Digs 2019: A Day in the Life

Read the full article from the January/February 2019 issue of BAR


ON THE COVER: BAS Dig Scholarship winner Rebecca Zami, a student at Yeshiva University, excavates what might be an Iron Age I production installation at Tell es-Safi / Gath. Photo: Courtesy of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.

Four a.m. That’s the first thing anyone who has been on an archaeological dig in the Holy Land will tell you when you ask them what it’s like to be on an excavation.

“You get up at 4:00 a.m.!” they’ll say with equal parts pride and loathing in their voices. “The first two hours of your day are spent in the dark.”

And they are telling the absolute truth. Most excavations try to be on site to do as much work as possible before the scorching Middle Eastern sun rises in the summer months. To do this, the day must start well before sunrise.

Thus, each work day usually begins with the grating sound of an alarm clock at 4:00 in the morning. This is often followed by one’s roommates joining in the chorus of laments that include hits like: “Why did I volunteer for this?”; everyone’s favorite: “Seriously, I just went to bed!”; and the all-time classic: “There is no way this is worth four credits.”

Some begin their day with a shower just to help wake themselves up; others do not. Some wear the same “dig clothes” they wore the day before—think gym clothes, but much, much dirtier—while some wear a clean shirt and maybe even clean shorts or pants for each new dig day. My claim to fame was always digging in a tie-dye shirt my sister made. Each summer before I head to Israel, she sends me a box of brightly colored, handmade, tie-dyed shirts, which help break up the bleak monotony of my days in the dust. Plus, anytime someone from another square was sent to retrieve me to assist with removing a boulder or tree root ball, they were always told, “You can’t miss him. Look for the guy in the tie-dye listening to Primus.”

AS THE SUN RISES over Tell Keisan, a site near the Mediterranean coast between Haifa and Akko, the archaeological team has already been hard at work for some time. Photo: Andrew Wright.

After getting dressed, volunteers usually make their way from their rooms to a central gathering place. Here the awakening horde enjoys the Lord of the Rings-inspired “first breakfast,” which usually consists of coffee and cakes. The trick here is to arrive early enough to get coffee or tea and the breakfast pastry of your choice without seeming too overly eager to do so. And be forewarned—while everyone is still groggy and waking up, there is always that one person—Mr. or Ms. Peppy Uppity-Up—who is trying to be positive and encouraging and chipper when all everyone else wants is to drink coffee and lumber toward the bus.

LOCATED AT THE BIBLICAL BATTLEGROUND between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1) in the Shephelah, Azekah was an important central Judean town in the Iron Age. Excavations headed by Oded Lipschits, Manfred Oeming, and Yuval Gadot have been conducted at Azekah since 2012. Heidelberg University student Agnes von Günther presents a perfectly preserved 12th-century B.C.E. juglet. Photo: Oded Lipschits/The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.

The next part of the morning ritual is a point of departure for different digs. Some excavations are fortunate enough to sleep on or near the dig site. For them, the next step is to make their way to the site and open it for the day. For other groups who reside at a kibbutz, hotel, or guest house some distance from the excavation site, the next step is the 5:00 a.m. bus ride, during which the efficient volunteer can sneak in a few more minutes of sleep.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer on an archaeological dig? I Volunteered For This?! Life on an Archaeological Dig is a free eBook that gives you the lowdown on what to expect from life at a dig site. You’ll be glad to have this informative, amusing and sometimes touching collection of articles by archaeological dig volunteers.


MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY student Hannah Pepler shows off the head of a 12th-century Judean figurine she has just unearthed at Azekah. Photo: Oded Lipschits/The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.

Once arriving at the dig site, usually around a half-hour before daybreak, the foot-dragging lines of volunteers make their way to a work shed or building where the equipment is stored. Here, designated members of each area being excavated retrieve wheelbarrows, buckets, pickaxes, hoes, brushes, dustpans, trowels, and all of the equipment necessary for the day’s work. One thing you learn as the days progress: Certain volunteers and staff are very particular about their tools. Some want the long-handled hoe, while others prefer the short-handled hoe; bringing the wrong tool to the square can put a damper on a day right from the outset. Thus, as the dig progresses, designated early risers are often tasked with retrieving specifically requested tools.

