archaeology [Gr.,=study of beginnings], a branch of anthropology that seeks to document and explain continuity and change and similarities and differences among human cultures. Archaeologists work with the material remains of cultures, past and present, providing the only source of information available for past nonliterate societies and supplementing written sources for historical and contemporary groups.

History of Archaeology

The discipline had its origins in early efforts to collect artistic materials of extinct groups, an endeavor that can be traced back to the 15th cent. in Italy when growing interest in ancient Greece inspired the excavation of Greek sculpture. In the 18th cent. the progress of Greek and Roman archaeology was advanced by Johann Winckelmann and Ennio Visconti and by excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii; in the 19th cent., by the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles. The study of ancient cultures in the Aegean region was stimulated by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, and of Arthur Evans at Crete. The work of Martin Nilsson, Alan Wace, and John Pendlebury was also significant in this area, and the decipherment of the Minoan script by Michael Ventris raised new speculations about the early Aegean cultures.

The foundations of Egyptology, a prolific branch of classical archaeology because of the wealth of material preserved in the dry Egyptian climate, were laid by the recovery of the Rosetta Stone (see under Rosetta) and the work of French scholars who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt. Investigations that have reconstructed the lives and arts of elite segments of ancient Egyptian society and rewritten Egyptian history were carried on in the 19th cent. by Karl Lepsius, Auguste Mariette, and Gaston Maspero, and in the 19th and 20th cent. by W. M. Flinders Petrie, James Breasted, and others.

Interest in the Middle East was stimulated by the work of Edward Robinson (1794-1863) on the geography of the Bible and by the decipherment of a cuneiform inscription of Darius I, which was copied (1835) by Henry Rawlinson from the Behistun rock in Iran. Archaeology in Mesopotamia was notably advanced in the 19th cent. by Jules Oppert, Paul Botta, and Austen Layard and in the 20th cent. by Charles Woolley, Henri Frankfort, and Seton Lloyd. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, beginning in 1947, aroused new interest in biblical studies (see biblical archaeology).

Interest in complex New World cultures was stimulated by the publication by John Stephens of an account of his travels (1839) in Central America, which excited the interest of archaeologists in the Maya. In the 19th cent. studies began of the Toltec and the Aztec in Mexico and of the Inca in South America. In 1926 the discovery of human cultural remains associated with extinct fauna near Folsom, N.Mex. (see Folsom culture), established the substantial depth of prehistory for the New World (see Americas, antiquity and prehistory of the).

Modern Archaeology

In contrast to the antiquarianism of classical archaeology, anthropological archaeology today is concerned with culture history (i.e., the chronology of events and cultural traditions) and the explanation of cultural processes. A variety of different dating techniques, both relative (e.g., stratigraphy) and absolute (e.g., radiocarbon, obsidian hydration, potassium-argon), are used to place events in time. Attempts at explaining evolutionary processes underlying prehistoric remains began with the conclusion advanced in 1832 by the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen that cultures may be divided into stages of progress based on the principal materials used for weapons and implements. His three-age theory (the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age) was essentially based on prehistoric materials from Scandinavia and France.

Concerted investigations began in the mid-19th cent. with the stratigraphic excavation of such remains as the lake dwelling, barrow, and kitchen midden. At first the sequences of culture change uncovered in Western Europe were generalized to include all of world history, but improved techniques of field excavation and the expansion of archaeological discoveries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas challenged the universality of rigid classifications. Technological traditions ceased to be regarded as inevitable concomitants of specific cultural stages.

Later interpretations of prehistoric human life emphasize cultural responses to changing demographic and environmental conditions (see ecology). Thus the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods are evaluated in terms of subsistence technologies, and explanations are sought for the causes underlying these transitions. Advances in the recovery and analysis of botanical remains have allowed investigators to model changes in the prehistoric environment with increasing precision, improving the accuracy of such explanations. Paleobotany, the analysis of ancient plant remains, and ethnobotany, the study of the cultural utilization of plants, therefore play a vital role in modern archaeology. Faunal analysis, the recovery and analysis of animal remains such as bone, also plays an important part in the study of prehistoric ecology and subsistence patterns. The careful analysis of botanical and faunal material, combined with advances in the analysis of genetic material, have led to the detailed understanding of the process of the domestication of plants and animals in both the Old and New World. Contemporary archaeologists are also concerned with the emergence of various forms of complex social organization, including chiefdoms, class stratification, and states. Among the most important work done in the mid-20th cent. was that of Louis and Mary Leakey, who located the skeletal remains of humans in East Africa dating back 1.7 million years (see human evolution). In recent years, a number of archaeologists have turned from traditional concerns and have made efforts to reconstruct ideological elements of extinct cultures.

