We are currently seeking volunteers for reconnaissance survey work in October 2009

The role of volunteers in the Western Sahara Project

Volunteers play a vital role in the work of the Western Sahara Project, and make a major contribution to the funding of the Project. Volunteering for a Western Sahara Project field season is a way of experiencing a unique desert environment and culture in a part of the world which is largely closed to outsiders. Volunteering is also an opportunity to learn about the fascinating and little-known archaeology of this remote region and of the Sahara at large. Many of our volunteers have found a trip to Western Sahara to be a life-changing, and enhancing, experience, and a number have participated in multiple seasons of fieldwork.

Volunteers can participate in both reconnaissance surveys and excavations, although more commonly participate in the former. No experience of archaeology or desert travel is required in order to volunteer for reconnaissance survey work. Excavation work can incorporate both experienced and inexperienced volunteers. See below for more details, for requirements for specific seasons of fieldwork (currently October 2009), and for general information about future field seasons.

The cost of participating in a field season of reconnaissance survey work is comparable with the cost of many adventure holiday packages, or the cost of participating in a conservation project such as those run by many charitable organisations. For further information on specific seasons, see below or contact Nick Brooks.

October 2009 Field Season

Our next field season will run from 10 October – 1 November 2009 (precise dates to be confirmed subject to flights). It may be possible for people who cannot take 3 weeks off to join the team for the final two weeks of the field season only, subject to negotiation with the organisers. Dates are subject to confirmation (due to flight availability) but are unlikely to change by more than a day or two.

Location, travel and logistics

Fieldwork will take place in the Northern Sector of the Polisaio-controlled zone (the « Free Zone ») of Western Sahara in the vicinity of the main settlement of Tifariti. Travel to the field will be from London via Algeria. The team will transit through Algiers, taking an internal flight to the southwestern Algerian town of Tindouf. Here the team will be met by representatives of the Polisario (Sahrawi) government. The team will spend one night in the Sahrawi refugee camps in the vicinity of Tindouf, before travelling overland to the Northern Sector of Western Sahara. The journey from Tindouf to Tifariti takes about 8 hours. We will stop for lunch, and possibly camp overnight in the desert, on the way to Tifariiti. Once at Tifariti the team will be based in guest accommodation. However, much of the season will be spent away from Tifariti and its immediate environs, necessitating camping in the open. Tents are not required (although you may wish to bring a small one), but a good (warm) sleeping bag and thermarest or similar are essential. Further advice on what to bring will be be circulated to participants prior to departure.

Nature of the work

The October 2009 field season will have two major objectives:

(1) The identification and sampling of sites that can tell us about past environmental change, and in particular about the nature and timing of transitions between humid and arid conditions. Such sites may include dry lake beds, caves and rockshelters, and areas containing geochemical crusts formed by the evaporation of surface or groundwater. The identification of sites of environmental interest will be achieved through a combination of satellite image analysis and local knowledge.

(2) The identification and recording of new archaeological sites, with a focus on funerary sites and burial monuments. Volunteers will be engaged principally in the recording of funerary monuments. Full instruction will be given in this aspect of the work, and volunteers will use specially designed recording sheets to record specific information about individual monuments. The information collected will contribute to the Project database, and will enable us to map the geographic distributions of different types on monument, and establish similarities and differences between monuments, both within Western Sahara and between Western Sahara and the wider Saharan region. Coupled with results from excavations, this information can help us to assess when areas were occupied, and by which population groups, as well as providing insights into funerary practices and prehistoric cosmologies.

What is it like?

Conditions in the field are very basic, although the food and hospitality are always spoken of very highly by our volunteers. Cold showers are available at Tifariti. The spectacular landscape, astonishing archaeological record, and warmth of the Sahrawi people more than make up for any physical deprivation. For those of you who like to get away from it all, it is worth pointing out that the Free Zone has no paved roads, and almost no permanent settlements (those that exist are little more than hamlets). Traditional nomadic lifestyles are still practiced in the area, and the archaeological record remains virtually unknown to the international research community. Photos of the area and of the field study sites are available here. If you would like to speak to any volunteers from previous seasons (some have participated in multiple seasons and are coming back for more in October) let us know and we can put you in touch. See below for contact details.


The cost of participation in the October 2009 3-week reconnaissance survey is £2395. Costs include flights from London, and all accommodation, food and transport while in the field. All costs go towards the running of the Project, which does not make a profit. Costs for the 2009 field season have been calculated so as to ensure that the season can be entirely funded by the contributions of volunteers. Additional funds will be sought from other sources to pay for subsequent laboratory analysis of archaeological and environmental materials as required.

Next steps

If you want to join us in October or would like more information, please contact Nick Brooks (nick.brooks [at] uea.ac.uk).

Future Field Seasons

The Project runs at least one field season every year. Reconnaissance survey work tends to take place in the autumn (October or November), and excavation work in the spring (March-April), although this situation may change in the future.

Where a season combines both excavation and reconnaissance/environemntal work, it is possible to volunteer for either excavation or reconnaissance. While excavation and reconnaissance teams are likely to be in close contact while in the field, for logistical and practical reasons it is not possible to swap from one team to the other once in the field. Excavation work is more physically demanding than reconnaissance work, but represents an excellent opportunity to gain experience of archaeological excavation in a region in which almost no excavations have been conducted, and would suit people embarking on an archaeological career and wishing to expand their digging experience. Reconnaissance work provides an opportunity to gain general archaeological experience, and experience of arid environments and palaeoenvironmental research. Both digging and reconnaissance work offer an opportunity to experience a unique and little-known part of the world seldom visited by outsiders. As indicated above, anyone can volunteer for reconnaissance work. Some excavations seasons may be able to accommodate volunteers with no previous experience.

Field seasons in 2010

At present the most likely scenario for 2010 is either a season of excavations in the spring followed by a season of reconnaissance and environmental work in the autumn, or a combined season of excavations, reconnaissance and environmental work in the autumn.

Excavations in 2010 will focus on the Project’s main study area some 15 km north of Tifariti. The excavation team will stay in guest accommodation at Tifariti and travel daily to the field site. There may be an opportunity to spend some nights in the open at the field site. The excavation team will have one free day per week, during which they can explore the surrounding area, including the locally well-known rock art site of Rekeiz Lemgassem. The work will consist of the excavation of a number of burial monuments. The main objective of these excavations is to acquire materials for dating and geochemical analysis, in order to establish when the monuments were built and to infer information about the diets, mobility and origins of prehistoric populations. These data will be related to environmental data in order to examine how prehistoric people in this area responded to climatic and environmental change, specifically the drying of the Sahara some 5000 years ago. All excavated monuments will be systematically recorded in order to provide a record of the excavations and infer information about funerary practices and prehistoric lifestyles. The excavations will be directed by experienced field archaeologists with extensive excavation experience in Western Sahara and elsewhere.

Finding out about future field seasons

If you want to be added to our mailing list for information about future field seasons, or would like to know more about volunteers opportunities and the nature of our work, please contact:

– Nick Brooks for reconnaissance survey work and general enquiries (nick.brooks [at] uea.ac.uk)

– Joanne Clarke for excavation work (joanne.clarke [at] uea.ac.uk)

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