Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Archaeology: Travels, Worldwide -- Dig It?

June 06, 2023 Ann Williams is the author of Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World, published by National Geographic. Season 1 Episode 86
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Archaeology: Travels, Worldwide -- Dig It?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Ann Williams' experiences as a journalist specializing in archaeology has taken her around the world. We talk of what it's like on a dig, Lea shares various places around the world where she's experiences sites, and we focus on Ann's fascinating first-hand tales of discoveries and surprises  from Panama, Turkey, China and Egypt.

We also mention a few links for those who are interested in volunteering or participating in an archaeology experience. Maximo Knievel's anthropology university program in Latin America includes excursions to archaeological sites.  GoEco offers an archaeological volunteer project near Rome,  volunteering solutions, offers archaeology programs in Greece, and  Project's Abroad has an archaeology volunteer program in Peru. The Archaeological Institute of America's (AIA) website lists places where you can volunteer.
Ann Williams is the author of Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World, published by National Geographic.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, and  has written nine books, including the award-winning Places I Remember  (Kirkus Reviews star rating, and  'one of the top 100 Indie books' of  the year). She has contributed to many guidebooks and has written thousands of travel articles.

Contact Lea- she loves hearing from you! 
@lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; Places I Remember with Lea Lane on Facebook; Website:

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Lea Lane  0:06  
Hi, I'm Lea Lane ,an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. 

Are you intrigued by the idea of lost cities? Are you curious about ancient people wondering about who they were, where they came from, and the struggles and successes they encountered along the way? Archeologists study people through time from 3 million years ago to yesterday by excavating recovering and analyzing material culture, another word for artifacts and features, anything that was made or used by humans. Through archaeology, we can understand where and when people lived on the earth, but also why and how they lived. Some people consider archaeology a form of time travel a way to peer into the past to gain a richer understanding of our world today and our place in it. You can enroll in a university course or read about it, but there's nothing like visiting and even volunteering at an archeological site. Later in the podcast we'll share about how travelers can even participate in an archeological dig. And there are links in the episodes show notes, Our guest Ann Williams, writes about these marvelous things that has worked on sites throughout the world. She is the author of Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World, published by National Geographic. Welcome, Ann to Places I Remember.

Ann Williams  1:39  
Hi, it's great to be here. Let's talk about archaeology.

Lea Lane  1:42  
Okay. Now you did field work on archaeological sites. Tell us a bit about your experience. What's it like to travel and work on an archeological dig?

Ann Williams  1:53  
I've been very lucky because unlike a lot of academic archaeologists who specialize in a certain time period in a certain place, because I have looked at archaeology through the prism of journalism, I've gotten to cover all sorts of things. I have been inside the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan. whereas Teotihuacan, it's right outside Mexico City digs in Bulgaria, a dig in Alaska, I've covered a dig in Central America, I've done a lot of work in Egypt, I've been very lucky in that I sort of parachute in, when looks like they're going to come across something very cool, as opposed to having to slog it out year after year at the same site that a lot of professional archaeologists do.

Lea Lane  2:50  
So you get to go in and out. Do you get paid for this? You get room and board? How does it work? If a traveler wants to do that.

Ann Williams  2:57  
I was working for National Geographic magazine. And so we would set it up with a dig. Most of the time, if people are volunteering, it sort of depends on where you're doing this. A lot of digs in Israel, for instance, their business model is to charge volunteers money, they have a lot of slots for volunteers. That's the good news. You pay money. Then you get room and board and you work.

Lea Lane  3:29  
How long do you stay there, for example?

Ann Williams  3:31  
It depends on how the dig director has set things up. I think Eric Klein, who works at Telcarbry, you can sign up for a week, or you could sign up for the whole season. That's how he works. But different dig directors do different things. Jody Magnus who works at [...] brings a whole bunch of students from a consortium of universities who work with her and they stay the whole season. They are at the site of [...] right now. Every year they work the whole month of June. Rick Knecht, who is working at the dig that I worked on in Alaska, and he's starting to work on that model as well. As far as Rick is concerned, if you want to volunteer, and you want to pay to go up there, he's happy to have you.

Lea Lane  4:24  
Great, I have been told by people who have done this that is sounds fantastic. And it is fantastic. But it's heat and cold and rain and snow and dirt and lots of mud and bugs and snakes, and all of that kind of thing. So you're really working. You put hard hats on very often, you might be extremely, you know, uncomfortable for a while, it's rigorous, but you're studying the cultures and lifeways of prehistoric and historic people -- what they have done, why they do it. It's fascinating. So we're gonna have more information a little later, as I said, in the podcast. What have you learned most from visiting or working at archaeological sites?

