Digging Up Britain: Archaeology Volunteers Can Help Uncover History

Visit Britain

Researchers’ recent confirmation that a body long hidden under a municipal parking lot is King Richard III will no doubt stir interest in British archaeology — as it should. While X never marks the spot and you’re unlikely to unearth an undiscovered king, Britain’s long history means that almost anywhere you plant a shovel, there’s history to be found.

From Iron Age forts to Victorian gardens, hundreds of archaeological digs are happening in Britain at any given time – and many of them welcome volunteer diggers to help uncover the past. Instead of just visiting Britain’s ancient churches, villages and stone circles, you could be part of the teams that are discovering new sites and artifacts every day. Just get ready for a little hard work.

“I was drawing and plotting levels, digging in a trench with a trowel and even helping to sort finds,” says Bill Claire, an art teacher from Massachusetts who joined an Earthwatch expedition to the medieval Carew Castle in Wales. “With my art background, I was tasked with sketching ruins and drawing finds. It was an incredibly rewarding experience.”

Even high-profile digs like the recent discovery of King Richard III’s body in Leicester, a medium-sized city north of London, rely on student archaeologists for labor. Often, they also rely on funds from volunteers who pay for the experience. That means you can be right there in the trenches when big finds happen.

As a professional archaeologist for the Museum of London, Alex Brett supervised amateur diggers on many major projects, such as an excavation at a Roman temple in Surrey that uncovered a golden scepter. “Volunteers have fun but they do real work,” he says. “At one dig, they did a complete stone-for-stone drawing of a castle, as a result of which the history of the building was re-written. It’s pretty cool.”

If you’d like to spend your vacations getting your hands dirty, meeting new people and possibly becoming part of history, here are some organizations that can help you:

The National Trust This nationwide non-profit that works to preserve and protect historic places and spaces offers “working holidays” giving you behind-the-scenes access to its sites. Archaeology-themed vacations include repairing ancient Welsh sheepfolds and helping to restore sections of the famous Roman Hadrian’s Wall.

The Council for British Archaeology This is a fantastic place to start, with links to dozens of regional groups and commercial archaeological companies who are looking for volunteers. The council also throws an annual Festival of British Archaeology every July.

English Heritage The organization that protects sites like Stonehenge encourages visitors to get involved in its work and has lots of volunteering opportunities.

The Museum of London Like many British museums and universities, the Museum of London has work-experience placements for students or anyone considering a career in archaeology.

Earthwatch This conservation-focused international nonprofit offers a huge range of working vacations all around the world, including Britain.

By Mark Harris

Top: Dr. Jo Appleby speaks during a press conference at University of Leicester as archaeologists announce that human remains found in Leicester are those of King Richard III. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Middle: In 2009, the actor Sir Ian McKellen visited a site uncovered by the Museum of London and believed to be London's first purpose-built playhouse. Shakespeare wrote for and performed at the theater. (Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images)

Lower: A stone marker in Market Bosworth, England shows where King Richard III was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. It is near Leicester, where his body was recently found. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

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