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To Dig or Not to Dig: Archaeology Vacations

Tour a site—or really dig it.

HELEN ALEXANDER WAS 45 the first time she flew to Honduras in Central America. After settling in at the Hotel Los Gemelos in Copán she walked down to an archaeological dig site and reported to Dr. William Fash, an anthropologist leading the Copán Mosaic Project. For the next 12 days Alexander, now 64 and a former NRTA staff member, fingered through stone fragments that had fallen off the 1,000-year-old, elaborately carved Mayan buildings. She sorted and catalogued each tiny piece, recorded its condition, then snapped its picture and placed it in storage.

Sound like a fun vacation? Alexander loved it so much that she returned the following year. In her spare time she now studies Mayan hieroglyphics. She's even published papers on Copán mosaics and related archaeological work.

While not everyone has Alexander's level of passion, more and more senior teachers are taking a closer view of archaeology. Like Alexander, many taught or still teach the subject, and they've grown eager to get their hands dirty on archaeological digs. Others prefer to stay clean but want to tour the ancient sites they have described to their students over the years. "Pictures in publications don't give you a feel for what the Parthenon really looked like and what went on there," says Anne Burson-Tolpin. An instructor at a small New Jersey college, Burson-Tolpin is now a veteran of three tours, in Greece and the Mediterranean.

The Right Tour for You. Archaeological tours come in all price ranges, from $995 for Caravan Tours' 8-day tour of "Mexico's Ancient and Colonial Cities" to private jet tours for 8 to 14 people hosted by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), which cost somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000 per person. On one such tour, called Human Origins, the group explored the so-called Cradle of Humanity with Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist who in 1974 uncovered 3.18-million-year-old Lucy in Ethiopia.

Even the humblest AIA tour has an archaeologist along at all times, as well as a tour manager who makes sure the buses are on time, the hotels are clean, and the food is ready and edible. "Our philosophy is that we want people to learn something and be happy and well fed and sleep well," says Nancy Wilkie, president of the AIA for 4 years and a faculty member at Minnesota's Carleton College. "We're a liberal arts college, and I teach 18- to 21-year old students. It's fun to teach adults."

A Fitness Bonus. Along with education, the tours provide a nice workout: You can't inspect ruins close-up if you don't get off the bus. "At Delphi I didn't realize it was such a steep hill," Burson-Tolpin says. "It was very good exercise." Of course she also came away with further insight into the Oracle, that ancient Greek prognosticator who would offer enigmatic answers to visitors' questions about future events. "I had no understanding that there was such a major complex there," she says. "But there were the people hearing the Oracle, giving her all the gifts including buildings presented by Greek city-states. The tour started giving you a better understanding of what ancient Greece was all about. It made history come alive."

Archaeo-tourism can have downsides. "You can learn a lot from the guides that you might miss if you're going on your own, but you also experience what it's like to be a sheep," says Burson-Tolpin. "There's a lot of 'hurry up' while you're at a site, then ride the bus for a few hours, then 'hurry up' while you're at the next place," she says.

Too, there's plenty of political tension worldwide. When one group was arranging a tour to Algeria—one of the world's most dangerous countries, according to the State Department—it had to take on a police escort, at the U.S. government's request. Conditions are less erratic in the U.S., where there are plenty of world-class sites: cliff dwellings in the southwest, battlefields such as Gettysburg in the east, and Little Bighorn in the north.

Signing Up for a Dig. If archaeological tours seem a bit passive, you may, like Helen Alexander, want to get your hands dirty (no easy task, since you're likely to be wearing rubber surgical gloves). The AIA publishes the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin, in which excavation directors list openings on their crews. You can buy the bulletin from the AIA or look for field opportunities online. Wilkie cautions that signing up for international digs can be difficult. "Countries have so many restrictions about who can be on a project," she says. "In Greece, where I worked, you have to hand in names 18 months ahead of time."

Participating in a dig at a U.S. site such as the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, which is dedicated to preserving the rich history of the Pueblo (Anasazi) Indians in southwestern Colorado, is much simpler. You can sign up online for any of the week-long digs held year-round. After attending an introductory lecture called Inquiries into the Past, the novice archaeologists are led to the site by staff archaeologists, shown the ropes, and handed a trowel. Then they dig in. "People will find anything from pottery shards to intact pots and tools," says Joyce Alexander (no relation to Helen), the center's production and publicity coordinator. The staff watches the novices, answers questions, tells them what to look for, and makes sure they don't destroy anything. "People just love it," says Alexander. "We've got some who come back year after year. One guy here last week from Tennessee said, 'I waited for this 365 days.' It's their big trip."

Take that, Club Med.

Phil Scott is author of Hemingway's Hurricane: The Great Florida Keys Storm of 1935, and a regular contributor to NRTA Live & Learn. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Summer 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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