Ann Williams  5:00  
Well, I think the study of archaeology in general is interesting, because what it teaches us is how smart and inventive and resilient human beings are. There have been ups and downs and backs, and forth, all through human history. And somehow not only have human beings survived, they have thrived, and think about the really fabulously gorgeous artifacts that are iconic in the field of archaeology. And just think about people who created those things and, and the skills they must have had and the the artistic vision that they must have had to create things in the midst of what were very crazy and dangerous and disconcerting politics of the time. Think it's really sort of a lesson in how resilient we can and must be, as we go through are the current things that are going on in the world.

Lea Lane  6:08  
Absolutely. I would think you learn quite a bit from looking at the artifacts, about ourselves today, which is one of the benefits of looking in the past, always. You've been to Panama, I know tell us a little bit about that, specifically, relating to the Golden Chiefs of Panama.

Ann Williams  6:22  
First of all, it's sort of a real funny tale about how journalism works. Julia Mio, the Panamanian Spanish archaeologist who was working on this site, which is about an hour and a half drive west of Panama City, she sort of had an idea, and it plays into a larger theme. And it's why her site became paradigm breaking. For decades and generations. Literally, nobody looked in Central America for anything archaeological, because there was a very famous anthropologist who worked at the Smithsonian, I believe back in the 1950s. And she said, Look, in something along the lines of we know the Maya built, these wonderful stone pyramids in southern Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras. And we know that the Inca built fabulous stone walls and roads in Peru, in South America. But there's nothing in Central America. Why would there be? It's like rain forests, so they didn't even bother to look. And so for decades and generations, people did not look. Along come archaeologists, like Julia Mio. And they say, wait a minute, just because people had a material culture that was biodegradable doesn't mean that their culture wasn't interesting and sophisticated. And she thought, having read all sorts of chronicles that were written by the Spanish conquistadores in the 1600s, even 1500s. She thought that there should be graves that perhaps might have some gold artifacts, and would have artifacts signaling a sophisticated hierarchical culture. Okay, great. Julia was a National Geographic grantee, and photographer David Coventry and I were sent down to Panama, when Julia started the day. Well, we sat on the rim of this growing pit in the ground. And Julia was finding pottery and bones and bones and pottery. And David and I are looking at each other saying, Well, you know, from a theoretical archaeological point of view, I mean, this is sort of interesting, but it's not really photogenic on for the National Geographic Magazine; of course, we needed great photographs. And we were sitting there for two weeks just watching this and feeling it is sweaty, and dusty. And just wondering what we were going to do. So we get to the end of the field season. So this is one of the one of the things that makes archaeologists laugh all the time because it is inevitably on the very last day of the field season, something interesting turns out last day of the field season. It was good Friday, Julia was going to shut down the dig because what what happens is the rainy season begins and then the nearby river floods, and floods the site and there's no way she could continue today. We're getting towards the afternoon and it's like 4:30 In the afternoon, and boom, gold starts coming up. (Oh, yeah. Oh, Ah.)

Lea Lane  10:02  
What do you do now?

Ann Williams  10:03  
Well, yeah, so we ran out, Julia ran out and she bought gas lanterns that we can put on the edge on the the rim of this pit, we were down 16 feet, this huge pit. And we took all the vehicles that we had, and we lined them up also around the edge of the pit and put on the headlights. The archaeologists started to excavate because of course, you can't leave gold like that. You have to get it up. Right. And so you know, over the course of maybe the next couple of days, and we dug up all it was tubular beads that were wound around somebody's lower leg, and sort of a zigzag decorated form. A hat, hollow beads as big as olives that made a belt going around this person's waist. If I remember correctly, there was a gold pectoral. And so we caught up all of that stuff. And there are photographs of the artist, you know, sketching all of this stuff by a gas lamp; it was after dark. So we take all of this stuff out of the ground after Julia has documented it. Weird to store this overnight. So she told me later, she had it underneath her bed in the dig house. Oh, my goodness, she hardly slept the whole night. Well, you know, we were out in a small town in the provinces. And there was no way that we could take it to Panama City that late at night. Of course, the next morning, we got up and sped it into Panama City so that it could be put into a safe, but that was very exciting, because the moment when you know, Julia was proved right. And as the seasons rolled forward, Julia found quite a number of graves of these, what she's calling the golden chiefs of Panama. And they were all buried chock a block full of gold. Well, had a material culture it was biodegradable, didn't leave anything that you know, anybody would look at these days. But Julio used a lot of new technology, including geomagnetic surveys that uncovered anomalies in the ground, indicating to her that she was right, that it was an enormous circular cemetery at a site called L. Tanya. Yeah, yeah, it sounds good, a paradigm breaking. And she is one of the emerging younger archeologists who were starting to find things in the Amazon, which everybody had written off. And in Central America, which many people have written off, and there are wonderful archaeological things to be found there that tell us a lot about people who live there in very sophisticated communities. Yeah, there's a lot to learn, exciting things that's happened recently in archaeology,

