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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
My wip includes important scenes at an archaeological dig in Mexico. I just slammed into the hard wall of my ignorance. I know nothing about the terminology or the jargon used.

Who has worked at an archaeological site?

Do you call it a 'dig' or what?

How do workers dress? Where do they eat? Sleep? How long do they work the dig? When does the workday start? When does it end? Where is material from the dig processed? How? How is security handled? What other questions should I ask?
 

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Is it modern day? I took an archaeology & anthropology 101 class as an elective in college. I'm no expert, but I'll try to help:

Terms: Dig, excavation, dig site.
Dress: Boots, long pants, maybe shorts depending on the climate/dig site/social mores of the local culture, tshirt/camp-style shirt. A hat/baseball cap. Gloves.
Sleeping: Tent camp, or cabins, or with a host family. It really depends on the local area.
I don't know anything about security...maybe local police or military?
Material: Some of the excavated materials are processed on site, others are sent to a university lab, or a museum.
Work day is maybe sun up to sundown. Unless they have lights & a generator, then they can work through the night.

Pretty generic but I hope that helps!
 

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I can provide some limited help since I majored in anthropology in college, but cultural, not physical.

Yes, the site of excavation is referred to as a dig. The site is usually sectioned off into a grid using wood or metal stakes and string or rope. Size of the grid depends on a number of variables: dimensions of the site, size of artifacts, whether this is a second or third (or more) pass over the the site, etc. Digs are often peopled with college students (most often grad or doctoral students) with a professor or director from an archeological society, government agency, overseeing it.

You should be able to Google archeological nomenclature and find a wealth of info online.

Hope that helps.
 

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I can help!

It is, yes, a dig or a dig site. Definitely gloves. In Mexico, a sun hat, possibly sunglasses, depending. Practical clothing you can move in freely and don't mind getting dirty (because it, and you, will).

You stop digging if it rains or snows and once it starts to get too dark to see, again unless you have a generator like Allyson said. You also generally take a break for lunch and possibly for dinner. Some digs may stop at dinner time.

In general, it's up early in the morning, possibly first light, sometimes later if the days are particularly long. At most digs, you're sleeping in cabins, tents, or barracks, and eating communally in a mess tent or mess hall. Food is...whatever the cooks put together. Think of the kind of things you can make for 10, 15, 20 people easily. If you're close to a town you might go into town for dinner and/or drinks once done for the day. (And if not, believe me, there will be alcohol SOMEWHERE unless local mores would make it cause major problems).

Security may or may not exist. The dig I did there was no security, but it was in a civilized area. In Mexico - you'd have security, likely rent a cops, possibly local police moonlighting - because they do have issues down there with artifact theft and also with the drug issues.

You might work a dig for anything from a couple of weeks (usually in the case of students) to several years. Most digs do last for years, especially ones run by universities where digging may take place only during the summer (because the archaeologists are teaching the rest of the year). It's extremely tedious work (hence why I'm not an archaeologist - writing is much more fun). Some of the digging is literal and yes, the trowel is an important tool. So are brushes (for cleaning off artifacts). Sifting soil is sometimes done. The prized find is always the midden. Trust me. You want to find a rubbish dump...it tells you so much. Some artifacts are cleaned on site. Some are taken to a lab - it depends on what they're made of.

Archaeologists dispose of "loose" - waste dirt - in piles at the edge of the site. Loose is supposed to be cleaned up before lunch and again before stopping for the day - normally a signal of some kind is given.

Another note on dress. If you are working deep (in a hole that is more than about four feet deep) or going inside structures/ruins you will be wearing a construction style hard hat - hence the image you sometimes see of archaeologists wearing pith helmets. Things can and do fall on archaeologists' heads.

The dig would be overseen by an experienced person and archaeology is one of those professions where you need a PhD to be trusted with anything. Grunt work is done by three classes of people: Grad students, undergrads, and volunteers.

Note that last category. If you are really, really interested in finding out how a dig works, contact the nearest university with an archaeology department and ask if they have a dig you can work on for a week or so. You won't get to do very interesting stuff, but you WILL get to observe how everything operates. My information is more than twenty years old, but I doubt much has changed.
 

