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Why do Archaeologists Excavate?

Updated on March 15, 2016


Excavation is the public face of archaeology and for many people their first introduction to the subject is from being a bystander at an dig or watching one of several television shows such as Time Team.

The very first excavations to be undertaken occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - none of which were very scientific in their approach to the task nor very methodical in the keeping of records. These early explorers were primarily interested in finding objects and establishing collections. It wasn't until the early decades of the twentieth century did archaeological excavation acquire a methodology. Even though there is no one set of rules for excavation there is nowadays a general agreement on key elements of the processes.

In truth excavation is but one methodology used by archaeologists to help them understand the past and more often than not excavation is a last resort. Why? Well in short when a site or part of a site is excavated it is destroyed.

"Once disturbed, trowelled, shovelled and bucketed away that material cannot be replaced as it was before the excavator removed it." (from The Archaeology Coursebook eds J Grant, S Gorin and N Fleming)

Because of this a great deal of time is spent on deciding how and where best to excavate, such decisions are often made on the back of prior research - refer to earlier Hub Further more the destruction can be kept to a minimum if due care and attention is given especially when recording.

Types of Excavation

There are two main types of excavation -

  • Research
  • Rescue

Research Excavations

This type of dig is often conducted in response to a period of lengthy non-invasive forms of research. A site will be chosen based on its ability to answer specific questions which have arisen from the previous research and cannot be answered in any other way. Funding for these kinds of excavations is almost non-existent and are almost always conducted by Universities or private individuals. Funding is provided by paying volunteers and are referred to as training digs - an often essential part of any archaeology undergraduates studies.

Rescue Excavations

Back in the 1960s in the UK archaeologists became increasingly aware that a large number of archaeological sites were being swept away through the action of developers and thus a great deal of potentially important data was being lost. As a result of this teams were formed whose job it was to excavate and record sites as and when necessary - no longer was the dig a summer time activity.

From these teams the archaeological units familiar to UK archaeologists emerged the Oxford Archaeological Unit and Wessex Archaeology are but two examples.

Pictish Stones in Rhynie - An Example of a Research Excavation

In 1978 two farmers in Rhynie (Aberdeenshire, Scotland) came across two unknown carved stone slabs whilst ploughing their fields. these carved stone slabs (or symbol stones) are known throughout this part of Scotland, one of the most famous and only a short distance away from the ploughed up finds is the Craw Stane - a large standing stone decorated with beast and salmon images.

Such stones in Scotland are attributed to the Picts and date from between the fourth and tenth centuries. A time in Scotland's past where tribal hierarchies were slowly turning into the more formal Christian kingdoms, the symbols carved on them changing as the politics changed over time. However, it is also a period not clearly understood and so any new research would always be welcome.

Aerial photographs taken in 1978 around the area of the Craw Stane showed a series of concentric circles around the stone as well as several other interesting features. This combined with the concentration of Pictish symbol stones in the area should have been enough to encourage further investigation. Even so it was not until 2011 that the University of Aberdeen and the University of Chester was able to secure funding to investigate the features identified by the earlier aerial photos.

Excavations were carried out over several years and from this work the archaeologists were able to place Rhynie as an important high status site during the fifth and sixth centuries. From these excavations the archaeologists were able to identify the first fully timber structure dated to this period, it was also appears that the Craw Stane originally formed part of the entrance way to this large structure. In addition excavators also found artefacts from as far afield as the Mediterranean plus a wide range of metal artefacts including an 'axe-hammer pin' which bears a striking similarity to the axe-hammer carried by the Rhynie Man.

This we have an example of a long term research excavation being carried out by two universities with the aim of understanding how the symbol stones might fit into the wider landscape both politically and in reality. Ultimately these excavations have enhanced the archaeologists knowledge of the Picts in the fifth and sixth centuries, providing tantalising glimpses into slightly less murky past.

For more information on Rhynie visit

The Craw Stane with Tap O'North in the background (once an Iron Age hill fort).
The Craw Stane with Tap O'North in the background (once an Iron Age hill fort). | Source

Two Examples of Rescue Archaeology at Work

In 2014 Wessex Archaeology was required to carry out archaeological work ahead of the construction of a new water main. The following are but two of the discoveries made during this work.

  • Near West Knoyle in Wiltshire an unusual grave of a woman was found dated to the late Iron Age based on pottery fragments found in the grave fill. The grave was unusual because her feet were cut off and the remains of at least three sheep/goats were placed on her head. Her feet were later found under her remains. During the investigation the archaeologists also identified numerous other storage/quarry pits; Roman field systems and three other burials dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD suggesting a Romano-British farmstead nearby.
  • In a stretch between Uckington and Atcham near Wroxeter the archaeologists carried out excavations and geophysical survey identifying three areas of activity. The first was a ditched enclosure near to the River Tern about 40m in diameter thought to be used to store tiles and the discovery of small pottery kiln nearby would seem to confirm this. North of this site a series of ditches dating back into prehistory were identified, these were overlain by a small square feature dated to the Roman period and was interpreted as a possible shrine. In addition the archaeologists also discovered six cremation burials also dating to the Roman period.

In both of these examples (and all others) rescue archaeology is helping to fill in the blanks of the archaeological record and at the very least they identify areas for potential further research.

"The correlation of this data with the available cropmark evidence will add significantly to the research aims of the Wroxeter Northern Hinterland Project" (Chris Swales of Wessex Archaeology quoted in 'Current Archaeology' April 2014)

The remains of Virconium - Roman Wroxeter.
The remains of Virconium - Roman Wroxeter. | Source

Striking a Balance

Today's archaeology is all about striking a balance; a balance between wanting to protect and preserve archaeological remains and the need to improve the methodologies and increase our knowledge of the past. It is a fine line which the archaeologist walks...

"Today, excavators are expected to:

  • provide justification for digging a site
  • use survey techniques to plan excavation strategies
  • be able to cope with subsequent changes on site
  • ensure that a complete recording system is in place
  • select and maintain appropriate samples for analysis
  • have facilities for all aspects of post excavation work
  • interpret a site from a limited excavation or sample
  • 'publish' the results of the work so that they are available to other interested parties
  • maintain professional standards while working under time and economic constraints

If this is done then excavation can move beyond the possible results of survey and get to the real core of archaeology - the hard evidence left by previous people of their existence."

(From - 'The Archaeology Coursebook' eds J Grant, S Gorin and N Fleming 2002)

E is for Excavation - From Archaeosoup


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