Lea Lane  13:13  
I would think that with the new technology, there will be so many discoveries over the next years that we can't imagine. And that's what's so exciting. You just don't know what's under your feet. I wrote a list of some of the places just in my travels that I remember where I've seen archaeologists still working, and many of these sites are only partially discovered. So here's a list off the top of my head. Of course, Machu Picchu, the great city that everyone knows -- we were mentioning the stone walls. People were working there when I was there, 20 years ago, still doing research, it's only partly discovered. So there's much more to see eventually, Tikal in the jungle of Guatemala. This is where Jaguars roam around at night. It's very exceptional, and I think many people still haven't discovered it. It's one of the great places to visit. I happen to have seen that. Tulum in the Yucatan where many people visit as part of their beach escape. It's right on the beach. It's a wonderful introduction to lost cultures, not only Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy, where Mount Vesuvius covered those towns in ash, but close to the airport outside of Rome, there's Ostia Antica, which is a fabulous site, one of the great sites, it's five miles from the airport. I was just there recently and you can spend your time walking through the past there and not many people go -- if you ask them about it, they won't know it's there. But it's right by the airport. Yes, Angkor Wat in Cambodia where I visited which was huge, and again, people were still doing research at the moment I was there, again about 15 years ago. And places you can see from the roads such as Stonehenge in England, all these places have such mystery like you mentioned, how do these people do these things? In the Greek islands many people go to Mykonos. There's a little island called Delos, which has wonderful archaeological sites right by there -- take a little break from the party. and go over there. And I've just stumbled across things. I've walked across active sites in the streets. I can remember in Rouen, France not far from where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, that person was just digging in the road and I was looking in there, there  were bones and all kinds of things. And it was fascinating. It was just walking along to go to lunch. City in Miami, of course, I live here I don't expect to see too many ancient things, just people. Some ancient people perhaps would walk around the streets. But my dentist's office just outside where they're building a new condo is a fantastic site of the Tequesta Indians from 2500 years ago. They've been working on it now for two years. It's been holding up constructions; whatever you think of Miami, you don't think of that right. I remember way way back when I was very young, I went to Cyprus and I was just walking along the beach and stumbled across some artifacts in the grass by the beach and again, this was a informal-- if you if you travel, you're going to find these wonderful things. I took a little time to name a few places you want to help or visit it depends but you can check them out. One program is Maximo Knievel's anthropology university program in Latin America, which includes excursions to archaeological sites. If a university course is for you could check out goeco, which offers an archeological volunteer project near Rome, and Volunteering Solutions, which offers archaeology programs in Greece. And if you're a teenage volunteer or part of a group, then you can check out project abroad archaeology volunteer program in Peru.

Ann Williams  16:30  
If people are interested in volunteering on an archaeological site, they can go to the Archaeological Institute of America, it's AIA. There is a section on the website that lists places where you can volunteer

Lea Lane  16:46  
Now Ann, your book features lost cities in the title. And they offer especially wonderful stories and myths. Let's talk about a few of them. The Legend of Troy and how an amateur archaeologist uncovered a lost city. Tell us a little bit about that.

Ann Williams  17:00  
Let's talk about Troy -- such a wonderful, crazy story. But it's also sort of a cautionary tales. Heinrich Schliemann, was a businessman. He lived in the 1800s. And he had read Homer and got very inspired and thought he could kind of take the clues in Homer and figure out where Troy was in Turkey. And so off he went, and I wouldn't say excavated, I would say he dug the site that is now known as his [...]. The good news is that he got everybody excited and very inspired. The bad news is that this was before archeology was really a science. And so he dug straight down until he found something nice. And it meant that he really didn't record a lot of the details in the layers as he was digging down. Archaeology is such a science now you would not be leave the minutia that archaeological digs are able to extract from the site. And it is a multidisciplinary effort that you bring out with you geologist, a soil chemist, a mosaic expert, a person who counts pollen grains, a physical anthropologist who can look at the bones, I mean, the list goes on, and all of your digital specialists because now everything is being recorded digitally which is just wonderful. You have a find, you publish it digitally, and then scholars around the world can have a look and weigh in. None of that was going on in Schliemann's time. He just dug a big hole. And there is a very famous photograph of his wife, wearing fabulous necklaces and earrings that he found at Troy. Of course, nobody would do that these days. But he just sort of gathered up this stuff, took it to the dig house and you know, dressed his wife up and took a photograph. It's a little crazy. He is part of the legend of archaeology and he was one of the early people who was interested in the past and interested in digging up things. An example of what not to do than what to do, we can't just count his enthusiasm.

