Digging Into the Italian Coast

I’m absentmindedly shoveling away another bucket of dirt, and another, until I hear a familiar “Basta.” Enough. I stand upright and use my shovel for support as I catch my breath.

When I volunteered to participate in an archaeological excavation, I never imagined I’d be going through boot camp for construction workers. Shoveling, wheelbarrowing, pickaxing, raking, carrying buckets of dirt and slag away from an ever-expanding hole. I came here prepared for physical labor, and I didn’t expect this to be glamorous; but the experience is nothing like watching an Indiana Jones movie. Thankfully, I’ve come with no expectations, and am therefore taking on the challenge one day at a time. So, here I kneel, patiently brushing dirt particles away from within a small radius of an Etruscan slag layer, unable to trowel around a tomb peeking out from beneath the earth. Long ago, this was a necropolis. Necropoli di San Cerbone.

The warm sunshine beats down steadily, making it too hot for a scarf around my nose and mouth…and my allergies are proving to be more than a minor nuisance. I’m wearing safety glasses, but they can only do so much against wind kicking up all the loose dirt into the air. Distraction comes in the form of schoolchildren crowding around the frail wooden fence barricading our dig site. On a field trip, they marvel at twisted bits of gray, mistaking fragments of worthless slag for valuable artifacts. Steve, the 70-year old retiree who is the only member of the team that can outwheelbarrow and outshovel me, tries to communicate with the curious youngsters in his nonexistent Italian. Ever in a good mood, he chuckles and continues to mime anyway.

The children begin to trickle away behind their teachers, and I know it’s nearing the end of our day. The sun is still shining brightly above, but we’ll soon be headed back to camp for respite and dinner – to our nightly routine of snacking during dinner prep, and then overindulging in pasta, cheese, breads, meats, and sweets. I know I’m going to feel the fatigue the moment I sit down. I’m going to eat like a ravenous construction worker. I’m going to shower away the grime, and sleep from exhaustion almost immediately after. Before that, however, is my favorite part of this tremendous experience: I’m off to wash, classify, and catalog some of the ceramics we’ve uncovered. Even better, I get to do it with a view of the Ligurian Sea off the Tuscan coast. There’s no better way to end the day.

Approximately one year ago, I returned from an archaeological excavation in Livorno, Italy. No, I’m not an archeologist, nor am I studying to be one. I started university majoring in anthropological linguistics, but I finished as an English major (with a “Concentration in Career Writing” that I’m using for a career not in writing). I do occasionally wonder where I’d be had I followed the original plan…. An Egyptologist? A researcher for The Discovery Channel? A university professor?

My inner Indiana Jones has never really left, and amidst a quarter-life crisis, I thought to explore a career change back into archaeology. Why not? I was already at a point in my life where I was trying all sorts of things; maybe this one would stick. So I signed up for a dig.

Was it tough? There were times it did feel that way. Will I become an archaeologist? Probably not, though I haven’t ruled out exploring options in conservation and restoration. Do I regret doing the dig? Definitely not. I was digging into history, into the past; and in the process, I found a piece of me. It was a great, memorable experience that I’d gladly repeat.

If you’re interested in a similar adventure, check out upcoming Earthwatch expeditions. Bonus: Despite all the late-night dinners where I ate enough for me and my imaginary triplets –collapsing into bed long before my food had digested– I still somehow lost weight.