Survival Guide to Volunteer Excavation

2 mins read

Are you heading out on a dig this season? If so, congratulations! Volunteers are an essential part of the excavation season — without their help, many digs would not be able to finish the scheduled work. Whether you are there to fulfil university requirements, on a holiday with family, or wanting to learn something new about the area where you live, these digs are a fantastic way to meet new people and learn an interesting set of skills. Field archaeology is work; being prepared can make a world of difference in your experience. We’ve put together a short guide, including a checklist, to identify key areas for your preparation. Happy (and safe) digging!

Dig Equipment

Most projects will supply the essential tools, however, there are a few basics that you must bring. You will not be very popular if you have to keep borrowing equipment!

If you are serious about archaeology, even if it is only for a two- or three-week project, consider buying your own kit. The items listed in the checklist will enable you to dig, draw, record, and measure. At the very least, bring your own trowel, as these are personal items and most archaeologists don’t like to loan them out.

Most of what you need can be purchased from the Past Horizons online tool store: www.pasthorizons.com/shop.


Plan carefully how you will reach your destination and check that the route is feasible: important for remote locations!

Bring appropriate maps so you won’t get lost.

Be sure to have the contact phone number of the project director in case you get lost or need help.


Accommodation can vary greatly, from tents or cabins to hotels. Often, access to a decent shower is restricted and toilets facilities will vary depending on your location. Think carefully about whether you can handle these kinds of conditions before committing to a dig.

Confirm with the project ahead of time exactly what facilities are available.

Sleeping arrangements are often basic and communal; ask whether you are required to bring your own bedding or tent.

Clothing and Packing

Essentials will vary based on time of year and location, however here are a few ground rules:

A sturdy pair of boots is essential. Always remember to break in your boots in advance of the project to avoid the discomfort of blisters.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be provided by the organising group. However, bring your own kneeling mat or knee pads and don’t forget a good pair of gloves to protect your hands from cuts and blisters.

Don’t go overboard on the packing as you will live to regret it. Travel as light as possible. Do not go overboard on toiletries: you will need a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, shampoo and roll-on antiperspirant.

Health and Safety

As with most outdoor activities, there are potential hazards involved, from extreme weather conditions to physical stresses and strains. You are there to enjoy yourself; however, do remember there are issues of health and safety that need to be observed on any archaeological site.

Be prepared with your own medical kit.

Ensure your anti-tetanus vaccination is up-to-date.

Most projects will have a ‘tool talk’ and risk assessment that is designed to highlight the potential dangers and how they have been mitigated against.

The British Archaeological Jobs Resource (BAJR) provides a guide called Working Safe on Archaeology Projects, that can be downloaded at:  tinyurl.com/y9kzcmh.