Whether it is your first time on an excavation, or another chapter in your journey of archaeological field or laboratory work, fellow archaeologists, students and specialists have channelled their experience for you!
Since beginning my journey in 2008 with field schools, excavating and studying abroad, I have progressed along in my journey from dig student to project manager. There are always so many more skills to learn and wonderful experiences to share. As the following list items will show, there are some handy things to bring on a dig, while others you can pick up wherever you are doing field work and save yourself the bag space!
10. Start with a good rucksack. Your journey begins by investing in something that is comfortable and that you can move with minimal effort.
Big wheelie bags can seem easier, but if you have any major walking to do, or plan to travel afterwards, aim to have something you can easily move and ALWAYS be able to lift it yourself. I have helped many a random traveler over the years because they couldn’t manage their own luggage.
The weekender (1) is good to bring along with you as a personal item so you can spend a night or two sightseeing while you are on an excavation season. The fortnight (2) can cover a two week dig, but if that is all you are packing, pick up towels/toiletries in the location you are ending up. The month-long (3) should be spacious enough for all your necessities and still leave you enough space for souvenirs.
9. Doing your research pays off. Buying your gear off-season is always significantly cheaper. If you cross-check prices on a few different sites once you find a bag that catches your eye, you can often get it for a fraction of the cost. The three rucksacks pictured above were each 50-70% off, totaling £110.00 for all three!
8. Pack for the job you have and the experience you want. My packing list might look a little different than yours might this season, as a big part of my work tends to be organizational (project management) and art /writing (public archaeology) . However, there are some basics for organizing your belongings that are handy no matter what your role on a dig. Organizing by theme, by grouping what those needs are into little related clusters/packing cubes can help you avoid losing things or over-packing. Prioritizing what is a must to bring, and what you can probably just pick up at a shop when you arrive, will keep you on track. Pro-tip: bringing a small bundle of elastic bands and some Ziploc bags helps to compress your belongings in for space (or keep gross things away from nice things) by doing that Marie Kondo style roll, held with a rubber band will do the trick. Packing cubes are quite helpful, as once there you won’t have dressers to put your things away in, and some semblance of organization may spark joy.
Field Gear: Rules and regulations vary by country and sometimes site, but these are some general principles from my experience in Italy. Full-length trousers and steel toe boots are required for excavating. No exceptions. Trench supervisors will check this type of thing, since foot protection is a site safety issue. What styles of boots and trousers is entirely up to you. Long sleeve shirts are going to keep you from becoming a lobster, and a good option for layering between chillier mornings to hot afternoons.
From Primark to Jack Woolfskin, it’s up to you and your budget. There are frequently low-cost options highlighted on online shops, but comfort/breathability are pretty important. Quick dry (wicking) options make laundry less of a chore, especially in Mediterranean heat you can dry your washed clothes in 20 minutes. Pro-tip: break in new boots before arrival to avoid blisters and Merino wool socks help protect your feet from over-heating, wicking away moisture and avoiding odor.
Optional items: Fancy kit and tools is unnecessary for first-time excavations, as the programmes will provide the tools you need, mostly centrally-held by a trench supervisor. You can buy little handy tools and so on, but it is likely to go unused and just adds weight to your luggage.
Not all trowels are made equally. My favourite is the WHS trowel. It is a British design that feels good in your hand and has a lot of durability. I prefer the soft-handle WHS trowel, but many others like the wooden handle. You can check out dig tools on the Past Horizons website: here or Strati-Concept: here. Order your kit several weeks before you expect to head off to dig, because having mail sent to you.
7. Working in the sun safely. Suncare products should be rigorously applied and re-applied throughout the day, especially after sifting for an hour and pushing up your 20th wheelbarrow to the spoil heap. Hats are a must, and shirts with built-in sun protection or that are at least long enough to cover your skin are essential. Staying hydrated is going to be paramount if you plan to get the most out of your field work experience and avoid overexerting yourself. Safety is always the most important thing.
6. Tech: should it stay or should it go? Working on my thesis and part-time job while on excavation means that a lightweight tablet-laptop hybrid is essential so I can take my work with me. The DSLR is also part of my art and field work kit for my thesis and public archaeology. I still optimistically bring dig boots and a trowel every year but my path has diverged slightly from within the trench to working on public engagement. It is worth considering leaving your expensive tech at home if you don’t really need it. I.e, if you aren’t writing a PhD or Masters, you actually may have the summer off, so why not enjoy it? Kick back with a kindle or a real paperback and soak in the sun or debate the classics over wine with fieldwork colleagues!
