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Thread: Number of people at an archaeological dig

  1. #1
    Lady of Masks Raunchel's Avatar
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    Number of people at an archaeological dig

    This is something that comes up in planning my novel, and I'm wondering how many people there would generally be at a relatively well-funded excavation at a cave system where upper paleolithic traces have been found, and it's suspected that there might also be more deeper in, but that will require some digging. I'm really wondering how many people would be present at such a place in the summer.

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW Tazlima's Avatar
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    I participated in some archaeological digging in my student days, but it was nothing as fancy as what you're describing. I don't know, therefore, if this will be helpful, but I'll recount what I remember.

    I grew up near the Garden Canyon dig site in Arizona. My high school history teacher was super into archaeology and had a standing invitation to all his students to participate at the dig site. I spent many weekends manning a sifter, picking through the pebbles and twigs in search of an elusive bead or piece of ceramic or bone. (Interesting fact: Bone can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from rock just by looking, so we'd lick our finds to test them. Rock is smooth, while the tongue will drag across old bone).

    The dig was only open on weekends. Apart from the people who ran the thing, everybody working there was a volunteer. On a given weekend, there would usually be between 10-15 people on the site, mostly adults and two or three of us teenage whippersnappers.

    My other archaeological "dig" was for a college class and was more "field trip" than serious dig. We went to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. However, as we were tromping out to the dig site, the teacher spotted some morel mushrooms sprouted under a tree. She got really excited and explained how rare and delicious they were, so we skived off digging and spent the entire day wandering through the woods in search of mushrooms. The teacher took our harvest home, cooked them, and brought them to the next class for everyone to eat. They were delicious.

    Oh... there were about eight of us on that trip.
    Last edited by Tazlima; 07-14-2017 at 10:19 PM.
    "One of the hardest things to do, I think, is learn to trust your own creativity." - Ambrosia

  3. #3
    Rewriting My Destiny Cyia's Avatar
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    You can find some dig site videos on YouTube. That might give you a better visual to map your dig.

  4. #4
    Lady of Masks Raunchel's Avatar
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    Thanks a lot! It's really helpful. I'll definitely take a look on YouTube too!

  5. #5
    Who's going for a beer? waylander's Avatar
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    See if you can find some Time Team episodes on YouTube

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW Twick's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by waylander View Post
    See if you can find some Time Team episodes on YouTube
    Great minds think alike! Although Time Team, being funded unconventionally and working short-term, wouldn't be a perfect simulation.

    I would say that you should consider (1) funding - if the team is funded by a university or by grants, it's probably cash-strapped and won't have a huge number of paid professionals. On the other hand, if it's funded by a shadowy organization out to find the Orb of World Domination rumoured to be buried at the site, they may have a lot more resources for hiring. (2) Significance of the find - The discovery of Nefertiti's tomb would probably have more people on site than a single paleolithic campsite discovered during excavation for a new highway bypass. (3) What exactly are they doing? If it's a small site and people are sifting earth and using dental picks, you probably don't *want* tons of people there to get in the way. If you're mapping out a newly discovered jungle city, the more the merrier. If you need earthmoving equipment, factor those people in. Are you doing conservation at the site, or back in a lab? How many different types of experts would you need for the type of information you're researching? Someone skilled in id'ing pottery might need help from someone who does paleolimnology.

    From what I've read, you're going to need a leader of the dig, a handful of experts working under them, and then the people to do the drudgery of digging/conserving/cataloguing. These may not be paid positions, but done by volunteers or students, or else local people might be hired on (as in the classic Egyptian diggers who have moved tons of desert soil for archaeologists). If you're very far from civilization, you'll need some guides, and a transport chain for supplies.

    All told I'd say you could go from about half a dozen for a small location to fifty or sixty for really big sites, depending on exactly what you're studying. Plus support staff back at the base, whatever it is.

  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW talktidy's Avatar
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    Well my niece worked on a site on her own.

    This was on a mountaintop in Wales, somewhere in the vicinity of Merthyr Tydfil, if I recall correctly. A company was open cast mining in the vicinity and I believe my niece's job was to record the present status of the site and ensure the mining operation didn't encroach.

  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    If it's in a cave though, it's different.

    Those can be very, very controlled and with very few people allowed. There's a documentary on the Lascaux discovery, that addresses how they handled the science of it, iirc. In a cave is different.

