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By Alan S and Sandy Gerrard
In the first part of this series, we briefly examined the pre-excavation activities of a typical archaeology project. We now continue our overview of the different types of archaeological practice, and their predilection to cause damage to the archaeological record, by examining various aspects of excavation technique.
But first, what do we actually mean by the term ‘damage’? The archaeological resource is a limited and dwindling asset. Excavation is always destructive and it is therefore crucial that it is carried out as carefully and efficiently as possible. Any deposits removed during the course of an excavation are destroyed together with the information they held. It is therefore the duty of the archaeologist to ensure that as much accurate information as possible is collected. If an excavation is not recorded correctly, any information from that excavation is lost forever. Therefore it is of prime importance that accurate records are kept of what has been excavated, and where. That includes any and all finds, features and samples, from all contexts. If records are not kept, knowledge is lost, and the damage to the archaeological record is total.
This is where the most damage is done! Let’s start by saying yes, all excavation is damaging. However the difference between a good excavation and a bad excavation is simple. A good excavation enhances our knowledge and appreciation of the past whilst a bad one adds nothing or at best very little and at worst may provide fallacious results which might seriously impair and even distort our understanding.
‘Excavation’ undertaken by metal detectorists can be without doubt one of the most damaging activities. Although there may have been some desk-based research prior to hitting the site, there will rarely be a formal methodology to the excavation other than ‘ping’/dig! Some detectorists may advise the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) of any significant (read metallic) finds but often the valuable context of the finds will have been trashed together with associated items (pottery, flints, fibres, animal bone etc) which are often discarded as irrelevant by the detectorist. Recording may comprise at best of a photo (or video) or two of the finds, and a GPS reference which may point to no more than a particular field, or parish. The loss of knowledge in these situations will be immense and of course in the long run means that many of the questions of future generations will go unanswered as a result.
An Open Area Excavation can be the most informative and destructive in equal measures. The technique involves stripping away all of the layers in reverse to how they were formed. So off comes the turf and topsoil first and then each layer, feature and structure until nothing but subsoil or bedrock remains. Carried out properly by competent archaeologists this technique can provide more information than any other but the price can be the total destruction of the site being examined. Sometimes structures encountered are left in place but sometimes these too are removed in order to look for information below them.
Test pitting, Sampling and Trenching techniques are used by many projects as a way of mitigating the limits of any damage. Using these methods, the extent of excavation is reduced to the bare minimum needed to meet the project’s objectives. Test pits are usually 1m square excavations, whilst trenches can be any length or width and dependent upon the documented project objectives, both may be taken down as far as the ‘natural’ or bedrock level, in separate layers or ‘contexts’ to ensure nothing is missed. Section drawings and photographs are taken of the stratigraphy and any features uncovered. With larger excavations, and particularly in Rescue Archaeology situations, test pits may be extended, or repeated across an area to provide an agreed sampled percentage coverage of the site. In all cases, careful recording of each context is undertaken, and where necessary soil samples may be taken for laboratory analysis of pollen grains, snail shells, bone and insect remains etc. before the pit is backfilled at the end of the excavation. This strategy of course has the huge advantage of allowing some or even most of the archaeology to survive for future ‘better informed’ excavations in the future, but the limited nature of the work means that the results themselves will be incomplete and therefore possibly misleading.
Next time, we’ll finish off by looking at the post excavation activities.
Our friends at DigVentures are at it again, and this time it’s a doozy! You can join their search for Lindisfarne’s original Anglo-Saxon monastery…
“Our latest crowdfunded dig has arrived with a BANG! We’re on the hunt for one of the most iconic sites in British history – Lindisfarne’s original Anglo-Saxon monastery.”
In AD635, King Oswald founded a monastery on Lindisfarne and it quickly became beating the heart of Northumbria – one of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This is where the Lindisfarne gospels were illuminated, where the treasures that decorated the altars of Europe were made, and where thousands of miracle-seeking pilgrims came to seek salvation at the shrine of Saint Cuthbert.