5. Entertainment items are important additions to your time away on excavation. If you enjoy photography, bring your camera. There will be amazing moments that you will capture through the camera lens that you will enjoy reflecting on. If you are an artist, bring a travel sketch and paint kit! Bringing something small for your downtime, that is still social, is a great way to meet new people. This is a great opportunity to try travel blogging or leveling-up your Instagram game. #DigSeason #ArchaeologyLife #QueensOfTheLab. If after a full day of working with others you would prefer some quiet time, ebooks and headphones are a good (lightweight) idea, as there will be plenty of time to rest and relax. Tech-tip extra: multi-plug usb and universal adapters will save your life. Most dig houses have limited plugs, and 50 people needing to charge their phones can be hard to accommodate.
4. Working with injuries and staying healthy. Many of us have bad knees, sore backs and a host of other potential aches and pains. Knee pads are a must if you have any knee problems, but even if you are blessed with injury-free knees, they are a huge help for long periods of kneeling on hard surfaces. Necessary medications should be brought with you, you might find it hard to find an Italian equivalent. Things like painkillers and hydration aids are commonly available and not challenging to get a hold of. Keeping healthy extras: bug spray, flip flops (for showers), bandaids (plasters) and hand sanitizer/hand wipes are cheap as chips and good to have in your pack.
Hydration in high temperatures is tackled by investing in good insulated water bottles. Gulping down a mouthful of hot water is not the most refreshing while working, so insulated water bottles can keep your drinking water chilled for several hours. I typically have two with me and there are all sorts available on Amazon.
3. Mental health and wellness while working abroad. Excavation situations abroad can be full of life-changing experiences and new friends. They can also be very stressful, living with 50 strangers doing manual labour in a foreign country where you may not speak the language. This might be the first time experiencing a shared eating, washing and sleeping space. Even for those who are not shy or prone to a bit of social anxiety, this can seem like a pretty intense prospect. However, it is incredibly common to feel this way, and there are some great relaxation and mindfulness approaches to help and get the most out of your time abroad!
This might require you to actively seek some time alone on a walk, write in a travel journal to reflect on some of your experiences and don’t be afraid to carve out the time for you that you need to feel rested. If you are lucky enough to be working in or near a town, grabbing some colleagues and having a cheeky dinner out together is a nice break from the larger group.
2. Be open minded to new cultures. If this is your first time abroad or just in the location you will be digging, it goes without saying that you will encounter customs that are unfamiliar to you. Much of what you read online can be quite negative. If you read about places like Naples, there are a variety of opinions that are often quite apprehensive. Treat everything you read with a grain of salt. Some people have had bad experiences, but like all travel a trip is as good as you make it. If you pack smart, don’t flash your valuables around and keep important items secured, you should have no problems. Just as traveling anywhere, train and bus stations are not safe places to hang around full stop and often give a slightly grim impression. Take a breath, chill out and be smart.
Things [in Italy] run a little differently and certainly much slower than many of you will be used to (which you may not like at first), but if you are patient and keep an open mind you will find the beauty within the relaxed style of living, vibrant and passionate people, delicious food, and charming architecture.Caity Concannon, pottery specialist in-training, Aeclanum
Rather than looking for what is familiar, you are perfectly poised to learn new things about yourself and the world around you. Breaking out of your comfort zone by trying new foods, talking to locals and getting to know the culture and history of the place you are going to spend a few weeks or a full season excavating in is incredibly rewarding.
- An Archaeological mindset, positive attitude and a trowel. Really there isn’t much else you need.
You have an incredible opportunity ahead of you. Everyone will have different backgrounds and varying amounts of experience, so use that to your advantage! Ask questions on and off site. You can learn so much from everyone around you. Many people will be coming to your dig without knowing anyone. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with someone, they are likely in the same boat as you! If you are coming with friends, branch out and include others!
Many thanks to the feedback from students: Alex Slucky, Caity Concannon, Chanchal Rm, Erik Niskanen, Jazz Demetrioff, Jessica Staples, Kathleen Emily Ann O’Donnell, Max Ratcliffe, Mickey Ferguson, Emma Watts.
With special thanks to Briana King for modeling gear!
Thank you for checking out my blog and have a great field school and excavation season!