How to go on an archaeological dig: Be patient – it’s not all Indiana Jones

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

There’s gold in them there hills, as well as brass, bones, sticks and ceramics. How do you get to dig in?

I read about the recent finds on that motorway in Cork. Do I just turn up with a spade?

You mean the M28? All major projects require an archaeological survey, and Rubicon Heritage Services has been doing the honours on this one since 2022. Among its finds is evidence of a house that’s 1,000 years older than the pyramids. With heritage that valuable you need to be part of a team that knows what they are doing.

But I’m just an enthusiastic amateur

Christopher Read, who teaches archaeology at Atlantic Technological University in Sligo, says that “Ireland has a ridiculous amount of archaeology, in terms of sites and visible monuments. The commercial sector is by far the biggest employer of archaeologists”. Students look at prehistory and history but, he continues, “excavating is a craft, it’s a set of skills, and you can only teach someone how to dig on an excavation”.

So do I need a degree?

A bit of background helps, but Read says that “you don’t have to be an expert to be able to learn how to identify features and artefacts. If you’re shown how to do things properly, you can learn how to excavate”. He breaks excavations down into three types. The first is commercial projects, where you are very unlikely to be able to join without qualifications. Then there are research excavations, which “typically happen during the summer months, and have students on site”. These include field schools, usually run by universities. Primarily aimed at students, some will charge a fee for participation, though you will be learning from accredited experts. You can find a list of third level colleges at


I’m still waiting for the amateur information

We’re getting there. The final category is community archaeology, which is thriving in Ireland. “These might not all involve excavation,” Read explains, but you can still do intriguing things like field surveys, research and recording. Many local authorities run community archaeology projects in partnership with the Heritage Council, whose downloadable Guidance for Community Archaeology Projects, part of the Adopt a Monument scheme, is available on its website. Including a list of local-authority contacts, it is chock-full of information about how to get involved as an individual or group.

Do I need any particular skills?

“Field work is pretty physically demanding,” Read says. “People imagine archaeologists with their little brushes, but you have to do some real digging. And you have to be curious and interested. That’s the real thing: you have to have patience. It’s not all flashy gold artefacts.”

That sounds like me. So what next?

Neil Jackman of Abarta Heritage, which works with the Heritage Council on the Adopt a Monument scheme, says there are lots of opportunities to get involved. He recommends following social media feeds for archaeology departments, as well as local authority-led projects; he gives the example of Gallowshill in Dungarvan, where a local group worked with Abarta and the Heritage Council. They raised money to employ an archaeologist to lead an excavation, which they then participated in. You can find details of this, and of other projects, on the Abarta website.

Next stop gold torcs?

Not quite. “Archaeology is a funny one,” says Jackman. “It doesn’t always give you a straight answer. Sometimes it just gives you better questions. And while not everyone can manage a dig, there’s a lot they can contribute in terms of helping with research and understanding. It also connects with folklore, and wildlife. It’s a very broad church.” Dip a toe in by joining Tuatha, where you’ll find articles, days out, itineraries and online courses for €120 a year.

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture