DIGGING FOR TREASURE

Beachcombers hoping for a quiet stroll down the seaweed-strewn shores of Brownsea Island in the English Channel were in for a surprise earlier this month; in addition to the sounds of gentle waves lapping against the sand, they were greeted by the clink-clank of pickaxes and shouts of excited excavators. When Martin Shipley, a retired wool merchant from Leeds, comes across a tarnished silver button that may date back to the Victorian era, his colleagues all flutter near for a closer inspection. Farther down the beach, Fay Pendell and Ray Pipe use trowels to pull back the cakey earth and uncover what may be a 16th-century kiln. During the last several years the sea has been eroding the shoreline and exposing kilns once used for baking bricks. "This is hard work but it's really satisfying," says Polly Kemp, a student at Edinburgh University who has come on the dig with her sister. "Plus it's really good fun and it beats sitting on a beach baking in Marbella."

If you are older than 4, digging in the dirt may not sound like the most fun way to spend your hard-earned vacation. But from Tanzania to Thailand, archeological digs give those who like to get their hands dirty the chance not just to look at artifacts but actually to help find them. Archeological volunteering is not new; both Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered Troy, and Lord Carnarvon, famed for excavating King Tut, were amateur archeologists. But the number and breadth of tours--and the treasures they've unearthed--have been growing steadily. Justin Francis, who runs the Web site responsibletravel.com, recently started a special section for digs after seeing bookings rise by 50 percent from 2003 to 2004. According to Earthwatch, the number of European volunteers digging for artifacts like fossils in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico and remnants of a French fort in Mauritius has tripled since 1999. What drives many of them is the prospect of traveling to an exotic locale and fulfilling some romantic fantasy of uncovering the holy grail. "I have never been anywhere near a bullwhip nor have I ever been chased by Indians in the Amazon," says Earthwatch's director of social sciences, James Chiarelli. "I think most people realize that Indiana Jones is not the [truest] picture of archeology. But there is a sense of adventure and discovery that resonates with people."

In many ways volunteers are the life-blood of excavations, providing manpower as well as enthusiasm for the research. Says Martin Papworth, the on-site archeologist at the Brownsea dig, "They introduce archeology to people with an interest who would [normally] not have such access." Never mind that they get such access only in exchange for cheap labor; Richard Grant Gilmore, director of the St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research in the Dutch West Indies, admits that in an ideal world no archeologist would use an untrained person to sift earth and map the locations of artifacts. "However, archeologists live in a poverty-stricken world and we have to use what labor we can get to gain information," he says. The volunteers typically pay a nominal sum--the Brownsea Island dig costs 55 pounds per week--for spartan accommodations and simple meals.

The rewards, on the other hand, can be extravagant. On most dig sites, volunteers are given an overview of the project, taught how to use the equipment, then put to work. In January, while digging at the site of the Western Hemisphere's second oldest synagogue on St. Eustatius, Gilmore's team discovered an 18th-century Jewish ceremonial bath known as a mikvah. Even better, later inhabitants had used it as a trash heap, revealing what people ate, wore and collected from around the globe. "The volunteers could see how archeological interpretation takes place," says Gilmore.

For art lovers, archeological digs afford the opportunity to uncover long-lost artifacts and to view them in their natural state before they find their way into museums. Ken Standing, who has participated in a variety of digs with the National Trust, believes that nothing brings people closer to history than going on a dig. "You have a very personal relationship with the objects in part because you might be the first person in 2,000 years to touch it, and that's eerie." Not to mention more exciting than staring at a canvas on a museum wall.