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Allyson Jeleyne said:
Is it modern day?
This is a very important question. The second most important question is Where?
Modern Archaeology recognizes that it is the most destructive of all sciences: When you excavate a site, you have only once chance to get it right. You can't go back and do it over. For this reason, most of a site is cordoned off and left untouched for future archaeologists who (we hope) will have better tools and techniques and be better able to extract information we cannot imagine we might be able to do today. Back in the "good ole days" explosives were a not-uncommon excavation tool - we use small trowels and toothbrushes now.

Source - Minor degree in Archaeology
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
My thanks to Allyson Jeleyne, jlmarten, Jennifer R P, and jimbro. I am grateful to you.

Is it modern day?

2012, Chiapas, Mexico. In a vale in the mountains near Agua Prieta (a fictitious town) near the border with Guatemala. Low enough to be surrounded by jungle, high enough to be out of the blistering heat.

My understanding is that Mexican law requires the head of the excavation be Mexican. In this case, the head spends most of his time at the party circuit in Mexico City, DF. His deputy is a German anthropologist who oversees the dig.

It is a minor site. No buildings. Looks to be a curious Mayan communal grave. Except for one not-so-old skeleton with a bullet hole in his skull.

Because the gov't has an interest in the dig, site security is done by the Policía Federal.

Glad to know I got the mess tent and the tent accommodations right.

Free Mexican beer on tap is provided on site to keep the dig workers from going to Agua Prieta (5km as the crow flies, 12 as the burro ambles).

No kboard respondent has said anything that overturns anything I have written. That's good.

Keep them cards and letters coming.

Thank you.
 

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antares said:
My thanks to Allyson Jeleyne, jlmarten, Jennifer R P, and jimbro. I am grateful to you.

Is it modern day?

2012, Chiapas, Mexico. In a vale in the mountains near Agua Prieta (a fictitious town) near the border with Guatemala. Low enough to be surrounded by jungle, high enough to be out of the blistering heat.

My understanding is that Mexican law requires the head of the excavation be Mexican. In this case, the head spends most of his time at the party circuit in Mexico City, DF. His deputy is a German anthropologist who oversees the dig.

It is a minor site. No buildings. Looks to be a curious Mayan communal grave. Except for one not-so-old skeleton with a bullet hole in his skull.

Because the gov't has an interest in the dig, site security is done by the Policia Federal.

Glad to know I got the mess tent and the tent accommodations right.

Free Mexican beer on tap is provided on site to keep the dig workers from going to Agua Prieta (5km as the crow flies, 12 as the burro ambles).

No kboard respondent has said anything that overturns anything I have written. That's good.

Keep them cards and letters coming.

Thank you.
I've been to Chaipas and worked on Mayan sites in Guatemala many times!
Sounds like you've got things right. :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
jimbro said:
I've been to Chaipas and worked on Mayan sites in Guatemala many times!
Sounds like you've got things right. :)
That is really good to hear.

I do not plan to spend much time describing the operation of the dig. Just enough to give the writing that taste of verisimilitude.

But one thing will be important.

What is the color of 500-year old bones? Anyone know?
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
jimbro,

Mind if I ask you a question about the composition of the teams on the digs in Chiapas and Guatemala that you worked on?

What were their nationalities? And what was the most common language used at the dig?

Thank you.
 

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antares said:
jimbro,
Mind if I ask you a question about the composition of the teams on the digs in Chiapas and Guatemala that you worked on?
What were their nationalities? And what was the most common language used at the dig?
Thank you.
Nationalities were mostly US. On my teams, the US lead was in charge (with Mexican or Guatemalan oversight - only sometimes present). We always had one or two native (Mexican/Guatemalan) archeologists on staff too. Laborers were mostly local Mayan, supplemented by US and Mexican or Guatemalan grad students. Language was mostly English, with a lot of Spanish and Mayan (Dialects: Tzotzil in Chiapas, Yucatec in lowland Guatemala). In Guatemala, there were (a few) Mayans who spoke no significant amount of Spanish.

