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A dog digging on a beach.
Twelfth century illustration of a man digging.
A group of men digging for Kauri gum in New Zealand.
Construction equipment being used to dig up rocky ground.

Digging is the process of using some implement such as claws, hands, or tools, to remove material from a solid surface, usually soil or sand on the surface of the Earth. Digging is actually the combination of two processes, the first being the breaking or cutting of the surface, and the second being the removal and relocation of the material found there.[1] In a simple digging situation, this may be accomplished in a single motion, with the digging implement being used to break the surface and immediately fling the material away from the hole or other structure being dug.

Many kinds of animals engage in digging, either as part of burrowing behavior or to search for food or water under the surface of the ground.[2] Historically, humans have engaged in digging for both of these reasons, and for a variety of additional reasons, such as engaging in agriculture and gardening, searching for minerals, metals, and other raw materials such as during mining and quarrying, preparing for construction, creating fortifications and irrigation, and also excavations in archaeology, searching for fossils and rocks in palaeontology and geology and burial of the dead.

Digging by humans[edit]

Reasons for digging[edit]

There are a wide variety of reasons for which humans dig holes, trenches, and other subsurface structures. It has long been observed that humans have a seemingly instinctive desire to dig holes in the ground, manifesting in childhood:

Some children like to dig holes into the ground without any definite purpose. These are of various sizes and depth and are often called a lake or pit. A favorite effort is to dig tunnels between two holes. The digging of underground passages seems to have a peculiar fascination for children.[3]

Like other animals, humans dig in the ground to find food and water. Wood-lined water wells are known from the early Neolithic Linear Pottery culture, for example in Kückhoven (an outlying centre of Erkelenz), dated 5090 BC and Eythra, dated 5200 BC in Schletz (an outlying centre of Asparn an der Zaya) in Austria.[4] Humans are unique among animals in the practice of burial of the dead. Intentional burial, particularly with grave goods, may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice since, as Philip Lieberman suggests, it may signify a "concern for the dead that transcends daily life."[5] Evidence suggests that the Neanderthals were the first human species to practice burial behavior and intentionally bury their dead, doing so in shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones.[6][7] Exemplary sites include Shanidar in Iraq, Kebara Cave in Israel and Krapina in Croatia. Some scholars, however, argue that these bodies may have been disposed of for secular reasons.[8] Notably, burial of the dead prevents diseases associated with the presence of corpses, and prevents scavengers and other predators from being attracted.

The earliest undisputed human burial, discovered so far, dates back 100,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave at Qafzeh, Israel. A variety of grave goods were present at the site, including the mandible of a wild boar in the arms of one of the skeletons.[9]

As human technology advanced, digging began to be used for agriculture, mining, and in earthworks, and new techniques and technologies were developed to suit these purposes.

Methods of digging[edit]

Although humans are capable of digging in sand and soil using their bare hands, digging is often more easily accomplished with tools. The most basic tool for digging is the shovel.[1] In neolithic times and earlier, a large animal's scapula (shoulder blade) was often used as a crude shovel.[10] In modern times, shovels are typically made of metal, with a wooden handle. Because digging is a cutting process, particularly where the soil being dug contains plant roots, digging is aided by the shovel being sharpened.[11]

Historically, manual shoveling (often in combination with picking) was the chief means of excavation in construction, mining, and quarrying, and digging projects employed large numbers of people. After the Industrial Revolution, mechanization via steam shovels and later hydraulic equipment (excavators such as backhoes and loaders) gradually replaced most manual shoveling; however, individual homeowners still often find reasons to engage in manual digging during smaller-scale projects around the home.[1]

Types of digging[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Carl Dreher, "The Right Way to Dig", Popular Science (March 1957), p. 179.
  2. ^ Zen Faulkes, "Morphological Adaptations for Digging and Burrowing" (2013), p. 276-295.
  3. ^ R.A. Archer, "Spontaneous Constructions and Primitive Activities of Children Analogous to Those of Primitive Man", in Karl M. Dallenbach, Madison Bentley, Edwin Garrigues Boring, eds., The American Journal of Psychology (1910), p. 119.
  4. ^ Tegel W, Elburg R, Hakelberg D, Stäuble H, Büntgen U (2012). "Early Neolithic Water Wells Reveal the World's Oldest Wood Architecture". PLoS ONE. 7 (12): e51374. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051374. PMC 3526582. PMID 23284685.
  5. ^ Philip Lieberman. (1991). Uniquely Human. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-92183-6.
  6. ^ Wilford, John Noble (December 16, 2013). "Neanderthals and the Dead". New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2013.
  7. ^ Chris Scarre, The Human Past
  8. ^ "Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins - research of burial rituals of Neanderthals". Findarticles.com. 2001-12-15. Retrieved 2011-03-25.
  9. ^ Uniquely Human page 163. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2011-03-25.
  10. ^ Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, p. 304.
  11. ^ David Tracey, "How to dig a hole", Urban Agriculture: Ideas and Designs for the New Food Revolution (2011), p. 119.

External links[edit]