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Adventures at Ancient Digs Await Students

Students joining archaeological expeditions isn't new, but a Cotsen Institute partnership with UCLA's International Education Office takes it to a new level.

Readers will be able follow students' exploits online throughout the summer in posted dispatches at the blog Summer Digs.

This article was first published by UCLA Today Online.

By Alison Hewitt   

ERIKA BRANT never digs up Chilean mummies without asking permission from the Earth with an offering of wine — or soda. The "pago" or "paying back" ritual is one local custom the anthropology graduate learned on a 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 in Chile.

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 joining archaeological expeditions isn't new, but a Cotsen partnership with UCLA's International Education Office takes it to a new level, said Archaeology Professor Ran Boytner, co-director of the Chile dig.

"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 feeling used, having learned little about proper techniques or the site. That means fewer students become archaeologists — and even fewer become donors, he said.

Although this is the first year of the project, UCLA already has 14 locations and more than 130 students, including dozens 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."

Boytner used the Tarapaca Valley project as a pilot program. A packed dawn-to-dusk schedule of field and lab work and classes gave students a crash course in the historical significance of the dig site and the use of different archaeological techniques and complex field equipment.

It's a grueling schedule, recalled alumna Lori Faber — fondly. "Hard work has never been so much fun," she said. The anthropology major joined the dig to understand her "intense" archaeology classmates and was converted. She excavated mummies and painstakingly sifted dirt to uncover Tarapaca's history. "It was very cool to see how much things can change when you're only digging 3 centimeters at a time," she said. "Ten centimeters could represent 100 years."

Brant's summers in Chile were life-changing. She's on her way to a master's in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology at Cal State Northridge. For her, the "pago" 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 lets us open it up and it's giving to us, so it's our responsibility to pay it back."

Readers will be able follow students' exploits online throughout the summer in posted dispatches at the blog Summer Digs, starting in July. Look for it on UCLA Today's "Out and About" section.

UCLA International Institute

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