  9. #9
    Benefactor Member WeaselFire's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Raunchel View Post
    I'm really wondering how many people would be present at such a place in the summer.
    Anywhere from none to many.

    Okay, there are too many factors to give you a solid number, or even a decent range. Almost every dig has the primary researchers, the local labor force and a bunch of students or volunteers. The primary staff, paid by the funding, are usually just a few, probably no more than five. The students are usually grad students, and again, not a huge number. The volunteers depends on what it is, where it is and how much "fun" it would be, maybe another half dozen with a weekend surge to double that. The local labor is paid, usually as needed, and does the digging, hauling, clearing, etc. chores. Could be none to fifty depending on the stage the dig is at. You could have a cook or support staff as well.

    There may be at times, and usually are, some government officials and, many times, tomb raiders working the fringes and stealing artifacts. Depending on the area, you could have a military platoon guarding the site.

    Your cave system adds challenges, might be a few cave specialists and the primary researchers and students, but likely no, or few, volunteers. Especially if there's underwater work, though that would add tenders and other staff. Cave work is almost always specialized and small groups.

    Do some reading and watching and see what shows up that fits your novel.

    Jeff

  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW neandermagnon's Avatar
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    On what continent? An African upper palaeolithic site dated to 70,000 years ago is going to generate way more interest (and therefore more important scientists, more high tech equipment, much more funding, etc) than a European upper palaeolithic site dated to 35,000 years ago. (Due to historical racial bias, there's a ton of info already on Europe but a comparative lack of data in Africa and Asia, especially regarding our more recent evolutionary past, i.e. the last few hundred thousand years. Additionally, Africa is where most of human evolution took place so is naturally going to be where most of the important discoveries are made.)

    What species of human? A 35,000 year old Neandertal site with upper palaeolithic tools and no evidence of Homo sapiens would generate a lot more interest than a 35,000 year old European Homo sapiens site with a typical array of upper palaoelithic tools. A previously unknown species of human (much more likely to be found in Asia or Africa) with upper palaeolithic tools would generate massive amounts of interest (scientists, technology, funding, etc) and the highest level of scientific study.

    That doesn't mean that Homo sapiens sites from Europe 35,000 years ago or more recently aren't going to be considered important. They'd get at least the same level of care and scrutiny as, say, neolithic sites or Roman sites - more if there's anything new or special about the site. Trained people would be carefully excavating and cataloging everything that's found and there would be researchers studying what's found.

    So the answer depends on all those things.

    ETA: bear in mind that my frame of reference is from 7 million years ago to around 35,000 years ago and I'm talking comparative importance. All sites that ancient would be considered important. Just that there's a load of ways sites can be massively more important. Importance is relative to funding which means more people and more high tech equipment. There are devices that can be used to scan the ground and find what's buried in it before excavating anything. These have been used in various sites in Africa, e.g. sites with species dated to around 2-3 million years ago (emergence of the genus Homo) or around 4-7 million years ago (earliest hominins/when our lineage split from that of chimps). Most sites won't get the funding for that kind of thing. Bear this in mind in relation to my comments about importance.

    ETA#2: there's a cave in Africa (I think the Rising Star cave system?) where they specifically recruited petite women for one part of the excavation as it required crawling into some tiny spaces. They would've had high tech equipment on such an excavation, and I think they already knew the stuff would be there. I don't have the details but it would be one to look into for your story research, as long as the importance of the find is relative to the amount of funding.
    Last edited by neandermagnon; 07-16-2017 at 02:45 PM.
    my blog - cave people and stuff - an imaginative look at palaeolithic life: http://cavepeopleandstuff.wordpress.com/

  11. #11
    Swan in Process Siri Kirpal's Avatar
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    Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

    How tight is your cave? I read an article where the main researcher advertised for skinny assistants with the appropriate credentials and spelunking skills. (Hope I spelled that right.) He hired three young women, IIRC.

    Blessings,

    Siri Kirpal
    "The only freedom any of us ever has is the freedom to choose how we will not be free."

  12. #12
    practical experience, FTW Twick's Avatar
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    That's something to consider - if this cave has a lot of small passageways, twists, etc. they probably wouldn't want a lot of people going in deep at one time. You don't want to end the day going "Wait - where's Gail? She came out of her section, right? Hey, anyone seen Gail?"

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