remains of an ancient seafloor that covered the mid-continent—millions of aquatic life fossils can be found. For $10, St. Paul’s Park Permit Office offers licenses for amateur fossil hunters to snoop, chip, chisel, and gather fossils at will. You can take home fossilized clams, snails, mollusks, sponges, coral, and dozens of other life-forms frozen in time.
In Search Of: Human remains, fossils, and artifacts.
The Dig: Cueva Victoria, Spain.
The Details: Climb in a cave and prepare to get dirty. Earthwatch Institute’s “Early Man in Spain” expedition puts volunteers underground in caverns where some of the oldest human remains ever found in Western Europe have been discovered. Volunteer workers excavate sediment, remove fossils and artifacts, and map the site to help with the project’s search for clues on humans' ancient migration from Africa to Europe. 14 days; $2,846.
In Search Of: Diamonds.
The Dig: 37-acre plowed field.
The Details: At the Crater of Diamonds State Park in southwest Arkansas, visitors are free to dig and sift for diamonds blasted to the surface eons ago via a rare volcanic pipe formation. In 2007 alone, the park says more than 1,024 diamonds were discovered, from sand-grain-size specks on up to something mountable on a ring. The park’s “finders keepers” policy lets diggers pocket all the diamonds, semiprecious stones, rocks, or minerals they can unearth in a day. $6.50 for a day pass; $3.50 for children; free for children under six.
British Columbia, Canada
In Search Of: Plant and insect fossils.
The Details: At the McAbee Fossil Beds site, lake sediments that formed 50 million years ago now hold the fossilized imprints of more than 50 plant varieties. Fish and insect fossils the likes of wasps, leafhoppers, and mooneye fish are other finds. Guided day tours send site visitors to pick at a cliff, and you can keep the fossils that you find. Open May to October. Four-hour group tours start at $19 per adult; $9.50 for children; $48 for families.