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Digging Up Luxembourg’s Past


The middle of Europe. The middle of Luxembourg. The middle of nowhere. Beech trees rustled overhead in the summer breeze, and a sun dappled, sloppy pit of mud lay at my feet. I groaned. That mud was about to be my new best friend. For the next two weeks, my fingers would go squelching through it in their search for the remnants of lives lived 1700 years ago. I was a backpacker on a three-month jaunt through Europe, but for the moment I was going to plant some roots in Luxembourg and assume a new identity: Archeologist.

For the first few days I was down in the cellar of a 1700-year-old farm building. Basically, my job was to dig until I came across something that wasn’t a rock. Sometimes it was only a pebble, and sometimes it was a shoe nail. Sometimes it was a stick; sometimes it was an animal bone. After a few days I caught the hang of it, and my bucket rapidly filled up with pottery, bones, even glass. I was proud of my finds, especially an unusual glass ring. Coins were the real prize, though. Not because they could make you rich, but because their dates are priceless keys to the puzzle of the past.

One day, my eye caught something gleaming in the dirt. It was strangely pearly. Fighting back my growing excitement, I slowly and carefully uncovered my treasure. What could it be? It was going to be huge, whatever it was. Yes, this find was going to earn a place in the museum! And finally, there it was in all of its ancient glory! It wasa jaw. The jawbone of a wild boar, with all of its teeth intact. I proudly held it up for all to see. Shall we photograph it? Alert the press?! “Oh,” shrugged the archeologists. Oh?!? These people were so unpredictable! You never knew when they were going to drop everything over something that looked like a rock, or when they were going to tell you that something important looking was only a rock.

So here we were, digging up ancient bits of life out in the woods, with cows for neighbors. There were ten volunteers from all over the world and a handful of Luxembourgers. The days passed quickly. We dug, drew maps, laughed, took coffee breaks, and laughed some more. At night we had an ever-burning campfire and an endless supply of beer for company. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for everyone else in the world not living like this, not brushing their teeth under a million stars, not sleeping amidst the whispering trees with the ancient past right under their noses. Did they know what they were missing? I felt so lucky.

Those two weeks were an educational gold mine. I learned how to piece the past together and how to use my fingers more than my eyes. I learned about life in Roman Gaul in 300 A.D. And I got to know the Luxembourg of today and its people. It is a beautiful, green place full of castles and quaint little villages. Camping had incalculable personal rewards as well. It forced me to be adaptable. To not be afraid of the dark and ticks, to get over it in the group showers, to brave the pickaxe (which I was sure would end up in my foot), and to live without a second of privacy. And by the end, we were all like family. Every traveler wants to “belong.” For two weeks, I did. And this time the tourists were coming by to watch me!

On our last night a meteor shower took place. We carried our sleeping bags out of the woods into a moon-drenched field. We got comfortable in a big pile of people and padding and waited. Every now and then an “Ahhhh” would rise up from the mass. And then it came out of the darkness- a thrashing disturbance in the underbrush nearby. I could feel muscles tensing in the bodies around me. Was it? We’d heard the stories, since the first day. This was supposedly wild boar territory, a prime hunting ground. A piercing scream ricocheted out of the woods, and one of the local volunteers came bolting towards us. Hmm. Just how genuine was that scream? Half of us got up and were about to run, and the rest only chuckled and shifted their position on the mats. Was it really a boar, or was it just Jacques, the camp watchman? I remembered the stories I’d heard on the dark walks home from the nearby villages, about how to spot a boar and what to do. But weren’t they all a little too suspicious? I took my chances and sat back down. Whatever it was, it never showed itself, and we all survived to pack up and move on the next day.

And now, my three months of traveling seem a whirlwind of monuments, people, maps and trains. But those two weeks in Luxembourg are imprinted in my mind’s eye with all the beautiful detail of a photograph. Every sensation is as sharp and distinct as if August is always yesterday. I can still smell the woods (and unfortunately, the portable toilets), can still see my feet on the path out to the star gazing field, still hear the cruel morning bell

So if you want to get beyond your guidebook to the sounds, smells and faces that really make a place, here’s one unbelievably great way to go about it. You are immersed in both the present and the past of a place, you’re working with your hands, you’re learning with your body as well as your mind. And it’s just so much damn fun. Digs are everywhere, and they can be CHEAP. You can even pick a site by its time period as well as by location. So grab a shovel and go play outside-in any era of history, anywhere on the globe!

Here are some sites to get you started on your search for the perfect archeological dig: http://archaeology.about.com/science/archaeology/cs/currentdigs/index. htm http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/ioa/cgi-bin/show-opps.pl http://www.archaeology.co.uk/digs/dig2000.htm for digs in the U.K. http://www.volunteerabroad.com/search.cfm

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