Modern museums with valuable collections include the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; the British Museum; the Louvre; national museums in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, rich in remains of the Iron Age; the Vatican and Capitoline museums, Rome; collections from Pompeii and Herculaneum at Naples, Italy; and museums in Athens, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Many universities have established schools and museums of archaeology. Organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Geographic Society in the United States promote archaeological studies.


See G. Daniel, A Hundred and Fifty Years of Archaeology (2d ed. 1975); B. G. Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought (1989); R. J. Wenke, Patterns in Prehistory (3d ed. 1990); G. R. Willey and J. Sabloff, A History of American Archaeology (1990); I. Hodder, Reading the Past (2d ed. 1991).

The term archaeological excavation has a double meaning.

  1. Excavation is the best known and most commonly used within the science of archaeology. In this sense it is the exposure, processing and recording of archaeological remains.
  2. The term is also used for an example of the application of the technique to the study of a given site. In this sense, an excavation may sometimes be referred to as a "dig" by those who participate, this being a concise, if over-simplified description of the process. Such a site excavation concerns itself with a specific archaeological site or a connected series of sites, and may be conducted over a number of years.


Within the practice of excavation, numerous specialised techniques are available for use, and each dig will have its particular features which will determine the archaeologists' approach. Resources and other practical issues do not allow archaeologists to carry out excavations whenever and wherever they choose. These constraints mean many known sites have been deliberately left unexcavated. This is with the intention of preserving them for future generations as well as recognising the role they serve in the communities that live near them. In some cases it is also hoped that improvements in technology will enable them to be re-examined at a later date, with more fruitful results.

The presence or absence of archaeological remains can often be suggested to a more or less high degree of probability, by remote sensing, such as ground-penetrating radar. Indeed, grosser information about the development of the site may be drawn from this work but the understanding of finer features usually requires excavation though appropriate use of augering. Retrieval of information from artefacts can be achieved only by the invasive method of excavation.

Historical development

The development of excavation techniques has moved over the years from a treasure hunting process to one which seeks to fully understand the sequence of human activity on a given site and that site's relationship with other sites and with the landscape in which it is set.

Its history began with a crude search for treasure and for artefacts which fell into the category of 'curio'. These curios were the subject of interest of antiquarians. It was later appreciated that digging on a site destroyed the evidence of earlier people's lives which it had contained. Once the curio had been removed from its context, most of the information it held was lost. It was from this realization that antiquarianism began to be replaced by archaeology, a process still being perfected.

Site formation

Archaeological material would, to a very large extent, have been called rubbish when it was left on the site. It tends to accumulate in events. A gardener swept a pile of soil into a corner, laid a gravel path or planted a bush in a hole. A builder built a wall and back-filled the trench. Years later, someone built a pig sty onto it and drained the pig sty into the nettle patch. Later still, the original wall blew over and so on. Each event, which may have taken a short or long time to accomplish, leaves a context. This layer cake of events is often referred to as the archaeological sequence or record. It is by analysis of this sequence or record that excavation is intended to permit interpretation, which should lead to discussion and understanding.

Excavation types

Phase is the most easily understood grouping for the layman as it implies a near contemporaneous Archaeological horizon representing "what you would see if you went back to a specific point in time". Often but not always a phase implies the identification of an occupation surface "old ground level" that existed at some earlier time. The production of phase interpretations is one of the first goals of stratigraphic interpretation and excavation. Digging "in phase" is not quite the same as phasing a site. Phasing a site represents reducing the site either in excavation or post excavation to contemporaneous horizons where as "digging in phase" is the process of stratigraphic removal of archaeological remains so as not to remove contexts that are earlier in time "lower in the sequence" before other contexts that have a latter physical stratigraphic relationship to them as defined by the law of superposition. The process of interpretation in practice will have a bearing on excavation strategies on site so "phasing" a site is actively pursued during excavation where at all possible, and is considered good practice.

