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Digging Up Ireland: An Archaeological Memoir

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, some memories of very old stones and bones on a dig in County Clare

My strongest memories of Ireland are not of Guinness — although I have plenty of those, notably of being chastised in a village pub for taking a sip before the bubbles quit rising — but of a place called Roughan Hill.

The first day I climbed Roughan Hill, a bit of limestone-studded farmland in County Clare, I was eager to spot antiquities.

"Where are all the wedge tombs?" I demanded.

"Right behind you," a companion laughed.

I turned, too quickly, and tumbled into the tomb, a Bronze Age monument and perhaps burial place made of massive limestone slabs. Luckily this particular tomb had collapsed over the centuries and I landed in a shallow depression, unhurt except for my dented ego.

I was with a motley crew of volunteers, students and two professional archaeologists, and our ultimate destination was something much older even than a wedge tomb. The next day, we would begin excavating a small chambered tomb that dates to between 3500 and 3000 B.C.

First, though, we had to remove a forest of hazel bushes that had grown over, around and through the pile of ancient stones. Over the course of four summer field seasons, we would work our way down, layer by shallow layer: shifting chunks of limestone by hand and by pulley, scraping dirt from between the stones, sifting the dirt and sometimes "washing" it in an antique bathtub, picking out bits of dark brown pottery, stone tools, bone fragments and, on one notable occasion, a long-buried crystal.

My specialty, it turned out, was microfauna — a fancy name for small animal bones. I couldn't tell a bit of Neolithic pottery from a chunk of petrified mud, but I could spot a tiny, fragile, bright yellow mouse bone at a hundred yards. Since most of these came from rodents that had crawled into the tomb in historic times, it wasn't a major contribution to archaeological research. Nonetheless, they had to be bagged, tagged and plotted on drawings of the square meter where they were found.

I did have occasional, modestly useful successes. One day, during a walking survey of a farmer's field, I spotted something odd-looking in a corner where two stone walls met. It turned out to be a burial cist, a type of stone-lined grave used from the Iron Age into historic times. It now has a very tiny listing in very tiny type on a very official survey of Irish antiquities.

In the dig's second season, human bones were found within the tomb. I'd put in enough time to be allowed to excavate a bit of the area. It's an odd feeling to dig up 5,000-year-old human remains — reverence and excitement offset by balancing on tiptoe in cramped positions so you don't damage the bones.

After the fourth season, the Roughan Hill tomb was rebuilt to its original appearance, as closely as could be determined. You can read a bit more about it in two popular books by Dr. Carleton Jones, the principal archaeologist who led the dig: The Burren and the Aran Islands: Exploring the Archaeology and Temples of Stone: Exploring the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland, both available through Barnes & Noble. (Despite his rather British-sounding name, Jones is an American from Long Beach who arrived at Roughan Hill via graduate study at Cambridge University. He now teaches at the National University of Ireland, Galway.)

Volunteering on a Dig

In most cases, volunteers pay at least their own expenses and in many cases a substantial contribution to help support the archaeological work. Not all digs welcome volunteers, but there are opportunities in many parts of the world.

Living conditions vary from site to site and range from tents to modest hotels. People from a wide range of ages and backgrounds volunteer; usually no special training is needed. You should be in generally good health; the amount of physical activity varies, but there's a often a lot of sitting on the ground and scraping at the dirt.

Here are some places to get information.

Archaeological Institute of America, Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin. From the publishers of Archaeology magazine. Lists volunteer opportunities and field schools.

Earthwatch. Usually some digs among their offerings, which also include a variety of environmentally oriented volunteer vacations.

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. One-week programs in Colorado are an excellent way for beginners to "try out" archaeology. There are programs for adults, teens and families.

ArchaeoSpain specializes in digs in Spain and italy.

Dixie Jordan is currently the guest editor at Piedmont Patch.

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