Once at the square, just before the sun rises the team erects the shade for the day. This involves lifting long PVC-style sections of tube on end beneath a lightweight, black woven tarp that has been staked to the ground. Over the course of dig season as the square gets deeper, raising the shade gets easier because it does not need to be lifted as high, as people are going deeper into the earth. Once the shades are erected, each area’s team usually meets with the area supervisor to receive instructions about the day’s plans. This may involve the common instructions of “go deeper,” but may also include tasks like sweeping and preparing the square for photos, removing boulders either by lifting, rolling, or sledging, or my personal favorite, taking out the root ball of a tree that needs to be extracted from the excavation area. As a former baseball player, this is the closest thing in archaeology to hitting, so the specialized task of throwing an axe around is one of my favorite jobs on site.

BATTER UP! In his trademark tie-dye shirt, author Bob Cargill swings an axe to extract tree roots from an excavation square at Azekah. Photo: Benjamin Sitzmann.

Once the area supervisor has divulged the game plan for the day, the sun begins to rise, and it is time to get to work—somewhere around 5:45 a.m. Volunteers usually work in pairs and, when possible, in teams of four. Regular excavation in a level square typically involves two people throwing pickaxes side-by-side, each looking to break up a depth of 2–3 inches of dirt with each throw. They typically work in a line breaking up earth systematically from one side of a designated location in the square to another.

Read essays from the 2018 BAS scholarship recipients >>
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HAZAEL’S FURY. Dig participants at the Philistine site of Tell es-Safi/Gath hold a screen to make shade or reflect light for the photographer to document this ninth-century B.C.E. destruction level. Gath dig director Aren M. Maeir calls this stratum the “Hazael Destruction,” in reference to the devastation of Gath at the hands of Hazael, King of Aram-Damascus, c. 830 B.C.E. Photo: Prof. Aren M. Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.

When the pickers have completed a row, the hoers usually step in and hoe into buckets the loosened earth. If you haven’t witnessed an experienced field archaeologist hoe a row of dirt, it is truly a sight to behold when done properly, almost like an artist or dancer. A seasoned hoer will place a bucket on its side between his or her feet with the open side facing forward. The hoer will then pull a hoe full of dirt back into the bucket between his or her legs. Once three of four scoops full of dirt are in the bucket, the hoer will draw the final scoop of dirt into the bucket and simultaneously stand the bucket up all in one smooth motion so that it can quickly be removed. A designated team member on “bucket patrol” will often toss an empty bucket between the feet of the hoer while removing the full bucket out of the square.

This picking and hoeing is the fundamental process in field archaeology. And during this process, the majority of discoveries are made—most pottery, floors, and walls are unearthed. When a sherd of pottery is discovered, it is placed in a special pottery bucket that is tagged with the name of the site, the specific area, the locus, and a basket number. This allows the pottery specialist to connect the pottery discovered in a particular spot with a specific elevation, which aids in dating the area being excavated. When glass is discovered, it is placed in a separate box or plastic bag to help keep it safe. The same is true for metals, beads, and other objects that might be considered jewelry. These and other “special” objects, such as figurines, coins, or anything with an inscription on it, go into “special finds” boxes so that they are protected and given the extra scrutiny they deserve.

Of course, it is here in the 5-by-5-meter archaeological square that most archaeology is done. It is where the dirt and sweat (and sometimes blood) becomes part of the experience. It is also where lifelong friendships are forged. Working hard in an enclosed quarter with three other people is the closest thing to a reality TV situation that most people will experience. Volunteers exhibit an entire range of emotions in the square, from sheer joy at the discovery of their find, to sheer exhaustion, to pent up frustration, to outright annoyance at that one person in your area who inevitably will not shut up. Every area has one, and every archaeology veteran knows what I’m talking about. The person who tells the jokes, who quotes the movies, often word-for-word for scenes at a time. The person with the very strong religious or political opinions who can’t help but share them, whether the rest of the area wants to hear them or not. And then there are those peacemakers, whose self-imposed job is to change the subject every time Mr. Political or Ms. Religious starts pontificating. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a political argument interrupted with “So, how did the Red Sox do yesterday?” shouted from behind some balk. Ask anyone who has ever been on a dig—this peacemaker and changer of topics is often the most important (and favorite) person on the dig.

UNDER THE SEA. Most people picture excavating as a hot, dusty endeavor, but underwater archaeology is a thrilling subdiscipline that requires participants to be proficient in scuba diving. Here, field school students Nick Whitaker and Moshe Shaki excavate underwater at the Iron Age harbor basin of Tel Dor. Photo: Udi Arkin Shalev.

