Get your hands dirty this summer! A guide to taking part in an archaeological excavation

So you've watched Tony Robinson running energetically around a field, pointing out postholes in a trench; you've learnt how to be an armchair archaeologist; and you caught some of the Heritage Open Days top archaeological events last year. Now you'd like to take the plunge and get your hands dirty, and take part in an archaeological excavation yourself. But can you find a suitable dig? And can everyone take part? 

Volunteers excavating at Berkeley Castle with the University of Bristol Archaeology Summer School © Cat Jarman

The answer to both of these questions is yes! Unlike many other countries, we are very fortunate in the UK when it comes to archaeology. There are excellent opportunities here for the general public to get involved, and try their hand at excavation work. In general, digs are divided into two types:

  • Professional/commercial excavations: These take place when a building site or road is being developed, and are run by professional companies. They generally don't take on volunteers.
  • Research excavations: These are usually lead by universities or other research institutions, or local archaeological societies. They usually take on volunteers or students to help get the work done, and many run fully-fledged field schools too.

What should I look for? 

This depends on what you are after! In general, it is best to look for an excavation run by a well-established research organisation or society. You may also want to consider the following:

  • Location: Would you like to dig somewhere locally, or would you rather travel to a more exotic location? Do you have somewhere to stay, or do you need to find a dig that offers accommodation (often camping)? Many digs are in remote locations, so check if you need to arrange your own transport. 
  • Period and type of site: Do you have a special interest that you would like to pursue? If you're interested in the Romans then a modern conflict archaeology/WW2 site may not be for you, and likewise if you are squeamish then a cemetery excavation might best be avoided. 
  • Cost: The costs for taking part in a dig vary widely. Some are virtually free, requiring participants to pay only a small fee to cover insurance and other essential costs, while others can be very expensive. The cost usually depends on the contents: If you pay more you can also expect to get more, and often get taught essential skills by leading experts.
  • Content/tuition: Would you like to learn specific skills, or perhaps use your experience to move to a career in archaeology? If so, look for a taught course - many of these are run by universities and may even give you academic credits.

Do I need to be physically fit?

Ideally you should be fairly fit, as archaeological excavation is hard work. You will spend a lot of time kneeling down, and may need to lift heavy buckets, and use heavy spades and mattocks. However, this doesn't mean that a life in the trenches isn't possible for those with bad backs or dodgy knees. Volunteer digs often have a slower pace than professional excavations, and can adapt work to the individuals taking part. 

If you have any particular concerns then the best thing to do is contact the excavation organisers, and talk about your specific requirements. Many sites have a need for people to help with finds washing, which might not require you to lift anything heavier than a toothbrush!

So where do I start?

The internet is a great place to start your search for the perfect excavation. Try the following sites first:

You may also find information about opportunities in your local library. If you are looking for a more local project to become involved in, you should try contacting your local archaeology society (see the Council for British Archaeology website for a comprehensive list). But it's best to start searching straight away - the best places fill up quickly! 

...and lastly, an insider's tip: 

If you're asked to bring a trowel, make sure you bring the right type, as a gardener's trowel may see you banned from the trench. Instead, bring along a 4 inch WHS archaeology trowel: ideally one that is muddy, dented, and worn down to about half its original size. This will give you instant credibility.