Every year, thousands of excavation volunteers travel around the globe to find something new from the ancient world. And every year, those same volunteers return home with a new or rekindled passion for travel, adventure and discovery. They are inevitably met with a host of questions from friends and family, including the incredulous, “You loved a summer digging in the dirt under a hot Mediterranean sun?” The budding archaeologist responds, “Absolutely—it was an incredible experience,” often followed immediately by “I want to go back.”
A volunteer’s first field season promises a taste of discovery, camaraderie and a set of lifelong memories. By the end of the season, these excavators have experienced the thrill of holding the past in their hands and the rewards of their hard labor. For some, the first taste is not enough. Many are drawn back to their excavation season after season, because the deeper 052 they dig, the more in tune they feel with themselves, their academic goals, their archaeological community and their own sense of exploration.
This Is My Site: More than Just a Summer Fling
It doesn’t take long for first-time volunteers and archaeology students to realize that the field is a different type of classroom; there is a stark difference between looking at antiquities on PowerPoints and swinging a pickaxe, or articulating features with a trowel.
While new volunteers are getting acclimated to their surroundings, multi-season veterans are returning “home” to their archaeological community. Jezreel Valley Regional Project volunteer Stephanie Steinke told BAR, “I love going back to dig in the valley. This coming year  will be my fourth summer living at Ramat HaShofet, the kibbutz where we stay, and it feels like home when I get there. The people at the kibbutz are at the same familiar store, the dogs and cats are the same—it’s like I never left. It feels comfortable and safe.” Even more than a desire to get back to Israel, Steinke looks forward to getting back into the field. “I want to continue with squares next to where we worked last year, to see how far the settlement goes. Does it go over the hill and around? This is my site. I know a lot of volunteers feel like that; we 053 aren’t staff, but we feel like it is our site. I know that I’m in the right place when I see the sun rise over the valley each year.”
From Books to Balks: Getting Your Hands Dirty
How does an archaeologist start doing archaeology? At first, Ashkelon volunteer Patrick Lannen felt unprepared. “As a student of Biblical archaeology, I had studied the various aspects of the discipline, read site reports and looked at pottery, but this was a whole new experience, one I felt unprepared for.” Dig volunteers need not worry. In addition to formal lessons from dig directors, returning volunteers are always happy to share their field wisdom. Upon arrival at Huqoq for a second season, volunteer Kindra Heilpern “felt much more comfortable with the basic techniques of digging. The equipment was more familiar, the motions were repetitive and came back like riding a bicycle. It was much easier to identify pottery, keep the balks straight and to feel when I had hit a floor or gone through a level. The nine of us who returned for our second year enjoyed the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and act as mentors to the newbies. I was amused by how timidly new team members used the picks and hoes, and I admit that I occasionally plunged through an extra couple centimeters in an effort to show off my hoeing skills.”
After a short time, volunteers get past their trepidation. Lannen was thrilled once “it dawned on me that I was actually doing archaeology; I wasn’t reading about a site or a major discovery but participating in the process. Digging in the dirt of a Philistine house at Ashkelon gave me a direct connection to the past.”
Once a volunteer masters the field techniques, the real learning experience begins. Khirbat al-Mudayna volunteer Rachel McMullan told BAR that “the amount of information that I’ve learned over three summers at Mudayna is equal to the four years I’ve spent doing my undergraduate degree. There is only so much that you can learn in a classroom, and I have found that concepts only really start to click once you apply them in the field. After three years I’ve become very comfortable making judgment calls in the trench and handling artifacts.”
Ancient and Self Discovery
Learning in the field is no walk in the park, however. Joyful excavation stories are always coupled with tales of early mornings and hard labor, yet these hardships are never related with regret. Archaeologists step up to the challenge and end up with a newfound sense of adventure. Some are night owls in their home lives, but they learn to treasure the sensation of watching the sun rise each morning above their site. And every archaeologist knows that the difficulty of the work makes unearthing the past all the more rewarding. After three years of excavations at Tel Megiddo and Tel Kabri, volunteer Katie Paul offered encouraging counsel to prospective archaeologists: “Everything—the hot days, the hard labor—is worth it once you hold something in your hands that has not been touched in over 2,000 years.” While Paul knew her passion from an early age (“When I was a child I would dig a square in my backyard with my dad and sister”), others may cringe at the idea of hard physical labor, predawn wakeups and getting dirty from head to toe. However, year after year, first-time archaeologists come home proud to have discovered what they are capable of and, moreover, what they truly enjoy. Just look at the excavation photos—you will never find dirtier, sweatier, happier people.