As for bone color, I can't answer that authoritatively. My recollection, from photos, is mostly yellowish-brown, but I strongly suspect it depends on the type of soil from which they are recovered. Google "Mayan Bones" images... :)

Edit: After giving this more thought, bone color is usually yellowish brown. In the town of Flores, Guatemala (the last stronghold of the Itzas against the Spanish), the city fathers still guard three skulls from that period. They bring them out for special occasions-I suspect they belonged to some important persons like possibly the last chiefs of the city? If the current custodians know, they are not divulging that info. I was privileged to see the skulls. They were mostly grey with yellowish brown tones. Of course, these have been out of the ground and guarded in a cabinet for several centuries.
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
jimbro said:
As for bone color, I can't answer that authoritatively. My recollection, from photos, is mostly yellowish-brown, but I strongly suspect it depends on the type of soil from which they are recovered. Google "Mayan Bones" images... :)
I googled 'mayan bones images' and got pages of pictures. Gave me a wonderful idea.
 

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I've worked on an archaeological dig in the American southwest.  Here's a few details:

Clothes:  You wear anything that you don't mind getting astonishingly filthy.  In the desert, it's tennis shoes, shorts, T-shirts, hats, bandanas, and the strongest sunscreen you can find on the market.  You'll need it.

Often you'll have to rent a house from a nearby landowner unless you like camping.  Having access to a shower becomes part of basic survival when you're doing a dig.  I've stayed in a house rented from a local rancher, and we had to pile into a van and drive 30-odd miles every day to reach the site.

Meals:  A weekly shopping trip is made to the grocery store for supplies.  People just grab breakfast, yogurt, cereal, whatever.  Lunch is a sack lunch you make yourself, usually a sandwich.  Job of cook rotates among the company, with 2 different people doing the cooking every evening.  The important thing is to make sure you have a pair of large drink coolers filled up and iced before you go out every morning, one with water, the other with something sweet like lemonade or whatever.

First Day:  When you're doing the initial ground breaking to locate rooms, etc., you dig with full-size garden spades of the sort that can be driven in with your foot, and when you're finished, you will be sorer than you've ever been in your life.  When you go home, all your muscles will have stiffened and you'll find it almost impossible to move.  But it will get better the next day and you'll become hardened to the work.  When you locate an artifact or a floor, you switch to trowels.

Daily routine:  You rise at the crack of dawn and have about a half-hour to dress and eat, and then you're all out the door. You try to hit the site as soon as you can.  Mid-morning, you'll take a break.  We usually had a cookie and sugary drink break because when you're doing hard manual labor all day, you need all the extra calories you can stuff down your throat.  You'll burn them off.  You've got about an hour for lunch.  You knock off work at five, and by then, the sun will make you  feel like you've been roasting on a spit in front of a fire.  Bathroom facilities are an improved outhouse that's a simple pit toilet with a box and a seat, which you hang curtains around.  Courtesy demands you pay attention to who's gone off to use the facilities so you don't interrupt them.

What you do:  You separate into two teams.  First are diggers who use trowels.  When they meet a floor, they take off their shoes and work in their socks to keep from damaging the surface.  Their socks are vile by the end of the day, and you need to bring along several pair of short, cheap socks.  The instant their trowels meets any artifact, they put aside the trowel and use something else, often their work gloves, to clear away most of the dirt.  Objects will still have excess dirt on them, and this will be swept off with a house painter's brush, but serious cleaning is done back in the laboratory.

The second team consists of sifters.  Every day you set up a large tripod, about 10 feet tall or so, from which is danging a boxy horizontal mesh screen on chains.  Diggers are constantly filling metal buckets as they work, and the sifter collects these in pairs and carries them over to the screen, pours the dirt onto the screen, and then shakes the screen back and forth until stray artifacts are revealed.  95 percent of what you'll get are broken clay pot fragments, called pot shards.  When you get something else, you tend to whoop like an idiot and invite everyone over to gawk, but this opportunity is rare.

Each heaping bucket of dirt weighs about 30 pounds, and you'll build your arm muscles up like you wouldn't believe hauling these back and forth all day.  60 pounds of dirt is also quite hard to sift at first until most of it falls through the screen and the remainder lightens up.  At the end of the dig, I found I was strong enough to be able to lift my father off the floor.  Best physical condition I've ever been in.  By the way, being the digger is the easy task, since you're mostly sitting on your butt all day. Being the sifter is the physically hard part.  I sifted what I calculated to be about half a ton of dirt every day. 

