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Archaeology at Your Fingertips

Volunteering with Earthwatch in Thailand

Pot found in Thailand during Archeological dig.
The author with an entire pot found during an archeological dig in Thailand.

If you are like me, in college you jumped into your field of study and ignored those annoying “electives.” Did you later regret that you had not spent time exploring a science? It’s not too late!  You can, as a volunteer with Earthwatch.

Earthwatch, established in 1971, with offices in the U.S., the UK, Japan, and Australia annually fields over 2,000 volunteers to assist 150 researchers collect data from 50 projects around the globe. Climate change, ecosystems, oceans, and cultural heritage are the categories of projects that Earthwatch calls expeditions and they range from one to three weeks in length.

The Origins of Angkor captivated me for the following reasons: it was in Thailand, the site was rich in artifacts, it offered a hands-on experience, and a tent covered the entire pit. I could deal with the heat and humidity if I did not have to handle the sun as well.

After I paid my deposit to hold my place for a specific range of dates, I received the expedition briefing packet. The booklet was amazingly detailed - project overview, daily schedule, accommodations, research objectives, and bibliography. I had never seen such detail. I was impressed.

Origins of Angkor 

The site under excavation was the village on Bon Nan Wat near Phimai in Nakhon Rathasima province northeast of Bangkok. Ancient Phimai had been the Angkorian capital of Vimayapura and a rest stop for pilgrims from India going to Angkor in Cambodia. The village existed 3,000 years ago along canals on a flat plane. Previous fieldwork found numerous burials and artifacts, including bronze axes, bronze and shell bracelets, animal bones, and numerous clay pots. The expedition objective was to determine the genealogy of the villagers, social organization, trade and agricultural practices, and the technologies used to control water in the area.

Dr. Charles Higham, a Brit from the University of Otago in New Zealand, led the expedition with several co-investigators and graduate students. The researchers were in the field for two months and I was there during the last two weeks of February. Our team had 15 volunteers, men and women ranging from 18 to late 60’s from the US, England, Malaysia, and Japan.

Day One

After a 20 minute ride in a small truck with a covered bed and bench seating, we had a tour of the village. On the outskirts were berms forming concentric moats. They were thought to be water holding structures giving the ancient village a year round source of water and fish.

We met Dr. Higham in our field camp that included an awning-covered lunch area, the pit, several storage areas, and two squat toilet bathrooms that we shared with the villagers. He gave us an overview of his research, a tour of the pit and orientation and safety procedure during the dig. The site was a cemetery for previous villages. He stressed that while the research was done in cooperation with several universities and the Fine Arts Council of Thailand, that NO artifact would leave Thailand. All finds become the property of the Fine Arts Council. This means that researchers and graduate students complete their research based on measurements taken in the field, photos, and drawings of each artifact.

After lunch, I was handed a bag of broken bits of pottery (called sherds), a bucket of water, a plastic sieve, and a toothbrush.  The procedure was to put the sherds in the bucket, clean them with the toothbrush, and place them in the sieve to dry.  The next day, glue would be used to gently reassemble them. The writing on the bag identified the pieces to a specific burial with a unique number. My bag of sherds came from the Neolithic period, approximately 3000 years old.  Four hours on the site and I was handling an artifact! I was thrilled.

The pit was divided into 9 sections and during our two weeks, the topography of the 30X30 square changed daily. The local people were employed during the research season and did all the major digging and sifting.  Once a burial was detected, digging stopped and hand excavation began. As buckets of dirt were lifted, the dirt was shifted and artifacts returned to the pit to be catalogued. Researchers excavated and lifted all bones and major artifacts (jewelry, weapons, etc). Once the burial had been properly documented and photographed, selected volunteers would excavate individual pots.  It was uncommon for a vessel to be intact after 3,000 years, so when one did emerge unbroken as shown in the picture, it was a joy to see.

Under the awning on ground level, the lifted pots were cleaned, catalogued, and placed into an identifying bag. The dirt surrounding and inside the pot was shifted and analyzed separately for additional remains. At times, grave fill such as pig bones or shells were found.

Volunteer Life

We were housed at the Phimai Inn, a western style hotel that offered air-conditioned rooms, pool, restaurant and bar, and free computer access. Roommates were assigned, but I upgraded to a single room for an additional $6 per day.  The hotel provided Thai and western breakfasts and Thai food for lunches and dinners. The hotel was a short walk from the center of town and was directly across from the night market.  After dinner every night, there were educational presentations or videos on some aspect of the expedition or archaeology in general.

We had one full weekend day and the occasional afternoon off. While Earthwatch did not arrange specific activities, they did have suggestions for local sites and attractions that were at our own expense.

The history of this site is that last team of the year always finds something special. In 2006 it was a burial jar with the remains of an infant. I enjoyed my time so much, I went back the following February for the last dig at the site under the direction of Dr. Higham. During his seven years, his teams had uncovered 579 burials and in 2007, a super burial rich in artifacts and over 10 feet in length. He has since retired from fieldwork to complete his analysis and publish the results of Bon Nan Wat. The Origins of Angkor continues under the direction of Dr. Nigel Chang from Australia, and Earthwatch still sends volunteers. See, I told you it was not too late!

For More Information on Earthwatch

Earthwatch describes what a volunteer does on an expedition as:


  • measure
  • photograph
  • identify
  • excavate
  • document
  • explore

Why? Because

You Count... "

For a current catalogue of upcoming expeditions contact:

Earthwatch Institute offers hundreds of expenditions worldwide.

Other Archaeology Volunteer Opportunities

Adventures in Preservation

Here is an article that decribes opportunities for volunteer archeology work worldwide.

Also ask your local universities or natural history museums with archaeology programs about volunteer opportunities within the organization and on digs.


Archaeo-Volunteers 2nd Edition: The World Guide to Archaeological and Heritage Volunteering

JANE STANFIELD is the author of the book Mapping Your Volunteer Vacation. The book offers a step-by-step approach to help potential volunteers find, plan, prepare, pack, go on and return from an international volunteer vacation. See Jane Stanfield’s bio for more information.

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