Excavation in practice


Excavation initially involves the removal of any topsoil overburden by machine. This material may be examined by metal detector for stray finds but unless the site has remained untouched since its abandonment there is invariably a layer of modern material on the surface of limited archaeological interest. In rural areas, any features are often visible beneath the surface as opposed to urban areas where there may be thick layers of human deposits and only the uppermost contexts will be initially visible and definable through isolation from other contexts. A strategy for sampling the contexts and features is formulated which may involve total excavation of each feature or only portions. It is preferred goal of excavation to remove all archaeological deposits and features in the reverse order they were created and construct a Harris matrix as a chronological record or "sequence" of the site. This Harris matrix is used for interpretation and combining contexts into ever larger units of understanding. This stratigraphic removal of the site is crucial for understanding the chronology of events on site. It is perhaps easier to think of this as "archaeological deposits should leave the site in the reverse order they arrived". A grid is usually set up, dividing the site into 5 m squares to better aid the positioning of the features and contexts on the overall site plan. This grid is usually tied into a national geomatic database such as the Ordnance Survey in the UK. In urban archaeology this grid becomes invaluable for implementing single context recording.

The single context recording system

Single context recording was developed in the 1970s by the museum of London (as well as earlier in Winchester and York) and has become the de facto recording system in many parts of the world and is especially suited to the complexities of deep urban archaeology and the process of Stratification. Each excavated context is given a unique "context number" and is recorded by type on a context sheet and perhaps being drawn on a plan and/or a section. Depending on time constraints and importance contexts may also be photographed, but in this case a grouping of contexts and their associations are the purpose of the photography. Finds from each context are bagged and labelled with their context number and site code for later cross reference work carried out post excavation. The height above sea level of pertinent points on a context, such as the top and bottom of a wall are taken and added to plans sections and context sheets. Heights are recorded with a dumpy level or total station by relation to the site temporary benchmark (abbr. T.B.M). Samples of deposits from contexts are sometimes also taken, for later environmental analysis or for scientific dating.

Stratigraphic excavation in practice

Best practice of stratigraphic excavation in its basic sense involves a cyclical process of cleaning or "troweling back" the surface of the site and isolating contexts and edges which are definable in their entirety or part as either

  1. Discreet discernible "edges" that form an enclosed area completely visible in plan and therefore stratigraphically later than the surrounding surface or
  2. Discrete, discernible "edges" that are formed by being completely separated from the surrounding surface as in 1 and have boundaries dictated by the limit of excavation.

Following this preliminary process of defining the context, the context is then assessed in relation to the wider understanding of the site, for considerations of reduction of the site in phases, and then removed and recorded by various methods. Often, owing to practical considerations or error, the process of defining the edges of contexts is not followed and contexts are removed out of sequence and un-stratigraphically. This is called "digging out of phase". It is not good practice. After removing a context or if practical a set of contexts such as the case would be for features, the "isolate and dig" procedure is repeated until no man made remains are left on site and the site is reduced to natural.

Physical methodology of excavation

The process of excavation is achieved in many ways depending on the nature of the deposits to be removed and time constraints. In the main, deposits are lifted by Trowel and Mattock and shovelled or carried from the site by wheel barrow and bucket. The use of many other tools including fine trowels such as the plaster's leaf trowel and brushes of various grades are used on delicate items such as human bone and decayed timber. When removing material from the archaeological record some basic guidelines are often observed.

  1. Work from the known to the unknown. This means that, if one is unsure of the stratigraphic boundaries of the material in question, the removal of material should start from an area where the sequence is better understood rather than less.
  2. Work from the top to the bottom. As well as working from the known to the unknown, also as far as possible, remove material at the physically highest level in the context and work towards the lowest. This is best practice because loose spoil will not then fall onto and contaminate the surface being worked on. In this way blurring detail that might have been instructive to the excavator is avoided.
  3. In archaeology, we use our eyes. Excavation of contexts correctly often relies on detailed observations of minute differences.
  4. If in doubt, bash it out. This rather cavalier-sounding maxim is a concise way of expressing the need to progress. There is always more to be done on a site, than there is time in which to do it. At times the next feature or context to be removed in the sequence is not clear even to an experienced archaeologist. When it is not possible to proceed in an ideal manner, the excavation must be continued in a more arbitrary way, with temporary sections, until discernible stratigraphy is again encountered. An area of the site is reduced leaving arbitrary, temporary sections as a form of stratigraphic control to provide early warning of "digging out of phase". If the arbitrary area for excavation is wisely chosen, the sequence should be revealed and excavation can return to a truly stratigraphic method. It is important to realize that "bash it out" is not a totally random act but a best guess based on logical deductions, observation and experience.