Small sifted artifacts are placed in paper sacks and labelled with the day's date and the particular name of the room that you're digging up, as well as its approximate location--e.g. southwest wall.  Anything important--a skeleton or an elaborate piece of whole pottery gets a hand drawn map to show its location on the site.  Before you start, you should have your location surveyed, and the size and orientation of any walls or buildings drawn on a map.  GPS can really help you out with this, but you'll still going to be doing some hand-drawing. 

At the end of day's work, you cover the site with plastic tarp weighed down with stones at the corners.  This is to keep rain out.  When you return to your domicile, you begin your cleanup, and this is awesome to experience.  Sifters get the worst of it.  First, you take off your shoes and start to shake, and shake, and shake.  It'll be like that old Peanuts cartoon of Pigpen shaking the dirt out of his shoes, and you'll produce an actual sizable mound of dirt.  You'll have to shake out your socks as well, and they will never be white again, not even with bleach.  When you blow your nose, black snot will come out.  If you look in the mirror, you will see tiny specks of dirt floating on your eyeballs linked together as if in a daisy-chain.  You will have 5 minutes to take a shower because everyone wants one before the hot water is gone, and when you step out, you'll still be dirty and there will be a ring of dirt around the tub. You will be dirty solid until the dig has closed down for the season and you can take a real shower at home.

At the end of the evening, while dinner is being made, you'll haul out all your sacks of artifacts, get out an honest-to-god ink bottle and antique ink pen--the sort they used in the 1800s, and which is difficult to use--and ink a number on every artifact in a discreet spot, and write out a numbered list of the daily finds, down to the least pot shard.  If you don't know what you're holding, you ask the chief archaeologist what it is.  You will go to bed soon after because you'll be more tired than you've ever been before in your life. 

A note:  A certain percentage of archaeologists, usually the diggers instead of the screeners, go to town every night and party for hours in a local bar.  They will do this every single night for weeks on end and never seem to lack for sleep or get tired.  All archaeological digs have a few of these people.

Schedule:  You will work 6 days a week, and half the day on your 7th is usually devoted to some archaeology-related topic, like taking the van out to go visit another dig, or hiking through the countryside to locate other potential sites for future digs.  The last half of the 7th day is your only true free time, and I used it to read and snack.  Other people would hit the local bar. 

When you finish a dig, you take some pennies with this year's date on them and scatter them across the floors of your site, and then backfill all your dirt.  This is as exhausting a task as your initial day of digging, and you'll be half dead when it's over.  The pennies are to let future archaeologists know this site has already been dug, and the date lets them know what year it happened. 

Artifacts are professionally cleaned back in lab, not out on the site.  But if you locate a skeleton, you paint some preservative on it, usually something like very thin Elmer's Glue, to keep it from crumpling.  Old bones can be as fragile as dust.  However, in this day and age of DNA testing, the method's probably changed, because anything with protein in it would contaminate your sample.  I'd look that up if I were you. 

Old bare bones are white, by the way, unless they've gotten wet via an underground steam that's carrying some of mineral compound that might stain them. 





 

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Avis Black said:
I've worked on an archaeological dig in the American southwest. Here's a few details:

Clothes: You wear anything that you don't mind getting astonishingly filthy. In the desert, it's tennis shoes, shorts, T-shirts, hats, bandanas, and the strongest sunscreen you can find on the market. You'll need it.

Often you'll have to rent a house from a nearby landowner unless you like camping. Having access to a shower becomes part of basic survival when you're doing a dig. I've stayed in a house rented from a local rancher, and we had to pile into a van and drive 30-odd miles every day to reach the site.

Meals: A weekly shopping trip is made to the grocery store for supplies. People just grab breakfast, yogurt, cereal, whatever. Lunch is a sack lunch you make yourself, usually a sandwich. Job of cook rotates among the company, with 2 different people doing the cooking every evening. The important thing is to make sure you have a pair of large drink coolers filled up and iced before you go out every morning, one with water, the other with something sweet like lemonade or whatever.

First Day: When you're doing the initial ground breaking to locate rooms, etc., you dig with full-size garden spades of the sort that can be driven in with your foot, and when you're finished, you will be sorer than you've ever been in your life. When you go home, all your muscles will have stiffened and you'll find it almost impossible to move. But it will get better the next day and you'll become hardened to the work. When you locate an artifact or a floor, you switch to trowels.

