After retiring from The Wall Street Journal, Mike Malloy fulfilled his desire to work on an archaeological dig.
I decided that everything would be different when I retired.
I was only 61 and loved my work as a journalist. But now I wanted to work outdoors instead of indoors, to do physical work instead of just mental. I would work with my hands, yes, but at something that would also stimulate my brain.
So I spent 10 summers working as a volunteer on archeological digs.
Mostly, I have dug in Jordan in the Middle East. But archeology also has taken me to Yemen, British Columbia, a survey in China and my home province of Ontario. Each site presents new challenges and a chance to make new friends.
A bonus: each summer I sweat off 10 to 15 pounds of excess weight.
It’s not exactly what you see on television. Yes, you do scrape carefully with a trowel and work cautiously with a brush. But you may also use a shovel, push a wheelbarrow and spend hours shaking dirt through a sieve to find that last little piece of pottery or, with luck, a Roman coin.
When the ground is hard, you may use a pickaxe. In the woods, you’ll need a saw and an axe to chop through roots. On a tumbled ruin, you’ll have to shift heavy boulders. If they’re too big to move, then a sledge hammer will make them smaller!
Another thing you don’t see on TV is the paperwork. Archeologists dig for information about the past, not just artifacts. But they destroy this information when they turn an archeological site into a hole in the ground. So they save it by recording everything from the colour of soil layers to the locations of animal bones.
In Jordan, for instance, we wrote daily logs, weekly reports and biweekly reports. We drew horizontal maps and vertical diagrams. And we had pink, blue, green and yellow forms to fill out. Real archeologists wonder why Indiana Jones never seems to fill out a locus sheet or draw a top plan.
Every dig is different, but most have one thing in common: the diggers are hot and short of sleep. Most excavations are sponsored by universities, so they happen in the summer when regular classes are over. The best way to beat midsummer heat is to start work at sunrise or a little earlier. In many digs, you get up in the dark, breakfast in the dark and head for the site while the stars are still fading.
The hard work is balanced by fellowship with people you would not otherwise meet and adventures you would not otherwise have.
On my first day in Yemen, I met a young man who pointed a finger at his forehead, like a pistol, and exclaimed: “Marib, BANG!” He was commenting on my plan to leave the next day for the Marib district to help excavate a ruin that many Yemenis believe is the sanctuary of the biblical Queen of Sheba.
Yemen is a rugged country, still given to blood feuds. Marib is considered the Wild West of Yemen. The tribal sheik who lived nearest to our dig kept a cannon in his yard. Our Arab labourers all carried submachine guns or rifles to work each morning. The Queen of Sheba’s sanctuary is locally famous, so we sometimes played host to busloads of teenagers on school excursions. Even some schoolboys carried guns!
Travel in Yemen meant first gathering up our escort of 15 soldiers and a truck-mounted machine gun. Then it was off to the qat market so the drivers and soldiers could bargain long and hard for a stash of the mildly narcotic qat leaves that Yemenis love to chew. Then to a store for bottled water because you need plenty of water to moisten a cheekful of qat. Then stop at a gas station because nobody remembered to fill up in advance. And soon there’s a toilet stop in the middle of nowhere. Because of all that water, you see. Needless to say, we didn’t travel very much.
On the coast of British Columbia, we lived on an island and went to work by boat. Every day, we humped our gear over mudflats and stranded logs because of tides of up to 20 feet high. Eagles watched our work, and ravens tried to steal our lunch. This watery archeology disproved the rule about summer heat. I wore sea boots and oil skins to work and, on Canada Day, I bought a toque and a set of Stanfield’s long johns.
Transport in Jordan was more conventional: Land Rovers, pickup trucks or an old school bus to the stone-walled Iron Age town we were excavating. One summer, we also hired a donkey to carry our tools while I wandered the hills with a physical anthropologist in search of ancient graves. That’s when I learned that the unsentimental Bedouin don’t name their donkeys. So we named ours Alberta.
There was mystery that summer. We found dozens of graves that had apparently been looted, empty pits flanked by piles of excavated dirt. But hardly any bones remained in the graves, and digging through the dirt piles didn’t turn up many either. Whatever happened to all the human bones? We did find one nearly complete skeleton, but it hadn’t been buried at all, just shoved under a rock ledge. An ancient murder?
Human remains frequently turn up in archeological digs. In North America, they can bring excavation to a halt because of all the legal problems they create. Everywhere, they need to be treated with respect — no nicknames! Some create a wave of emotion, as when I unexpectedly found the toe bones of an infant in the soil that I was sieving.
Volunteering can bring a wealth of broadening experiences: drinking tea in a Bedouin tent; chatting through a screen with a veiled woman; discussing the finer points of Russian-made weaponry with a Yemeni tribesman. And, finally, there is socializing under the stars with colleagues like Michael from Nigeria, Ivette from Mexico, Margreet from the Netherlands and other new friends from around the world. This can get rather lively. Some say the difference between archeology and anthropology is that archeologists drink more beer.
Archeology has been everything I hoped it would be: full of interest, healthy exercise and friendship. I would recommend it to anyone in reasonably good health.
Have fun, make friends, lose weight!