Common errors in excavation

Common errors during excavation fall into two basic categories and one or the other is almost inevitable because excavation is a destructive process that removes the information it seeks to record in real time and mistakes cannot be rectified easily.

  1. Under-cutting. Under cutting occurs where contexts are not excavated fully and some remainder of the context is left in situ masking the nature of the underlying contexts. This is especially common among inexperienced archaeologists who have a tendency to be timid. The consequences of undercutting are quite serious as the nature of the archaeological sequence is obscured and subsequent recording and excavation is based on a flawed reading of the deposits on site. Unchecked, what follows from under-cutting is the production of false data often from the failure to spot intrusive finds and in turn, serious ramifications for the ability to interpret the sequence post excavation. Entire sites can be "thrown out of phase" where relationships recorded in the Harris matrix bear no genuine association with any understandable phase of occupation. If a regime of under-cutting is allowed to progress its effects multiply as the site is reduced.
  2. Over-cutting. Over-cutting occurs when contexts are unintentionally removed along with material from other deposits and contexts. Heavy over-cutting represents reckless removal of the sequence. However some degree of over-cutting is almost impossible to avoid and is certainly preferable to unchecked under-cutting even though over-cutting represents a loss of information.

Over-cutting represents the loss of information whereas undercutting represents false information. One role of an archaeologist is to avoid false information and minimize the loss of information.

Finds and artefacts retrieval

Finds and artefacts that survive in the archaeological record are retrieved in the main by hand and observation as the context they survive in is excavated. Several other techniques are available depending on suitability and time constraints. Sieving and flotation is used to maximize the recovery of small items such as small shards of pottery or flint flakes. The use of sieving is more common on research based excavations where more time is available. Some success has been achieved with the use of cement mixers and bulk sieving. This method allows the quick removal of context by shovel and mattock yet allows for a high retrieval rate. Spoil is shovelled into cement mixers and water added to form a slurry which is then poured through a large screen mesh. Flotation is a process of retrieval that works by passing spoil onto the surface of water and separating finds that float from the spoil which sinks, this is especially suited to the recovery of environmental data such as seeds and small bones. Not all finds retrieval is done during excavation and some especially floatation may take place post excavation from samples taken during excavation. One important role of finds retrieval during excavation is the role of specialists to provide Spot dating information on the contexts being removed from the archaeological record which can provide advance warning of potential discoveries to come by virtue of residual finds redeposited in contexts higher in the sequence which should be coming offsite earlier than contexts from early eras and phases. This spot dating also forms part of a confirmation process of assessing the validity working hypothesis on the phasing of site during excavation. For example the presence of an anomalous medieval pottery sherd in what was thought to be an Iron Age ditch feature could radically alter onsite thinking on the correct strategy for digging a site and save a lot of information being lost due to incorrect assumptions about the nature of the deposits which will be destroyed by the excavation process and in turn, limit the sites potential for revealing information for Post excavation specialists. Or anomalous information could show up errors in excavation such as "undercutting". Dating methodology in part relies on accurate excavation and in this sense the two activities become interdependent.

Mechanical diggers

There is an increasing use of machine diggers especially in developer-led excavation due to time pressures. This is an area of controversy as their use inevitably results in less discrimination in how the archaeological sequence on a site is recorded. Machines are used primarily to remove modern overburden and for the control of spoil. In British archaeology mechanical diggers are sometimes nicknamed "the big yellow trowel".

Organisation of workforce

A group of archaeological excavators will generally work for a supervisor who reports to the site director or project manager. He or she will have ultimate responsibility for interpreting the site and writing the final report. Most excavations are eventually published in professional journals although this process can take years. This process takes place Post excavation and evolves a myriad of other specialists.

See also

External links


  • Barker, Philip (1993) Techniques of archaeological excavation, 3rd ed., London : Batsford, ISBN 0-7134-7169-7
  • Westman, Andrew (Ed.) (1994) Archaeological site manual, 3rd. ed., London : Museum of London, ISBN 0-904818-40-3

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