Cold Dirt: Digging in the Winter

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Over the past few years, I have had the (mis) fortune of performing archaeology under wintery conditions. This includes surveying while snowing, monitoring projects with over a foot of snow on the ground, or simply trying to get a trowel through half-frozen ground. Recently, I’ve found myself in a warmer climate, where the definition of “cold” is slightly different then what I’m used to: so, I’ve found myself dispensing advice on how to prepare for digging in sub-freezing temperatures. I thought I’d share some of them with you.

Carhartt Overalls

I bought my first pair of Carhartt overalls after spending one day monitoring a winter project, when my pants decided to rip. You know what Carhartts are if you ever driven by a construction site in the winter: it’s those big brown pants that the workers are wearing. They are phenomenal for two reasons: first, they keep your legs warm, and second they will keep your legs dry – this is particularly important if you have to get down on your knees in snow or on cold wet ground. Carhartts will make sure you don’t get soaked. They are a bit of an investment, but they are durable and will last you a long time. Also, make sure you get ones that are lined: that’s what keeps you warm.


You need good footwear and good socks. I wear steel toed boots in the field, but these can be pretty miserable when they get wet, since the steel gets very cold. So, I invested in some Carhartt Boot Socks, which help to keep my feet nice and toasty not cold. No matter your boot of choice, Smart Wool socks are also good options for winter wear, and you can also buy hand warmer packets that are especially for your feet. Regardless, cold toes makes for an unhappy archaeologist. Also, pack an extra pair: you never know what might happen. If your socks get wet, it doesn’t matter what material they’re made of, they won’t work.

Layer It Up

Your activity level is going to change from minute to minute, so it’s always difficult to gage how much clothing you are actually going to need. That’s why I often wear a number of layers. Typical cold weather attire includes a t-shirt, mock turtleneck shirt/fleece/pullover (cover your neck or you’ll get sick!), sweatshirt, warm coat (I wear Carhartt, again), jeans or work pants, and Carhartt Overalls (this is why I do the overalls and not the full body coveralls: I want to be able to remove layers easily). This way, if the activity is screening, I’ll stay warm, but if it’s shovel testing, I can discard items as my body heat rises. Working in the cold is a delicate negotiation between staying warm but not sweating, because then you’re wet.

Keeping your Hands Warm

This is one of the most difficult parts of working in the winter, since it is difficult to really do anything delicate such as troweling or picking up artifacts with big winter gloves on. So, I typically adopt the layering approach for my hands as well. I will buy a pair of knit work gloves, leather work gloves, and big winter gloves. The knit gloves I can slide in and out of the work gloves or the winter gloves, so I wear them all the time. They aren’t perfect, but they give me some dexterity. Leather gloves are for screening (the dirt will make your hands wet and cold, and knit gloves will rip on the screen, so you want something separate for this). Winter gloves are for the inactive moments, or when your hands really need a warm up. Lastly, hand warmers never hurt, and can be a nice addition to the inside of your gloves.

Food and Beverage

Obviously, a good thermos for a warm coffee is nice to have on hand. You want something that will heat your drink for most of the day, so that you can get a jolt of refreshing heat as the day progresses. As for warm food, this is a difficult thing to accomplish: most food will be cold by lunch. However, there is one magical lunch box that will keep food warm for up to eight hours: Mr. Bento. Created as a way to pack bento style lunches, Mr. Bento is a stackable set of containers, the bottom two which are made to hold rice and soup, and to keep them warm. Of course, you can put anything in there you’d like. For an idea as to what people do, visit the Flickr Photo Group. Trust me: there is nothing better then opening up a warm stew after a morning of rolling around in the snow. This is a worthwhile investment.

The Beard

For those of you genetically pre-determined to be able to grow facial hair, get on it. The beard is our own natural way to keep our faces warm, and it really does work. I have a healthy one going right now, and I know that it is keeping my face warm throughout the winter months. Join the club. For those of you who are unable to grow a beard, you can try one of these beard alternatives.

What are some of your favorite tips for winter archaeology? Share them below!

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About Terry Brock

Terry is an archaeologist who lives in Virginia with his fiancee and is writing his PhD at Michigan State University. In his spare time, he writes for Gradhacker, an Inside Higher Ed Blog, and tweets @brockter. His favorite thing he's ever written is Swimming Buddies and a Pipe Cleaner Necklace.