But it didn’t end well. Raided by the Vikings in AD793, and with their brothers left for dead, Lindisfarne’s monks picked up their holy relics and fled.
Although they eventually returned and built a new priory, archaeologists have so far failed to locate the original Anglo-Saxon monastery. But DigVentures claims to have new evidence. All they need now to complete the team is YOU!
You can support the dig from a distance from just £10, and choose any of several archaeological benefits as your reward, or go one step further (from £165) and jump into the trenches and dig with them on Lindisfarne island this July!
Don’t miss your chance to make history. Click here to be part of the team that maybe, just maybe, finally manages to locate the monastery at the heart of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
By Alan S and Sandy Gerrard
“All archaeology is destructive” is a cry often heard from the lesser-spotted metal detectorist trying to defend their hobby. Even Mortimer Wheeler admitted that ‘excavation is merely methodical destruction’.
But how true is this?
Whilst it’s true that some field archaeology can be destructive, it’s surely more accurate to say that all archaeology is instructive. In terms of excavation techniques, it’s certainly true to say that carefully scraping away soil to reveal the hidden mysteries contained below is more rewarding than blindly shovelling earth to grab at hoped for treasures!
So to qualify that, in this short series let’s take a brief look at some of the different types of archaeology practised today and outline what each type involves.
Desk Based Archaeology
The phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’, used by Sir Isaac Newton (but with a much earlier origin), is used to describe the practise of research by referring to, and building upon the work of others. A large part of desk-based archaeology is based upon this principle, and should involve meticulous reference to previous research, excavation reports etc. Much of this can be done using a myriad of resources including: the Archaeological Data Service, Heritage Environment Records, libraries, old maps, National and County Record Offices, museums, satellite and aerial imagery, LIDAR or 3D imaging, and extrapolating information therefrom to identify potential new areas of investigation, or to strengthen or extend existing theories. No new excavation or collection of field data is involved, but future excavation plans may result from any findings.
Desk based analysis is often carried out to identify the potential for archaeological remains on the site of a planned development and may be used to inform planning decisions and highlight the need for mitigation. Where planning is granted and the archaeology will be destroyed or severely damaged the planning authorities should insist that a programme of archaeological work be carried out by the developer as a condition of permission being granted. In the most extreme instances where a whole site is earmarked for destruction the resultant excavation records will inevitably be the only tangible remains and this scenario is often euphemistically described as ‘preservation by record’. Desk-based archaeology is often the first stage of many archaeology projects, and of itself is not destructive – although as pointed out to me recently, reputations may rise or fall as a result of new interpretations of old data.
The next form of archaeological investigation involves getting out and looking at the site or landscape. This is important and offers an opportunity to establish the accuracy or otherwise of the desk based work and enable a fuller understanding of the resource. Many different techniques are available and the most suitable will depend on the character of the surviving archaeology. Where obvious earthworks survive survey work makes an excellent starting point. The production of a plan showing what is there and how all the different elements fit together allows the archaeologist to better understand what they are looking at.
Where they are few or no earthworks other techniques are needed to explore the past and amongst the better known are Geophysical surveys – the ‘Geofizz’ so beloved of Time Team aficionados. Sometimes a combination of earthwork survey and Geofizz can produce extraordinary results without causing any damage to the archaeology.
A third form of fieldwork which does inevitably erode the archaeological resource and can only be carried out within recently ploughed or cultivated fields is field walking which involves a planned traverse of the site on foot, looking for any artefacts (small finds) that may have been ploughed up to the surface. The Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up to record and interpret small finds, such as those uncovered by metal detectorists, activities such as informal field walking, and other chance finds. But in most cases field walking will be part of a larger project, and any finds will normally be documented as part of that project. Whilst field-walking itself is not necessarily destructive, it can lead to loss of information and ‘context’, if not properly planned and recorded.
