So, you have just been accepted on your first archaeological dig. What next?

Olivia Gao, an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney, shares her experience and tips on how to prepare for a successful first field season.

You’re about to begin your second semester of university, and you have just found out you’ve been accepted to join an archaeological dig in the Mediterranean. You are absolutely thrilled for the opportunity and cannot wait to embark on this exciting new adventure, especially since you’re only a first-year student! But now, you’ve realised you need to organise plane tickets, accommodation, speak to your lecturers and tutors to sort out alternatives to attending your classes, because you’ll be away for an entire month during semester! Even more importantly, what are you going to need for your very first archaeological dig!?

Phone a friend

This was exactly the situation I was in only last year, when I went on my very first dig to Paphos in Cyprus. As a novice of an archaeology student who had never been on a dig and knew almost nothing about the logistics behind travelling on my own, the whole thing was completely daunting and overwhelming. But I was extremely lucky to have three friends who were also going, and that’s my very first tip: find out if friends or other students in your classes are wanting to go on a dig. The overall trip becomes less stressful and more thrilling, and honestly if I didn’t have my friends, I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own!  

Last day on site with my friends from uni
Seek out pro tips

While being a student may have its disadvantages, on the flip side, you will know, professionals and individuals with plenty of experience in the archaeological field: your lecturers and tutors! Don’t hesitate to ask these people for advice because they do have a lot of knowledge on what it is like to be on-site, what you should bring, and tips and tricks they have found useful in their earlier years. Take advantage of the opportunities right in front of you because I know the archaeology department is extremely welcoming. 

What to pack?

When it comes to what you should bring, I’d 100% recommend investing in good quality gloves and thick durable knee pads. When you’re constantly kneeling on the hard-rocky surfaces, literally knee-deep in your trenches, you’ll be glad for the extra protection! Comfy clothes and the right shoes such as hiking boots or tradie boots that lace up are the ones to wear (Don’t forget to break them in if you do go and buy a new pair).

Your trusty trowel

Another very important equipment to any archaeologist’s arsenal is their trusty trowel. The one I bought for my first dig is a WHS trowel with a wooden handle and I found it works well for the jobs I did. But as I soon discovered, trowels differ based on personal preference and experience, some have wooden handles, others metal. Some are longer, while others are shorter, so do some research and ask around.

Plan for success!

What I also found to be extremely useful is to plan, plan, and plan. Depending on when archaeological digs run during the year, which at times may clash with uni or academic studies, but don’t let this stop you! I was away from uni for 3 weeks and did one exam, 2 weekly quizzes and submitted a final essay all from overseas! While it can be physically and mentally draining to take on so many tasks, don’t let the stress of your studies take over. The earlier you plan and write your notes or draft your essays, the easier it is to juggle studying overseas. Make sure you’ve brought your textbooks for class and have downloaded as many e-resources you can, because trying to get unlimited and fast Wi-Fi overseas can be troublesome. Personally, my time away uni did not hinder my academic performance, rather, being abroad and the change of scenery helped me focus more on the important tasks. Surprisingly, I received better marks than I’d hoped for because I’d been prepared, but remember don’t focus solely on working and studying, find time to relax and enjoy your time abroad!

So how did it all turn out for me?

Bunking situation

Luckily, our plans managed to let us squeeze in a full day and night sight-seeing in Rome! Although at a horrible time of 1 in the morning, we landed in Cyprus, very tired and jetlagged, but still very excited! We stayed in a separate hotel apartment to the majority of the dig team, and although our walk to and from the dig site was further, our bunk had unlimited access to air-conditioning (a great relief after working under the hot sun for so long), a huge lounge and dining area (for the odd dance or two) and a cute little kitchen. Not to mention a pool and can you believe, very easy access to Subway who had fast and unlimited Wi-Fi! We were the lucky ones for sure!

What happened on site?

The very first day of the season saw the director (our very own Dr. Craig Barker) began with icebreakers and introductions, familiarisations of the areas on site and which trench would be our pride and joy for the season. I was assigned to Trenches 19C & 19D and believe me, I think these were the treasure trove of trenches! Our days usually began early in the morning and finished around late afternoon. Mornings were reserved for the physical digging – which varied from trench to trench – and everyone could rotate from pickaxing, trowelling, bucketing and note-taking details such as the stratigraphy, finds and features of the trench. Afternoons were spent pottery-washing the morning’s pottery finds, and believe me, it can get very tedious after a while. As we had come to realise, pottery sherds are the number one artefact found on site. Literally found in their thousands!

One super exciting thing that happened was on day 10 we found an almost entirely intact jug! We also found beautiful tesserae and an interesting well or basin, all within the same context! Every once in a while, volunteers did rotate from trench to trench or worked with the experts. I was lucky to do some work with the conservator on site to carefully glue back pieces of a massive amphora jug! It was amazing to see the artefact return to its former glory.

Day 4 of the season, Trench 19C looking good!
Clashing companions?

To everyone’s surprise, the 2019 season had the biggest team of volunteers – over 50 volunteers including us students – and everyone knew everybody else! With such a large group, you might expect some personal clashes. We were lucky, with a surprisingly amicable team. While there would be the odd occasion where a volunteer would not be on the same page as others, but after a dip in the ocean or a comforting snack, you would see the minor issue had died down. Not only did we have occasional group dinners, weekly pizza nights for the students, potluck (which my friends and I decided to bring 4 bags of garlic bread!), we had the opportunity to hear a fellow student volunteer perform an opera and have a lovely dinner in the ancient theatre itself! If you ever have the opportunity, visit an ancient theatre and sing. You can definitely hear the acoustics and sound travelling through the theatre!

Go exploring!

The great thing about being on a dig abroad is the fact that you’re overseas and have the opportunity to go exploring and sight-seeing! I had never been to Cyprus, let alone Europe before this trip, and now it’s become one of my favourite memories! We had weekends free and not only were there plenty of other archaeological sites to visit (like the Tombs of the Kings) but we also planned a day visiting the capital and crossed the border into Northern Cyprus. I think I had the best kebab in Northern Cyprus! Don’t shy away from being a tourist, have some fun, visit sites and don’t forget to buy souvenirs!

Free weekend spent at the Tombs of the Kings
An experience to remember

If you ever decide to go on an archaeological dig, to which I would say YES 1000 times, it becomes an incredible experience to look back upon. Whether it be understanding how to log every single detail of everything you find into the notebook, or you realise pottery sherds are found in their thousands, or that the physical digging and bucketing jobs are like a gym workout, you do end up learning so many incredible things. You also form connections and friendships with many of the other volunteers, students and experts who you’ve met during the season. It is an experience that I truly miss and cannot wait to embark on the next one, an experience I know you will absolutely enjoy!

Day 16: Trenches 19C and 19D complete!

Olivia Gao is an undergraduate student studying Archaeology, Ancient History and Ancient Greek at the University of Sydney.


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693