This is when you realize that the archaeological square is a microcosm of the real world, the actual society we typically inhabit. There are those who like to be social and work hard best when they are with others telling stories to pass the time. There are others who like to be around other people but work silently, as talking takes too much energy and thought while performing energy-sapping labor. There are still others who like to work alone and prefer not to be around those making all the noise. One quality of an effective area supervisor is to determine which of the volunteers fit into which of these categories and assign them tasks accordingly. When people are in their own comfort zones, they work hardest and smartest.

SWEEP, SWEEP, SWEEP. At the Upper Galilee site of Tel Hazor, Mathilde Naar from the École Normale Supérieure de Paris and Elisa Rautioaho from the University of Helsinki brush away dirt to showcase the excavated eighth-century B.C.E. pottery vessels in preparation for photography. Photo: Manuel Cimadevilla courtesy of The Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael Yadin.

“Drink water!” is the expression you hear most in the square, perhaps second only to “Great! Keep going!” Water is the most important element on any dig, often more important than the tools themselves. Every 20 minutes I shout, “Drink water!” from wherever I am, as dehydration is the number-one enemy of archaeologists—worse than scorpions, worse than rocks dropped on the toe. You will never appreciate water more than after you’ve been on an archaeological dig. The same is true for your appreciation for how much you can actually sweat in a day.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer on an archaeological dig? I Volunteered For This?! Life on an Archaeological Dig is a free eBook that gives you the lowdown on what to expect from life at a dig site. You’ll be glad to have this informative, amusing and sometimes touching collection of articles by archaeological dig volunteers.


BEAT THE HEAT. Well protected against the blazing summer sun, Hippos-Sussita dig volunteer Shai Aviv Cahn proudly displays a newly unearthed Roman cooking pot dated to the early second to mid-fourth century C.E. Photo: Michael Eisenberg.

Somewhere around 9:00 a.m., the entire site stops and gathers together like a bunch of Hobbits for “second breakfast.” Typically a substantive meal served on site, this is often the highlight of the day (depending on who is cooking and where you dig). In fact, the quality and quantity of the breakfast is what dig directors brag about perhaps as much as their dig sites themselves. This is because a reputation for an excellent breakfast can make or break an excavation and can be the key to retaining volunteers from year to year. Whether keeping it traditional with cucumbers and tomatoes, cheeses, eggs, and all the peanut butter, cereal, and halva one can eat, or featuring a special day when shakshuka or pancakes are on the menu, second breakfast marks the halfway point of the dig day. During breakfast, volunteers have the opportunity to rest, eat, and mingle with those who are not in their assigned areas. This is also where morning announcements usually occur and where instructions are given for the afternoon’s activities.

After a 45-minute breakfast break, the day gets hotter and the work seems harder. For this reason, there is often another “fruit break,” usually around 11 a.m. in each area. This typically involves fresh fruit but can also include everyone’s favorite “frozen fruit”: popsicles. Here, each team determines how much more they can get done before the close of the site for the day. This is also when I tend to make innovative use of a wheelbarrow for a brief respite. After all, I don’t want to take a nap on the ground—it’s dirty down there!

DIGGERS’ LA-Z-BOY. BAR Editor Bob Cargill relaxes in a wheelbarrow during the last break of the dig day at Azekah. Photo: Oded Lipschits/The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.

The end of the dig day usually begins around noon, when the process of cleaning up and closing down the square begins. It takes about a half hour. No more picking is done, and all of the attention is turned to hoeing up any loose material and trimming the balks—that is, making sure the inside walls of the square produced as the floor is excavated and lowered are plumb, straight, cross-sectional cuts. These balks are essential to understanding the stratigraphy and therefore the dating of each area being excavated. The squares are then swept up, and the tools are put away. Because the day is at its hottest, this is easily the sweatiest and dustiest part of the day, making for dirt streaks on clothes and faces that would pass for brilliant makeup artistry in a stage production of The Grapes of Wrath. The shades are then lowered, and someone from each square is tasked with transporting the day’s pottery buckets back to the bus.

TEAM MARVELOUS. Garrett Toombs of Wake Forest University and Yanitza Roman of the University of Chicago expose pottery smashed by the Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar in the destruction of Tell Keisan in 604 B.C.E. Photo: Andrew Wright .

