“The Dig”

By: Gabby Richardson

In July of 2018, I was lucky enough to participate in an archaeological dig with ArchaeoSpain. It took place in the small town of Zorita de los Canes, home to only 90 people. So what drew in a crew of 9 volunteer archaeology students? The medieval structure, sitting atop this small town, the most beautiful and prominent marker of its existence – Zorita Castle! It’s full of history, wonder and discovery, virtually unknown to much of the world. This is where we spent three weeks of a hot July summer digging up Calatrava Knights in the cemetery of the castle’s San Benito Church. 

As an aspiring archaeologist, this was the experience and a trip of a lifetime! I had the too well known stereotypical ‘Indiana Jones’ archaeologist look – the khaki shorts, white t-shirt, boots (my trusted Blundstones) the oval round sunglasses and the eggshell coloured sunhat. I definitely dressed for the part. 

Gabby Richardson digging in “The Room”

Though I found archaeology mysterious, endearing and to say the least “exciting” before the dig, I can honestly say the same holds true today. This experience fueled my passion for archaeology. However, I did learn some important lessons along the way.

For starters, you won’t necessarily find something right away. Although many are aware of this digging reality, and I had this idea in mind while entering the field, it feels a lot different once you are sitting on a 14th-15th century gypsum floor with a pickaxe in 30*C Spanish heat… hoping to find, something- anything. This was my situation in “The Room” of Zorita Castle’s cemetery. Though for the first few days I was most excited about the ceramic and bone fragments found, and hopeful that a full skeleton would magically appear as I dug deeper (spoiler alert: it did for my teammates two weeks later), I came to the realization that not all parts of archaeology will be about finding artifacts and bones. Understanding the structure, materials used, building methods and how they changed over centuries are also important contributions to the historical accounts of a site. 

On this dig, I was also introduced to the technicalities and methods of archaeology for the first time (like many of my fellow teammates). We learned how to write field notes, and after a few daily briefings at the dining room table in the evening we realized that absolutely everything you see, feel and find should be recorded as soon as it happens. It will save you from awkwardly forgetting to mention something/ not having enough to say at the post dig briefing. Plus, even though you tell yourself, “I’ll add that to my notes later”, everything is super fuzzy after having that 2 hour siesta. 

Learning to measure out a site was very interesting. Not only did this involve measuring lengths and widths, but we also learned how to take the zero point measure and use something as peculiar as a “plumb bob”. All of this information had to be recorded accurately enough to draw a map of the site. This ‘mapping’ both in the field and on paper throughout the dig took some practice. Once our drawings and notes earned our site director’s approval, we felt quite accomplished. However, I have to say- the drone photography and 3D print our team was shown towards the end of the dig beats any sketch we did!

Drone shots of Zorita Castle grounds featuring a 3D printed model of the castle

In terms of actually dealing with human remains, there were a lot of moral and ethical concerns that came to mind while pulling out a 12th century Knight’s tibia from what was supposed to be his eternal resting place. After a while, and perhaps the setting of being in the field contributes to this – the bones were not really treated and thought of as delicate human remains, but like any other artifact or cool thing we were discovering. While we  were digging, there wasn’t a super strong feeling consistently throughout excavations that these were REAL bodies, REAL productive entities, REAL people, human beings. In fact, I don’t think the whole thing creeped us out (maybe it creeps you out). Even though we were fascinated by the skeletons, we tried to always be respectful and careful while removing human remains, but it wasn’t explicitly conveyed repeatedly that we should have this in mind. So I guess I realized that dealing with human remains, isn’t as scary or creepy as you would think. (My fellow dig teammate and friend Irene Galea, wrote about the ethical and moral implications of being a “grave digger”, I’ll post a link to her article when it is published.)

Archaeological sites are also often off the beaten path- some more so than others. We were lucky to be digging in Zorita de los Canes as it’s a beautiful town. Although, it’s a small town- a place where there is only one Inn, a ‘barely there’ wifi signal, no cell service (except at the top of the castle), no shopping malls, movie theatres, sources of entertainment other than the river, bar and digging – making it secluded from Spanish hustling and bustling city life. The hike to Zorita Castle is about 10 minutes, up a steep hill. No, it’s not bad in the grand scheme of things, but this trek is definitely on your mind when you want to use the bathroom and stock up on water. Just like any small Spanish town, most people only speak Spanish, shops close during siesta (shops close whenever they want) and everyone knows everyone. Also, most people have the phone number of someone who can open the shop door for you ‘after hours’ if you want to buy something. This comes in handy if you are really desperate for a bag of chips and a bottle of wine! So it’s important to note, archaeologists end up visiting different places and getting immersed right into the heart of different cultures. Therefore, they should be respectful, adaptable and open to different cultural practices, opinions and viewpoints. I believe this not only goes for any archaeologist but also any traveller. Be open, and sometimes initially, that means being comfortable with being outside of your comfort zone.

Zorita de los Canes
View of Zorita de los Canes atop Zorita Castle

Overall, I can say I made memories and friendships to last a lifetime on my first archaeological dig. Sharing the excitement of discovering something on this site never found before, coming across an ancient tomb, someone’s phalange … those are unique experiences that only those in the field will really understand. There were so many on-site jokes such as laughing at the tents our site director would attempt to construct in order to shade us, accidentally calling the ‘big pickaxe’ Pikachu (oops) and learning the difference between the American and English trowel, just to name a few. There were also the fun ‘off-site’ times like taking a dip in the freezing river Tagus after a hot day’s work, travelling to neighbouring towns, mixing up some Sangria for a Saturday night of ‘deep chats’ on the terrace and searching through CDs during ‘the party car’ ride. I think we could all write a book about our experiences, but I’ll leave it to this one post, my field report and a few photos to highlight our experience and hopefully spark your interest in our summer dig. 

Take a look at my friend and fellow teammate Elizabeth Kriebel’s “Shovel Test” blog to read more about what it was like digging in Zorita!


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