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by Alan S

For those of us that have been in this hobby/profession/obsession for a few years it’s easy to forget that every single day new people are taking their very first step into the field and may well feel in need of a very basic outline of what it’s all about. So here, especially for them is an old newbies guide for new newbies. Standard Caveat: I am neither an archaeologist, historian or scholar.

Archaeology. The word comes from the Greek (arkhaiologia, ‘discourse about ancient things’), but today it has come to mean the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains.

The beginnings of modern archaeology can be traced back to medieval times, where ploughshares would occasionally turn up the odd arrowhead, or worked flint. Often cited as elven tools and weapons, attributed to the little people or the gods, they were something to be wondered at, often feared. But they were also collected by more scholarly types, often displayed in a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities‘.

By the 1500’s, clerics and other ‘men of learning’ with far too much time on their hands began to get curious about the lumps and bumps evident in the landscape, along with the workings of the ‘old ones’; barrows, ‘Roman Camps’, dolmens, henges, stone circles and the like. In many cases this curiosity was fulfilled by sketches and fanciful writings of lost tribes, arcane druidic rites and other fantasies. This new pastime led to many scholars, later dubbed ‘antiquarians’ to visit, sketch and survey a multitude of sites, often recording them for the first time. Names such as Aubrey, Stow, Camden all belong to this initial period of modern archaeology.

The Rollrights as depicted by WIlliam Camden in his 'Brittania'

The Rollrights as depicted by WIlliam Camden in his ‘Brittania

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, excavations were more and more common, with some gangs of labourers ‘excavating’ a dozen or more barrows in a day, in searches often motivated by a hope of ‘treasure’, with little or no thought by this time of other knowledge that could be gained. It was during this period that many features were lost – stone circles cast down and broken up or buried, barrows flattened etc. However, slowly the idea that gilded treasure may not be the only reward to be gained took hold, and some excavators took more pains to record their work, giving rise to the idea that the deeper something is, then generally the older it is. The science of stratification – dating by layers – was born.

In the early nineteenth century, this idea of systematic excavation rather than blindly ‘digging for gold’ signified the change from ‘antiquarianism’ to true archaeology as we know it today, and by the end of the century those such as Pitt-Rivers had almost entirely abandoned the treasure-hunt in favour of a search for information, and a means of answering specific questions about the past. Pitt-Rivers’ approach was highly methodical by the standards of the time, and he is widely regarded as the first scientific archaeologist to work in Britain.


General Pitt-Rivers

In the late 1800’s it was becoming increasingly obvious that we are dealing with a finite resource that needed protection, but it wasn’t until 1913 that the Ancient Monuments Act finally came into force. The new Act, replacing earlier, mostly ineffective legislation did three things.

  • It allowed for a compulsory ‘Preservation Order’ when a monument or building of sufficient ‘historic, architectural, traditional, artistic, or archaeological interest’ was at risk of demolition by a private owner.
  • It allowed the ‘scheduling’ of monuments, which involved compiling a list, or schedule, of monuments which were deemed to be of ‘national importance’. Once on the list, it became a crime to damage such a monument.
  • It provided the Office of Works with powers to take into guardianship monuments of outstanding importance. Public access was made a right for all new such guardianships. This year, English Heritage are celebrating the centenary of the 1913 Act.

The last century or so has seen an explosion in the scale of interest and public participation in archaeology, with the likes of Mortimer Wheeler, Atkinson and more recently the Time Team television series. But two major general trends have emerged: excavations take longer than in the past (Time Team excepted, although even their celebrated 3-day digs involve weeks or months of preparation and post-excavation activities), are planned and executed more meticulously than ever before, and specialisms in archaeology – or more correctly the branches of science involved in an archaeological excavation have expanded, and continue to do so. It’s less and less likely that someone describes themselves as just an ‘archaeologist’. Geophysicists, dendrochronologists, LIDAR specialists, aerial photographers, desk-based researchers, historians, botanists, oesteologists, Post-Ex Finds Specialists (with all the sub-divisions that entails) and even specialists in ancient breeds of snail, and more are all valid specialisms within the range of an average archaeology ‘dig’ today.

Consequently, the amount of information to be gleaned from a dig today is exponentially greater than that even from 30 years ago, allowing ever more insightful glimpses into a past that many of us can only imagine.

Yet despite all these apparent advances, it seems that some are determinedly rooted in the past, in more ways than one. As is evidenced from our recent exposé of the nighthawking activity at the Staffordshire Hoard findspot, the mentality of the treasure-hunting barrow-digger gangs is sadly still with us.

So to those people just discovering an interest in our past I say: Ignore the shiny things and concentrate on what is important. When visiting an archaeological site, look around, and use your imagination to immerse yourself in a world that is long gone. Our heritage is a finite and precious resource that belongs to all of us. It’s future is in your hands, take care of it!


February 2013

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