How To… Pack For An Overseas Excavation

Dr Kate Global Archaeology Backpack

Yes, you really can fit pretty much everything you need for a year into two small backpacks.

Imagine you’re heading off on an international archaeological adventure. What would you take? More importantly, what would you leave behind? Globe-trotting archaeologist Dr Kate takes a break from her journey to give us her top tips for squeezing it all in.

This January, I set off on the archaeological adventure of a lifetime. I’d spent months planning my trip, which takes in 12 digs in 12 countries in 12 months. And having planned everything to the nth degree, it wasn’t long before I realised: how on EARTH was I going to fit everything I think I need into one bag?

Bear in mind the enormous range of climates, locations and archaeology I’ll be experiencing over the course of the year, and you can just imagine the scale of my problem.

I was determined not to make the same mistake I’d made on first ever dig in 2006 – the summer before completing my undergraduate degree. Back then, I was looking for adventure and wanted to find out if archaeological fieldwork was for me, but I had little experience. So, not really knowing what to expect, I played it safe and left my home in Canada dragging a GIANT suitcase behind me. Needless to say, it was a total pain in the backside.

Ten years of travel later, I’ve learned a thing or two about packing and I won’t be doing that again. For anyone thinking of heading of on an international archaeological adventure, here’s my top tips for packing not too much and not too little, but just the right amount…

1. Tools

The tools you use will vary depending on the type of archaeology you’ll be immersed in, the geology of your dig and personal preference; some like to use a hand mattock to get through tough ground, others will be happy to crack on with a trowel. But if you’re heading out as a volunteer, you probably don’t need to worry – tools should all be provided.

My advice: Unless you’re specifically told otherwise, the most you’ll need to bring is a day bag, a trowel, gardening gloves, a kneeling mat and water bottle.

2. Clothes

Sturdy boots, a rain or sun hat, weather-appropriate work clothes, and something to change into at the end of the day just about sums it up. But climate isn’t the only important thing to consider; the local standard of dress, and (most importantly) clothes that will be comfortable to work cannot be emphasised enough.

My advice: Other than that, my top tip on the clothes front is actually nothing to do with what to pack, as this video goes to show, it’s all about HOW you pack; don’t fold, roll!

3. Healthcare

Ok, this is actually very important. Sunscreen, a portable first aid kit and painkillers are imperative (whether for staving off prior injuries or an end-of-site party hangover).

My advice: Do be honest with yourself about your physical fitness and prior injuries and bring anything you might need if they flair up like medicated rubs – when you’re in a small village half way up a mountain things like this may not be so easy to get hold of.

4. Food

Unless you’ve got special dietary requirements, or have been warned that there’s a particularly dire food situation, my top tip is to embrace the local cuisine and enjoy whatever is on offer. Many digs will have an experienced cook on board, or an arrangement with a nearby restaurant. If that’s the case, the only food you need to bring is something to share with your new colleagues!

My advice: If you’re going to be working with an international crew, something particular to your own country is often a fun and widely appreciated way to break the ice.

5. Sleep

Are linens provided with your accommodation? Can you only sleep with your favourite pillow? Excavation is tiring work and a good night’s sleep makes all the difference.

My advice: If accommodation is shared and you’re a light sleeper, then bring ear plugs.

6. Entertainment

You’re about to spend a week or more in a remote (and most probably beautiful) location with a bunch of like-minded people, which means there’s always going to be something to keep you occupied in your spare time – whether that’s chatting, playing games, going to an evening talks (most digs will put on a few) or heading out to explore the area.

My advice: A sketchbook, deck of cards, a bit of music, maybe a movie or two on a USB stick, camera and book will be plenty to keep you entertained.

7. Internet

If you’re an avid Tweeter, it’s definitely worth checking out the internet situation and seeing if you can sort out some sort of bundle before you go, or where the nearest place you can do that is.

My advice: You can’t always count on the project’s own internet connection, and once you’re out in the bush, trips into town for things like this can be a long journey.

8. And last but not least…

Digging abroad isn’t just about getting close to an ancient culture; it’s about immersing yourself in a modern-day one too. The fact that you are simultaneously experiencing the past and the present is pretty unique, and the chance to eat, drink and be merry with your colleagues and people who live nearby is as much part of the deal as the digging.

Of course, every archaeology project is different in terms of climate, type of site, team dynamics and the local food and drink, but the one thing have in common is that it’s exciting no matter where you are in the world. Add to that the thrill of immersing yourself in a new culture and you bring the experience to a new level.

My advice: Above all, be prepared to have a great time!

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Kate Leonard

Written by Kate Leonard

Dr. Kate Leonard is an archaeologist who will be spending 2016 traveling around the world lending a helping hand to interesting archaeological projects. The concept is 12 countries - 12 projects - 12 months. Global Archaeology: a year of digs.

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