The bus ride back to the residence, usually between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m., is one of storytelling and exhaustion. It is in many ways the first instance of what BAR tries to do: share with others what was discovered in that day’s dig. The bus ride is also the first experience of pride and envy—pride when sharing news of an amazing find and envy when hearing about what others found.

Once back at the residence, many digs organize one of the least favorite but most important tasks of each dig day: pottery washing. Volunteers spread out with buckets of water and large plastic trays that look like drying racks pulled from an industrial dishwasher. Each person sits with a tiny brush and a bucket of dirty water scrubbing each piece of pottery in the pottery bucket, rinsing each, and placing all of them on the tray to dry. This task is essential because it allows the pottery to be examined, which in turn allows each locus in the site to be dated to a particular time in history. While the pottery dries, volunteers head to the dining room for lunch, take a shower, and lie down for a well-deserved nap.

THIS AERIAL VIEW of an Iron Age IIB (900–700 B.C.E.) building at Tel Dan offers a perspective of the archaeological site that few ever see. Stone walls can be seen passing beneath the archaeological balk with its sandbags while several teams of volunteers sweep the wall in preparation for photos taken by the very drone that gave us this amazing aerial picture. Photo: Shimon Barzilay.

Usually around 5 p.m., many volunteers wake from their naps. The afternoon and evening events during the dig week are probably the most diverse part of the experience from one dig to another. Some excavation teams will read pottery before heading to supper. This is when all the hard work of preparing the excavated pottery pays off. A pottery specialist examines the day’s pottery and assigns a date range to each locus. One or two indicative sherds (rims, bases, or handles) are saved from each locus for reference purposes, and the rest of the pottery is discarded and returned to the site’s discard pile the next morning.

Supper usually follows pottery reading. Once again, the entire dig team meets in the dining hall for a hearty meal. After dinner, many excavations have lectures on various topics, part of the curriculum for those volunteers participating for university course credit. On some evenings, an assembly is held, and the different areas report on their week’s findings. The day usually ends with a favorite pastime of archaeological digs: sitting around together, often with a drink in hand, meeting new people from different states and countries, and listening to stories from archaeological veterans who have many a story to tell. In the evening conversations, many lifelong friendships are forged, and many volunteers new to archaeology and Biblical studies ask questions and debate answers. The evening usually ends around 9:30 p.m.—at least this is when I plead with my students to head to bed.

SAY CHEESE! In the early morning at the ancient Jewish village of Shikhin, volunteers hold up a “Joshua Cloth” (see Joshua 10:12) to keep the sun from creating bright and dark areas in the photos. Dig photographer Steven Meigs sits atop a ladder while Samford University student Johnny Herbert holds a meter stick for scale in the site’s Roman-period courtyard. Shikhin was a production center for pottery and lamps. Photo: Jill Marshall.

Not all archaeological digs are the same. Some are small, where everyone on site knows each other. Others are massive enterprises involving hundreds of volunteers from multiple universities around the world. But a day like the one I’ve described is fairly typical. What all digs have in common is the requirement that volunteers be able to get up early, work steadily, have a positive attitude, be mentally strong (physical strength is optional), and always possess a curiosity about the world around them. There is no ideal age for doing archaeology—individuals of all ages can participate, as there is a job for everyone. There is no ideal body type for doing archaeology, as people of all shapes and sizes can be found on any given dig doing heavy lifting or fine, delicate detailing. While it does help to be in shape, I often tell my students that a summer doing archaeology is a great way to lose some weight, get in shape, get a great tan, and see the Holy Land.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer on an archaeological dig? I Volunteered For This?! Life on an Archaeological Dig is a free eBook that gives you the lowdown on what to expect from life at a dig site. You’ll be glad to have this informative, amusing and sometimes touching collection of articles by archaeological dig volunteers.

It is my hope that this brief description of a typical day will encourage you to participate in a dig that captures your interest. The Biblical Archaeology Society provides a list of active archaeological excavations that can help you choose the dig that’s right for you, and we provide scholarships that can help make your dream possible.
So if you’ve ever wanted to explore a part of the world you’ve only read about, and you want to do so in a scientific context while having the most exciting trip of your life, please consider signing up for an archaeological dig. You will not regret it.
See you this summer!

“Digs 2019: A Day in the Life” by Robert R. Cargill originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2019.


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