Daily routine: You rise at the crack of dawn and have about a half-hour to dress and eat, and then you're all out the door. You try to hit the site as soon as you can. Mid-morning, you'll take a break. We usually had a cookie and sugary drink break because when you're doing hard manual labor all day, you need all the extra calories you can stuff down your throat. You'll burn them off. You've got about an hour for lunch. You knock off work at five, and by then, the sun will make you feel like you've been roasting on a spit in front of a fire. Bathroom facilities are an improved outhouse that's a simple pit toilet with a box and a seat, which you hang curtains around. Courtesy demands you pay attention to who's gone off to use the facilities so you don't interrupt them.

What you do: You separate into two teams. First are diggers who use trowels. When they meet a floor, they take off their shoes and work in their socks to keep from damaging the surface. Their socks are vile by the end of the day, and you need to bring along several pair of short, cheap socks. The instant their trowels meets any artifact, they put aside the trowel and use something else, often their work gloves, to clear away most of the dirt. Objects will still have excess dirt on them, and this will be swept off with a house painter's brush, but serious cleaning is done back in the laboratory.

The second team consists of sifters. Every day you set up a large tripod, about 10 feet tall or so, from which is danging a boxy horizontal mesh screen on chains. Diggers are constantly filling metal buckets as they work, and the sifter collects these in pairs and carries them over to the screen, pours the dirt onto the screen, and then shakes the screen back and forth until stray artifacts are revealed. 95 percent of what you'll get are broken clay pot fragments, called pot shards. When you get something else, you tend to whoop like an idiot and invite everyone over to gawk, but this opportunity is rare.

Each heaping bucket of dirt weighs about 30 pounds, and you'll build your arm muscles up like you wouldn't believe hauling these back and forth all day. 60 pounds of dirt is also quite hard to sift at first until most of it falls through the screen and the remainder lightens up. At the end of the dig, I found I was strong enough to be able to lift my father off the floor. Best physical condition I've ever been in. By the way, being the digger is the easy task, since you're mostly sitting on your butt all day. Being the sifter is the physically hard part. I sifted what I calculated to be about half a ton of dirt every day.

Small sifted artifacts are placed in paper sacks and labelled with the day's date and the particular name of the room that you're digging up, as well as its approximate location--e.g. southwest wall. Anything important--a skeleton or an elaborate piece of whole pottery gets a hand drawn map to show its location on the site. Before you start, you should have your location surveyed, and the size and orientation of any walls or buildings drawn on a map. GPS can really help you out with this, but you'll still going to be doing some hand-drawing.

At the end of day's work, you cover the site with plastic tarp weighed down with stones at the corners. This is to keep rain out. When you return to your domicile, you begin your cleanup, and this is awesome to experience. Sifters get the worst of it. First, you take off your shoes and start to shake, and shake, and shake. It'll be like that old Peanuts cartoon of Pigpen shaking the dirt out of his shoes, and you'll produce an actual sizable mound of dirt. You'll have to shake out your socks as well, and they will never be white again, not even with bleach. When you blow your nose, black snot will come out. If you look in the mirror, you will see tiny specks of dirt floating on your eyeballs linked together as if in a daisy-chain. You will have 5 minutes to take a shower because everyone wants one before the hot water is gone, and when you step out, you'll still be dirty and there will be a ring of dirt around the tub. You will dirty solid until the dig has closed down for the season and you can take a real shower at home.

At the end of the evening, while dinner is being made, you'll haul out all your sacks of artifacts, get out an honest-to-god ink bottle and antique ink pen--the sort they used in the 1800s, and which is difficult to use--and ink a number on every artifact in a discreet spot, and write out a numbered list of the daily finds, down to the least pot shard. If you don't know what you're holding, you ask the chief archaeologist what it is. You will go to bed soon after because you'll be more tired than you've ever been before in your life.

A note: A certain percentage of archaeologists, usually the diggers instead of the screeners, go to town every night and party for hours in a local bar. They will do this every single night for weeks on end and never seem to lack for sleep or get tired. All archaeological digs have a few of these people.