The self-discovery extends past the field. Often when archaeologists uncover their own outdoorsy spirit in the ancient soil, they keep the adventurous attitude alive on weekends by traveling to other nearby sites.a Every volunteer’s personal 055 passion shapes his or her travel experience. Thrill seekers come back with stories of hiking through waterfalls, climbing to ancient citadels and desert camel rides. Khirbet Summeily’s Eric Carlucci described the sense of history on site trips to Jerusalem, Masada, Megiddo, Nimrod Fortress, Tell el-Hesi, Lachish and Caesarea as “exciting and breathtaking” while Tel Rehov volunteer Cassandra Hanlin connected with her passion for Egyptology at the grave of Sir Flinders Petrie in a visit to Jerusalem University College where he is buried (without his head).b
Fueled by camaraderie, some return season after season because there are always more Biblical archaeology sites to explore, and there is no better company than a dig team. But not every cultural experience requires adventure. Sometimes the best exploration of another culture involves relaxing and taking the time to smell the rose-scented nargile. Katie Paul described how a visit to Petra nearly stunned her to tears, but she also reminisced about afternoons in a café, watching the daring bravado of local children leaping off historic fortifications into the crystal-clear Mediterranean.
Connections with Friends and Antiquities
A shared sense of adventure is only one of the strong bonds that form among the archaeological team over the course of a dig. Tell es-Safi volunteer Zane Stepka fondly recalls how the field team’s “chatter following the evening’s lecture extended long into the warm and starry Israeli nights.” After a few seasons in Jordan, Rachel McMullan told BAR that “the majority of my closest friendships in university have been a direct product of my digs. I find that the atmosphere of a dig really brings people together, especially if you are in a foreign country with a language barrier and limited electronic entertainment. It has been a real bonding experience to travel with a group of people my age and with very similar interests.”
It takes only a shared laugh to start a close friendship on an excavation; after a few seasons, excavators find themselves part of a new family (sometimes literallyc). Multiyear volunteer Alexandra Ratzlaff says that the team at Tel Kabri can be “a dysfunctional family like any other, but we have formed a close bond through our shared experience. Beyond a doubt some of my closest friends are those that I excavated with, because we have shared the mornings getting up before dawn, the pains of physical labor, the celebratory parties, the paperwork, the stress of meeting deadlines and the relief and awe at the end of the season looking at what we have accomplished and what we contributed to our knowledge of the past.”d
The Greatest Thrill
Archaeologists will boast of friendships formed, trips taken, foreign acclimation and unique adventures, but nothing compares to the excitement of discovery. Digging the past forges a close bond to the ancient world, and exposing architecture and artifacts can be a magical experience for anyone with a passion for history. Huqoq volunteer Kindra Heilpern saw small tesserae from a mosaic appear in 2011 but couldn’t predict the subsequent excitement of the 2012 season. “Bryan Bozung had been working with a pick just seconds before and pulled out a hoe to gather up the loose dirt, when his hoe touched on something hard and scraped across a flat surface. He got on his hands and knees, brushed a little with his hands and suddenly saw what was clearly a face, gazing back at him! There was a hush as everyone gathered around and stared at the far northwest corner in awe. It was beautiful. I can’t describe it. After looking at nothing but dirt and dirt-colored things for two months—there was a rainbow treasure hiding under all of that. It was a lot of work for this face, and for the first time we knew it was unquestionably, unbelievably worth it!” (See “Samson in the Synagogue.”)
Coming Home (and Back Again)
At the end of a season, archaeologists return from their summer of discovery, but the thrill doesn’t end there. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the ancient world will never be “solved” in a summer. Volunteers can look forward to future seasons of helping sites evolve from seemingly indecipherable piles of dirt and rocks into a stratified collage of history. The promise of another foray into the Biblical world helps keep the adventure alive. Each year, Stephanie Steinke eagerly awaits the next summer. “About three months after the end of the dig, I start to miss it, and at about Thanksgiving, I start making my packing list and thinking about flights and hotels; by the time May comes I’m nearly running to the flight.”