Countdown to "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery:" What It's Like to Work on a Dig

Just a few weeks until June 4, and the premiere of "Site Unseen" on the Hallmark Movie & Mystery Channel!  Last week, I wrote about my protagonist, archaeologist Emma Fielding.  This week, it's a little glimpse into what it's like to work on a dig. 

Generally speaking, working on an archaeological dig has all the glamour of working on a road crew, with the added benefit of lots of meticulous recording and paper work. Whether you are digging test pits before the construction of a power line, or working on a remote site that’s been studied for decades, chances are that the work will be backbreaking. You’ll have to deal with extremes of weather, bugs and other animal life, poisonous plants, and the like. Don’t forget that there may be issues related to the natural or cultural environment affecting you as well. I’ve worked outside a state prison, on a waste treatment facility site, and on a wharf site that was affected by the tides. That last one was in the middle of winter, on the Atlantic coast, and the cold was...Dantesque.  

 Removing the soil, centimeter by centimeter.

Removing the soil, centimeter by centimeter.

The work is painstakingly slow. Often, you work with the smallest of tools—brushes, trowels, spoons, and dental picks. This is done to observe the layers of soil and features (such as walls, wells, pits, etc.), and to understand their relationship and how they fit together. That’s called the “context,” and it helps you understand what happened, and when, on a site. You spend a lot of time looking at, and arguing about...dirt. You spend a lot of time looking at trash people threw out three centuries ago.

Did I mention the paperwork? Recording what you learn on a site, and being precise about it, is of the utmost importance. You use every sense to describe what you see, because once a site is excavated, it’s gone: Only your notes, photos and videos, and maps will remain for you and others to study. There’s a lot of redundancy, lists of lists of artifacts and photos, because you only get one chance to excavate a site.

Given all that, I’d be a fool to recommend such a career. And yet…

 This dig was on a cliff overlooking a harbor town in Turkey. I didn't make it over there, but I was dying to know what they were looking for!

This dig was on a cliff overlooking a harbor town in Turkey. I didn't make it over there, but I was dying to know what they were looking for!

Working on a dig is the best puzzle in the world. Everything from repairing the artifacts themselves to piecing together evidence across the site to learn about its inhabitants is part of a mystery. You may also be comparing your site with other sites around the world. Remember that trash I mentioned before? We learn way more about people by looking at the things they used (ceramics, glass, animal bones, seeds, tools, etc.) than by almost anything else. Add in the documents—diaries, newspaper articles, court records, legal documents, letters—and you’ve got another layer of information to fit with the material evidence. Archaeology provides a jigsaw worthy of a Time Lord, reaching across time and space.

When you work on a site, you also use your imagination, building a set of stories about the people (some of whom might not show up in legal records) who lived and worked in a place. To me, that’s one of the most exciting parts of doing historical archaeology: revealing individuals and their lives within the larger framework of history.

And sometimes the sites are in spectacularly beautiful places. For me, a great view and an ocean breeze will do a lot to mitigate the nuisance of mosquito bites and a sore back.

So never mind what I said earlier. Working on a dig is one of the best jobs ever.

NEXT:  How I came to write Site Unseen.

 Even Bertram the Seagull likes an archaeological site by the ocean.

Even Bertram the Seagull likes an archaeological site by the ocean.