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Dig deeper into archaeology

Sebastian Scheiner / AP
American tourists and students with the Philadelphia Biblical University
work at an archaeological dig near Beit Guvrin in central Israel. Tourists
pay $25 to spend the day digging and sifting through the ruins. Their
fees underwrite the more difficult parts of archaeological work:
washing pottery shards, logging finds and writing up the research.

If Harrison Ford can play an archaeologist in the "Indiana Jones" movies, why can't you? You probably won't snag a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster. But you can always find an archaeological dig looking for some help, particularly if you're willing to pay for helping.

The life of an archaeologist isn't all about fighting Soviet spies or unearthing unspeakable ancient evils, of course. Often it's about sorting through somebody else's trash - except that this trash could be thousands of years old. That's where students and tourists can help out, by pitching in on the fieldwork.

Unlike your typical tourist vacation, fieldwork opportunities will require you to get your hands dirty. But you also will learn much more about ancient cultures that vanished, as well as modern cultures that still survive. The price tag can range from free, to $25 a day, to thousands of dollars for a two-week trip.

Most of these sessions are offered only in the summer, and in those cases it may be too late for this year. But you'll have plenty of time to plan out next year's adventure - or you can use the Internet to turn yourself into an armchair archaeologist.

Here are 10 online destinations to explore:

  • The Archaeological Institute of America's online fieldwork catalog is searchable by region as well as by keyword, so you can get right to the Maya excavations. (Sorry, no quests for crystal skulls.) As long as you're on the AIA Web site, you owe it to yourself to check out Archaeology magazine's special section on Indiana Jones and the "Crystal Skull" movie. Don't miss Mark Rose's Hollywood reality check (but watch out for the spoilers!).
  • Speaking of reality checks, take a detour to the National Science Foundation's Web site and browse through "Archaeology from Reel to Real," a special report that delves into how archaeology is really done. It shouldn't be any surprise to hear that archaeologists get a kick out of Indy on the big screen but would probably kick him out of their dig in real life.
  • If Mesoamerican cultures are your thing, take a look at the Maya Research Program. Every year, the Texas-based nonprofit group organizes excavations at the Blue Creek archaeological dig in Belize, as well as community service tours and more traditional tours of pre-Columbian sites in Mexico and Central America.
  • Past Horizons lists more than 200 archaeological opportunities around the world, including 94 in the United States alone. You'll also find a Weblog and lots of links to other resources.
  • ArchaeologyFieldwork.com serves as an online marketplace for researchers seeking volunteers as well as would-be volunteers seeking opportunities.
  • The Biblical Archaeology Society's "Find a Dig" Web site focuses on opportunities in Europe and the Middle East, including 20 sites in Israel alone. If you send in your e-mail address, you'll get a free e-book guide to doing fieldwork titled "I Volunteered for This?!"
  • Remember the part about sifting through other people's trash? That's almost literally what the Temple Mount Antiquities Salvage Operation is about. You can sign up, and then show up to take a close look at centuries-old rubble and soil salvaged from construction work at Jerusalem's Temple Mount (known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary). There's no charge to join in the operation, as long as you can devote three days to the work. Some ancient artifacts have already been found among the leavings. But as usual with anything having to do with Jerusalem's holy sites, the project has stirred up religious controversy and archaeological questions.
  • The Earthwatch Institute offers some top-drawer opportunities for archaeo-tourism, including a trip to the very camp in Kenya's Olduvai Gorge where the Leakeys made their momentous discoveries of hominid fossils. You'll find plenty of ecotourism trips as well.
  • About.com lists a variety of more traditional study trips that will make you feel more like you're on vacation, and less like you're at work. These itineraries expose you to the world's great archaeological sites, in the company of academic experts who can tell you the stories behind the splendors. If Indiana Jones ever hangs up his bullwhip, he could become a guide on one of these tours.
  • If you'd rather not get your hands dirty, you can still trace Indy's footsteps with this guide to "Indiana Jones" destinations around the world. Do you prefer the ancient road less traveled? Check out 10 archaeological sites that are off the beaten path.

Still looking for a sequel? This Web page on the "Find a Dig" site links to lots of opportunities that are closer to home. The National Park Service offers a portal page titled "Visit Archaeology." The Society for American Archaeology offers plenty of suggestions for keeping up with the Indiana Joneses. And if you're really adventurous, you can ask the folks at your local university or preservation office if they could use a hand - or at least grab your fedora and head out to celebrate your state's archaeology month.

Do you have any better ideas? Seen any good movies about archaeological wonders lately? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.