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UCLA

Studying Abroad, Indiana Jones-Style

Would-be archaeologists are joining UCLA field digs from Albania to Peru in this unusual summer-abroad program.

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By Alison Hewitt

Published Jun 30, 2008 12:09 PM


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Student Erika Brant in Chile during some down time from digging

Erika Brant '07 never digs up any Chilean mummies without first asking permission from the earth with an offering of wine — or maybe soda. The pago ritual is one of the local customs the anthropology graduate learned on a summer dig sponsored by UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

"The experiences there are nothing like what you get in the classroom," Brant recalled. She spent the summers of '06 and '07 mapping old dwellings and rappelling down cliffs with "delicate brushes" to excavate mummies in the Tarapaca Valley, one of Chile's archaeologically richest areas.

Brant was one of the first students to experience the education-oriented immersion that Cotsen is now expanding to more than a dozen field programs in places like Albania, Peru, Egypt and even San Bernardino. Students and field directors will post dispatches at the blog Summer Digs in July.

While sending college students to join archaeological expeditions is nothing new, Cotsen is teaming up with UCLA's study abroad office to take it to a new level, explained UCLA archaeology Professor Ran Boytner.

"In most field schools, students aren't being treated well," Boytner said. "They're being treated as inexpensive labor, and there isn't really any training." Students leave those digs discouraged, feeling used, without learning proper techniques or even much about the site. That means fewer students became archaeologists — and even fewer become donors, he said.

Turning "cheap labor" into archaeologists

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Professor Ran Boytner with students in Chile

Boytner, co-director of the Chile dig, used the Tarapaca Valley project as a pilot program. A packed schedule of field work and classes gives students a crash-course in the historical significance of the dig site, how and why to use different archaeological techniques, and instruction on lab work and complex field equipment. Working side by side with local archaeologists also exposes students to regional customs, like the pago.

Although this is the first year of the project, Cotsen and UCLA's International Education Office already have 14 locations and more than 130 students, including dozens of students from other universities.

"We thought we would have mostly UCLA students, but because no other university is offering something as serious as this, students are coming from all over the world," Boytner said. "We are sending students into these immersion programs where we put students front and center. It is our job to prepare the next generation of scholars, and more importantly, philo-archaeologists — people who like archaeology."

Mummies and llamas

It's a grueling schedule: field work from dawn until lunch, lab work until dinner, and then class until bedtime, Lori Faber '07 recalled — fondly. "Hard work has never been so much fun," she said. The anthropology major joined the dig to understand her "intense" archaeology classmates and came back a convert. She excavated mummies and painstakingly sifted through layers of dirt to uncover the history of Tarapaca.

"It was very cool to see how much things can change when you're only digging 3 centimeters at a time," Faber said. "Ten centimeters could represent 100 years."

She could detect different floors being laid down through the years, and learned that a layer of ash could indicate a long-used fire pit, and a change in density could mark the location of a wooden post. And then there was what appeared to have been a stable.

"We found a whole lot of llama feces," Faber said, laughing. "Just bucket after bucket." She preferred the mummies.

Cotsen's coordination with study abroad formalizes the application process, so joining a dig isn't just a matter of knowing the right professor. There are other benefits, too, explained Kathleen Micham, communications manager with the International Education Office. "Now, they won't just dig — they'll also learn. And we make sure that all the practicalities are covered: The students are insured. Transportation is arranged."

Pago and the global community

The Summer Digs blog

Want to hear more about what it's like to join an archaeological dig? Then check out the Summer Digs blog, where students and field directors post their impressions of this summer's digs.

For Brant, her two summers in Chile were life-changing. She's on her way to a master's in anthropology — with an emphasis in archaeology, of course — at Cal State Northridge. For her, the pago, or "paying back," ceremony was symbolic of a deeper lesson.

"We really learned what our responsibilities were as members of a global community. Pago is about reciprocity," Brant said. "The land is letting us open it up and it's giving to us, so it's our responsibility to pay it back.

"It's traditionally done with a libation — wine or beer; we did it with soda," Brant said. "But it's more about the action than what you give. For archaeologists or for agriculture, they give to the earth and the earth gives back."

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