Lea Lane  19:30  
I was lucky enough to see the after effects, but is the discovery of the glorious terracotta warriors escorting China's first Emperor into the afterlife, which were discovered near Xian in China. And those were discovered the legend goes by farmers in their fields and of course I visited the beautiful warriors and horses. Was this true? They just came upon it. How did that happen?

Ann Williams  19:55  
This is a true fact it was in the 1970s. So farmers are digging a drainage ditch, they came across the statues and get it basically said, Well, that's very frightening. You dig up something and it you know, it looks like something very eerie. And then you have to remember when these things first came to light, they were brightly painted. Excavations have continued through the years. So they have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these statues, they're all standing in rows, that section of the site is not completely excavated. And when the Chinese first started to dig that site, the statues came up, and they were covered in paint, and there wasn't the technology to save the paint. And working with I believe some German technicians, the Chinese and the Germans figured out how to save the paint. Wow. But they are mindful of the fact that as technology is rolling forward, there may be things about additional statues that are underground, that will be able to be saved in the future with technologies that we can't even imagine these days. So they're not in a big hurry to finish. That excavation site is a tiny part of any enormous funerary complex that was put together by the First Emperor and his people, a large army meant to defend the body of the First Emperor in the afterlife from an attack, which most likely would have come from the east. But there are all sorts of other things around the grave of the First Emperor. There's a place they think were concubines, there's a place where there were laborers buried, and there is the burial of the Emperor himself. There are people who have sort of noodled around that place. And they are convinced that they know where the emperor was buried. And they believe that there is a void where that burial should be. But again, the Chinese government is in no hurry to try to excavate that because they don't want to be excavating it, and come across things that they can't save, sort of waiting until technology evolves, so that they can make sure that they save absolutely every scrap of information. That's very exciting.

Lea Lane  22:43  
It's not just the past, it's also the present and the future. Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. You've shared some wonderful stories. Can you share one more personal memory of your research in archaeology?

Ann Williams  22:56  
Well, I think the absolutely coolest thing that I got to do in the field of archaeology was the in the Valley of the Kings, the night that King Tut was cat scanned. (Whoa.) At this point, I had done a couple of stories about ancient Egypt, because National Geographic magazine had realized that I knew about Middle Eastern archaeology and I knew a little bit about ancient Egypt. And so I was assigned the story about the cat scanning of King Tut. And so I was there in the Valley of the Kings with Dr. Zaki [...], and the National Geographic television crew and photographer Ken Garrett. In those days at National Geographic, we had a lot of time to research things before we wrote about anything. And so I became sort of an amateur sleuth and amateur expert on the life and times of King Tut. And so it was a real thrill for me to be there in KV 62, King Tut's tomb, while his coffin was being opened, his mummy was taken out. It was a very chaotic evening and at one point, a lot of us who were not actually taking photographs were asked to leave the tomb. So I stopped up the ramp, and I was very cross and I thought, well, you know, I should be in there to see what's going on. But anyway, I stationed myself at the top of the stairs, you know, right around the corner. And I thought, well, you know, I'll just wait here until the next thing happened. The next thing I knew King Tut was being carried right in front of me. I had managed by dumb blind luck to station myself well, right at the place where he is. So what did he look like? Well, poor Tut, he's not in very good shape. He was a tiny person. Do you know he was five foot something? What did they say he was grasile, was very thin. He, like many ancient people along the Nile, had malaria. 

Lea Lane  25:12  
He was very young when he died.

Ann Williams  25:14  
About 19 years old.

Lea Lane  25:17  
What were they looking for specifically?

