Archaeological Digs

Travel Channel has selected some excavations in North and South America where travelers can literally dig in.
By: Matt Villano

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Photo by: Crow Canyon

Crow Canyon

In the fictional world of Indiana Jones, archaeology is a heart-pumping profession that leads adventurers from temples of doom to the lost ark. While real-life excavations don't typically involve hunts for the Holy Grail, they do allow history enthusiasts the chance to dig in the dirt for ancient and fragile clues to the past. The sometimes grueling and always fascinating work plays out like a mystery unfolding. Here, Travel Channel has selected some excavations in North and South America where travelers can literally dig in.

The San Juan Mountains of the southwestern US were a major center of Pueblo culture between 850 and 1250. Today, the area has one of the densest concentrations of well-preserved archaeological sites in the world, and visitors to the 170-acre, nonprofit Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, can get an inside look at the past.

Most visits to the site involve a dig at Goodman Point Pueblo, once a large village that served as the focal point of an extensive community during the mid- to late-1200s. Guests first meet the project director for instruction, then roll up their sleeves and hit the dirt, carefully using trowels to peck at the ground in designated meter-by-meter units.

The primary Goodman project ended in fall 2007, but new excavations at surrounding sites including habitations, ancient roadways and fields are scheduled. Other Crow Canyon programs allow visitors to shadow researchers in the lab as they use chemicals to analyze artifacts freshly pulled from the ground.

For overnight visitors, lodging is on-site in shared Navajo-style log cabins called "hogans." Day visitors will fare best staying an hour's drive east near Mesa Verde National Park, where the quiet and sophisticated Far View Lodge offers first-class accommodations.

The Presidio
San Francisco, California

Situated on bluffs overlooking San Francisco's historic Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio was the longest continuously operated military base in the country, in effect from 1846 to 1995. But before that -- dating back to 1776 -- the site was a Spanish fort.

Today, under the direction of the National Park Service, volunteers can help archaeologists dig up the Presidio's past through a program called Levantar. The program, which means "to awaken" in Spanish, operates year-round.

During the school year, many volunteers are kids; local schools bring them to enjoy hands-on activities like excavation and sorting artifacts in the Presidio Archaeology Lab. Adult volunteers are welcome too -- especially during the annual Pasados del Presidio festival in June, when experts train visitors how to recover historical objects from the earth, how to manage a series of artifacts and how to conserve them.

Lodging options around the Presidio are plentiful, but the Cow Hollow Motor Inn is within walking distance. After a day in the dirt, check in to clean up and refuel at a16, one of the Marina district's top-rated Italian restaurants.

Technically speaking, because researchers at this tiny northwest Montana museum are hunting for evidence of ancient dinosaurs and not humans, the digs are paleontology, not archaeology. Still, the fieldwork provides a great glimpse of what it's like to work in the dirt. And visitors can do it all themselves.

Day-long excavations take place in an area known as Two Medicine Formation, a short drive from the modest Dinosaur Center on Highway 89 in Bynum. After a brief safety lecture, researchers team up with visitors, hand over the trowels and let guests dig away.

Over the years, some of these amateurs have hit the proverbial jackpot. Since the center was founded in 1995, visitor discoveries have composed more than 90% of the significant fossils documented. Many of these finds have gone on to appear in articles researchers have published in journals.

Because Bynum only has a population of 20, Dinosaur Center visitors are best off staying near Choteau, roughly 15 miles down the road. The largest motel in Choteau is the Stage Stop Inn.

Cuzco, Peru

No list of archaeology experiences is complete without at least one project in archaeology heaven: Peru. There, laypeople can take part in excavations at a site called Cotocotuyoc, near the Andean city of Cuzco. Though this area is regarded as Inca country, the site belonged to the Wari Empire, which pre-dated the Inca by a few hundred years.

Work at Cotocotuyoc is ongoing, but visitors can join researchers Julie Anne White and Dr. Mary Glowacki through an organization named Earthwatch Institute. The organization runs 4 trips each summer that last 14 days and 13 nights.

In the field, local residents who are adjusted to the altitude (11,000 feet), do most of the digging, but guests help trowel the soil and record artifacts as they are recovered. Depending on the number of artifacts excavated, visitors also may work a few hours each afternoon in the laboratory helping to mark, sort, classify, sketch and photograph the finds.

All Earthwatch guests stay at a comfortable hostel in Cuzco, which is about a 50-minute bus ride away. For visitors who wish to extend their stay and venture on to Machu Picchu, the finest hotel in the city is the Hotel Monasterio.

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