Schedule: You will work 6 days a week, and half the day on your 7th is usually devoted to some archaeology-related topic, like taking the van out to go visit another dig, or hiking through the countryside to locate other potential sites for future digs. The last half of the 7th day is your only true free time, and I used it to read and snack. Other people would hit the local bar.

When you finish a dig, you take some pennies with this year's date on them and scatter them across the floors of your site, and then backfill all your dirt. This is as exhausting a task as your initial day of digging, and you'll be half dead when it's over. The pennies are to let future archaeologists know this site had already been dug, and the date lets them know what year it happened.

Artifacts are professionally cleaned back in lab, not out on the site. But if you locate a skeleton, you paint some preservative on it, usually something like very thin Elmer's Glue, to keep it from crumpling. Old bones can be as fragile as dust. However, in this day and age of DNA testing, the method's probably changed, because anything with protein in it would contaminate your sample. I'd look that up if I were you.

Old bare bones are white, by the way, unless they've gotten wet via an underground steam that's carrying some of mineral compound that might stain them.
This is lots of good info. I don't recall us doing the penny trick, but we should have. :)
 

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Hi,

Throwing in my 2 cents and knowledge...

Add "permits, documentation, approval, permission, authorization, etc." to your growing list.  Most of the time it's from the government but it can also be from a private land owner etc. and then there is always the question of ownership if anything of value (historic as well as financial) is found.

Yeah, I done had too much paperwork in my life  :(  (sic)

Regards,
SM
 

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antares said:
My thanks to Allyson Jeleyne, jlmarten, Jennifer R P, and jimbro. I am grateful to you.

Is it modern day?

2012, Chiapas, Mexico. In a vale in the mountains near Agua Prieta (a fictitious town) near the border with Guatemala. Low enough to be surrounded by jungle, high enough to be out of the blistering heat.

My understanding is that Mexican law requires the head of the excavation be Mexican. In this case, the head spends most of his time at the party circuit in Mexico City, DF. His deputy is a German anthropologist who oversees the dig.

It is a minor site. No buildings. Looks to be a curious Mayan communal grave. Except for one not-so-old skeleton with a bullet hole in his skull.

Because the gov't has an interest in the dig, site security is done by the Policia Federal.

Glad to know I got the mess tent and the tent accommodations right.

Free Mexican beer on tap is provided on site to keep the dig workers from going to Agua Prieta (5km as the crow flies, 12 as the burro ambles).

No kboard respondent has said anything that overturns anything I have written. That's good.

Keep them cards and letters coming.

Thank you.
Many years ago, my brother and I took local buses and hiked through parts of Mexico and Guatemala to look at Mayan ruins and textile markets. We visited several ruins in Chiapas, including Palenque. Mexico City is a LONG way away from this area.

Chiapas at Palenque:
Climate: Very humid. I felt like I was inside a steamy shower, breathing water. It was a pleasure to go inside a tiny stone museum and lie down on the cool floor. Some of the ruins at Palenque had a little black mold.
Wildlife and bugs: You can hear howler monkeys shrieking in the light jungle. You can also hear a type of cicada that makes an eerie, metallic noise, different from the cicadas here in the USA, plus see a few black tarantulas (that didn't want anything to do with us and skittered off into the undergrowth).
Rainforest: The locals maintained the ruins, meaning they chopped the undergrowth back. It seemed obvious the rainforest would have grown over all the buildings in a short time.
Beggars: There were a few beggars because the ruins are tourist sites. I remember one Mayan man with his nose eaten out by syphilis selling some crafts.

I went back to college 3 years ago to work on an anthropology degree, which includes studying archeology. You can see what archeologists wear if you google digs in the area you're writing about and choose images -- the search will bring up plenty of photos.

I second the suggestions to contact local universities or museums about volunteering on a dig. You might also try to set up an interview with a friendly archeologist, in person or by phone. Somebody at a college or museum would probably be happy to talk to you.
 

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antares said:
I have another question.

Is there a known hierarchy among anthropologists? I mean, do Egyptologists look down on Mayan diggers?
No. Egyptologists, Assyrologists, Mayanists, etc..., are all too focused on their own (beloved) field to care one way or the other about the others. :)
 
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