Ann Williams  25:19  
There were a number of theories being floated, that went back to, I believe, 1923. There was a theory for instance, that came out of an x ray that was done in 1968. And the X ray revealed a fragment of bone inside King Tut's skull. So from there, people began imagining, well, murder, intrigue somebody bonking him over the head. Well, no, as it turns out, when you mummified somebody in the New Kingdom, the ancient Egyptians believed that the center of one's conscience was one's heart. And so one's heart was usually left in the body. The brain was just a bunch of gooey, nasty stuff. And in terms of magnification, it had to be gotten rid of. They took a metal hook, and they stuck it up the nose of the deceased and broke through. I think it's called the hyoid bone, boom. And so you push this hook into somebody's nose, you break through that bone, you stir up the brain until it's you know, a gooey mess and then you tip the mommy and the brain comes oozing out. Well, that's what they did for King Tut. He was not bonked over the head. Certainly damage that was done by Howard Carter, Howard Carter, in all fairness, had to get that body out of the

Lea Lane  26:50  

Ann Williams  26:52  
In the 1920s, he had to get that body out of the solid gold coffin, the solid gold mask off the head. You could just imagine if they had left that and the thieves had come in, we wouldn't have gotten anything.

Lea Lane  27:05  
And what year was this that you were 

Ann Williams  27:07  
This wasJanuary 1 2005. The tomb was not well guarded during World War Two. The theory is that some people got in and started to pick up the mummy to get it beads. There were mummy experts who looked at these CAT scans and thought that one of King Tut's knees looked like it had been broken. Not only broken but then healed a little bit after the bone break. King Tut was doing something -- riding in battle, riding his chariot too fast, upended by a hippo. I mean something had broken his leg; perhaps infection set in and of course, back in those days, there was no penicillin and you got an infection like that and you died and that's the current thing. It was a thrill to be there that night be so close to King Tut's mummy. It was always interesting, of course, to work with Dr. Hawass because I had so much time to study up before I wrote that story. I became sort of an amateur expert in all of the stuff in King Tut's tomb. And some of the things in that tomb are so beautiful, I can't even begin to express to you what skill it took to create them. They are just extraordinary. And it's not only the big honking gold stuff that we all know; it's beautiful cosmetic cases, for instance, that were made in the shape of geese and a swimming girl and a grasshopper, just exquisite, exquisite things from that tomb. And from that time period, that was the gateway for me, I got fascinated with all that stuff. As Ken Garrett, the photographer and I say, the more you know, in ancient Egypt, the more you want to know. Archaeology is a great jigsaw puzzle. But in ancient Egypt, there are so many pieces to the puzzle. And we know people's names. We know the names of kings, we know their queens, we know their visitors, we know their children. And suddenly you start to put together this great jigsaw puzzle through time through space, and it becomes fascinating. So they're dig season runs from October to March. Otherwise, Egypt is pretty hot. Wait for October to roll around. We're always waiting to see what is coming out of the ground so that we can then take that piece and put it in that jigsaw puzzle that we have going in our mind. Fascinating. That's what I do every fall. And the cat scanning of King Tut was the beginning. thing of all of that

Lea Lane  30:01  
Great story. I would remind listeners that at the new Cairo Museum, which is what I hear, it's fabulous. Many of these artifacts can be seen. It's a good reason to travel there if you're interested in that.

Ann Williams  30:14  
The Grand Egyptian Museum, which has been a decade in the making, there is a specially created gallery for the artifacts from King Tut's tomb. For the first time in more than a century, we'll bring all of those artifacts together. So ...

Lea Lane  30:33  
Reason to go. Thank you Ann Williams, author of Lost Cities, Ancient tombs, 100 Discoveries That Changed the World. By the way, Ann has just put out another book from National Geographic,  Treasures of Egypt: A legacy and Photographs from the Pyramids to Cleopatra. And we'd love to have you on again to talk about that one. So, thank you very much, fascinating stuff.

Ann Williams  30:55  
Thank you for having me. And I'd be delighted to come back to talk about Egypt.

Lea Lane  31:03  
My book Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries is available in print, Kindle, and I read the audio version. You can follow me on where I write five travel posts a month. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. And I'd love to hear from you on any of my links in the episodes show notes or on my website Until next time, make some travel memories.

What's it like to travel and work on an archaeological dig
How does it work If a traveler wants to volunteer.
The Golden Chiefs of Panama
Some of the places where Lea's seen archaeologists working, worldwide.
A few places if you want to help or visit a dig.
The legend of Troy and how an amateur archaeologist uncovered a lost city.
The terracotta warriors escorting China's first Emperor into the afterlife, which were discovered near Xian in China.
Ann's personal memory of King Tut.