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The Fellowship of the Dig: Life as an Archaeologist in the Field

I’ve recently come to a surprising—nay, “fantastic”—realization about the lives of archaeologists. On digs, we live like hobbits. The day begins very, very early. Early-rising is key because you only get to work as long as the sun is up, and the site can be a fair distance away. This summer, while digging at Point Rosee...

Archaeological digs sound glamorous. But National Geographic Fellow and TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak reveals that—at Point Rosee in Canada—the reality is 6:30am wake-up calls, miles of hiking, and vigorous de-turfing. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak)

I’ve recently come to a surprising—nay, “fantastic”—realization about the lives of archaeologists. On digs, we live like hobbits.

The day begins very, very early. Early-rising is key because you only get to work as long as the sun is up, and the site can be a fair distance away. This summer, while digging at Point Rosee in Newfoundland, Canada our wake-up calls came at 6:30am. Not terrible. But in Egypt, in the summer, we’re up by 4:30am, as it gets way too hot to continue past the early afternoon. This is why we prefer to dig in Egypt in the winter, even if it’s not always possible given the academic calendar.

A 4:30am day, by nature, involves a lot of coffee. And personal grooming just flies out the window. It doesn’t matter how you look, as long as you are comfortable.

A dig is this other universe where time speeds up and slows down. Sometimes, you get to a site and you work for ages, but when you look down, only 15 minutes have passed. Other times, you do a couple things and you turn around, and the whistle blows for lunch—and you’re not sure how four hours elapsed. You start measuring time by food breaks.

We have a small breakfast of tea and cookies early, then a second breakfast at 10am. That’s followed by lunch, tea, and dinner. Really, very hobbit-like.

The Roles

Excavation is a team effort, so there are many different roles on a site. You generally start out as someone who assists with the digging and, over time, you assume more responsibility. Site supervisors, for example, are responsible for running a specific area of the excavation. They spend their time planning—that’s hard work, since we need absolute precision. They draw the floor profiles and analyze their units. Then you also have specialists, who focus on ceramic analysis, or the analysis of human remains, or small finds. Some specialists are experts in object registration; others focus on ancient pollen or botanical remains. Each specialist adds so much context to what we find.

In Egypt, looters have already gotten to many archaeological sites, including this section of South Dashur. The sense of reclaiming the past creates a special camaraderie on a dig—and when Parcak launches GlobalXplorer in early 2017, the whole world will be invited to help in this work. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak)

At Point Rosee, I co-direct with Greg Mumford, my husband. At el Lisht in Egypt, I co-direct with a colleague from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. In both cases, as co-director, I’m one of the people who’s ultimately responsible for the team, the budget, and results of the season. It’s intense project management, as you have a series of objectives you need to achieve and only a set amount of time to achieve them.

I’m responsible for looking after the health and well-being of my team, so it’s making sure everyone is drinking enough water, and wearing sunscreen or a hat—it may sound silly, but can lead to bigger issues. I also check in constantly with all my site supervisors and specialists, to make sure they have what they need. Does someone need their trowel sharpened? Has someone run out of graph paper? Do they need more bags? A lack of supplies can lead to a work slowdown.

One of the biggest things I do: keep everyone talking, to maximize team expertise. Maybe there’s an object coming out of the ground that looks really significant or fragile—and a site supervisor needs advice on whether to remove it or call in the conservator to stabilize it in place. Maybe another team member has been in a similar situation before. Or, perhaps someone needs a second opinion on the soil profile. As you dig, you move through levels—and once you’ve changed levels, you’re likely dealing with a different time period and different materials. Sometimes the level change is obvious; the soil changes color dramatically, or you go from fine sand to rubble. But oftentimes it’s subtle and easy to miss, especially as the sun moves overhead.

Sarah Parcak remembers finding a thumb print on a pot during a dig at TK. She says, in that moment, time between the past and present converged. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED
In her TED Prize talk, Sarah Parcak recalled finding a thumbprint on a pot during a dig at the ancient site of Mendes in Egypt. She said, in that moment, “the chasm between present and past narrowed.” (Photo by Bret Hartman/TED)

The Treasures

Anyone who knows about hobbits knows they live in hobbit holes. During a dig, we basically do, too.

We adapt our approaches depending on whether we’re digging at a temple, a tomb, or a house. The pace of finding objects on a dig varies widely depending on where you are.

In Egypt, over the course of a season, you might uncover thousands of potsherds, beads, and other pieces of material culture. You might also find carved fragments of stone and beautiful painted pieces of relief sculpture.

Of course, it’s really cool when you find something, but you have to think about its context. When you find things every five minutes, the dig gets very stop and go. You’re carefully mapping each object, then recording it, making sure it’s photographed in-situ, giving it an object number, and moving it (carefully) to the photographer and artist.

In Newfoundland, the pace is slower. At Viking sites, you just don’t find as much because the Norse took a lot with them—things were portable and they reused them. But at Point Rosee, we also had to do “de-turfing.” It’s an intense full-body workout—you take a turf-cutter and you push down about 5 to 10 centimeters, then you jump on top to cut through the roots. You make crisscross lines across your unit, so that you cut thick wet turf blocks that weigh between 20 and 40 pounds. Any bigger, they’d be too heavy to move. Moving ones this size is hard enough, as this is on top of the fact that we had to walk seven to eight miles a day or more. It’s grueling work.

National Geographic Fellow and TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak digs at the archaeological site of Tanis in Egypt, where a team is investigating one of the structures she identified from satellite imagery. Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak
National Geographic Fellow and TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak digs at the archaeological site of Tanis in Egypt, where a team is investigating a potential structure identified from satellite imagery. Parcak is creating a platform to crowdsource the work of locating potential sites. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak)

The Fellowship

Digs are, essentially, compressed time. In an office, you might spend 10 to 12 hours a day with your co-workers, but you’re working at your computer and focusing on different tasks. On a dig, you’re with people the entire day, working intensely as a group. Kind of like a fellowship of hobbits and their pals putting in some long and intense hours of adventure.

You end up getting to know each other really well, really quickly, and conversations at meals go far beyond small talk. It creates an esprit de corps. The rule for me, when picking people for excavations, is: no jerks. More often than not, we’re working in the middle of nowhere, and the conditions are rough. We all miss our families; we’ve all made sacrifices to be there. You need people who can put their best foot forward and contribute positively. 

I can’t reveal what we found at Point Rosee this summer, but I can share just how beautiful the walk from the site was each day. I will never forget strolling along the ocean, knowing that I had put in a good day’s work with an incredible team, and seeing seals playing and the way the light hit the water. It was stunning on all levels.

But dig days are tiring. I would get back to the hotel and pass out. You need a good night’s sleep—just like Bilbo Baggins.

And for the record, after the season is over, I always miss second breakfast.

Satellite archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Sarah Parcak is the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. She’s using the $1 million prize to build GlobalXplorer, a citizen science platform to allow people all over the world to join the search for ancient sites. The platform will launch early in 2017 and, as she builds it, Parcak is bringing Explorers Journal along for the journey. Sign up for updates and get early access.


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Meet the Author

Sarah Parcak
Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, National Geographic Fellow, and the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. With this one-million-dollar prize, she’s building a citizen science platform that will allow anyone, anywhere, to join in the search for and protection of ancient sites by analyzing satellite images and detecting new sites as well as the tell-tale pits and marks of looting.