There are many types of Geophysical survey, and indeed, metal detectors are but one tool in the geophysicist’s armoury. Most Geofizz tools work in a similar way, by sending electromagnetic signals into the ground and measuring the responses to build up a picture of any features which may be hidden below. Electro-magnetic resistivity and ground penetrating radar are the most common forms, with sonar being used for underwater archaeology sites. Whilst not destructive in and of itself, Geofizz aids in the project planning process, and is often a precursor to targeted excavation – the topic of the next part of this short series.
The modern archaeological industry is built upon the premise that sites selected for destruction should be recorded before they are destroyed. Following excavation the record is then deposited and the site is consequently “preserved by record”. At Mynydd y Betws the Bancbryn stone alignment was promised such treatment. Sadly whilst the first part was apparently completed the second was not. Carmarthenshire County Council have over the years been repeatedly asked for a copy of the excavation report and whilst most of these requests went unheeded recently a response was received.
“I have not had sight of any such report as part of my investigations, although I do not consider that it has undermined the fact that works have been carried out with due diligence within the development site, and that the condition imposed on the planning consent, and the reason for it, has been discharged in a way that is, on balance, proportionate and pragmatic”.
Basically they are saying that a report was not produced but this does not matter. What happens next time a developer says they will not fund the post-excavation. Carmarthenshire County Council have already set a dangerous precedent. For a site to be preserved by record there needs to be record otherwise the site has simply been destroyed and no amount of fine words will alter that fact.
To be clear a preliminary report was produced, but this included no photographs or drawings of the excavated areas. Instead photographs and drawings were limited to the areas beyond the excavation. How many modern excavation reports include only images of the areas beyond the area being investigated and none of the excavation itself?
In our Comments section we’ve just had some very interesting constructive criticism. Since it makes such a refreshing change from quite a bit of the abuse that gets left we’re reproducing it here followed by our response.
“There is a lot of confusion as the role of archaeology and archaeologists on this Blog. Here is the OED definition of Archaeologist
The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains.
Archaeologists are not the ultimate guardian of monuments as they seem to be perceived on this site. We can’t be as it is not within our remit nor within our area of specialism. Whilst I and other appreciate the reverence you give us it does concern me that the finger is often pointed in the direction of archaeology as being the holy grail holders of the immensely diverse historic sector. We aren’t. Archaeology can discover the past and interpret ate it but archaeology is transient in that it moves on to another project leaving the resultant custodial elements to other areas of historic custody.
As for the issue of brandalism, it really is personal rather than professional dialogue on the subject when discussed by archaeologists. The post excavation arena of history are those charged with policy development and adoption and the practical management of our historic record but I rarely see acknowledgement of these other sectors and their role on the articles that appear on here. These other areas of post excavation custodial activity really are the people you should align with as a conservation minded group.
i often see this confusion displayed as the misunderstanding of local history groups being seen as amateur archaeology groups. they aren’t. Appreciating and exploring known local or national history is not archaeology and this is where the CBA really does need to ensure that Archaeology is not misunderstood and therefore diluted as a discipline.”
Thanks for your comments.We accept the criticism, we do tend to give the impression that archaeologists should be heritage champions and prevent destruction when in fact that’s mostly not their role and beyond their ability. On the other hand we know that many of them do have strong opinions (as shown on the BAJR thread on brandalism) and that probably most of them agree with our concern that the development/conservation scales have tipped too far in favour of developers and too far away from conservation.
So we wish more of them said so in public, professionals have more sway than amateurs. The list of prominent archaeologists and academics standing up to be counted at Oswestry just might make a difference but it doesn’t happen enough (with the honourable exception of the likes of Rescue). Most fights are mostly conducted by amateurs and are mostly lost. So not only have the scales been rigged by the Government, the weight of participants on the conservation side is not as great as it might be.
We understand about the implications of the sources of finance for archaeology and that it’s not a good career move to rock the boat. It’s often retired or independent archaeologists who speak out. We also realise why some of the things we say get only a private nod of approval from archaeologists but understanding the public silence doesn’t make it feel OK or make the rigged scales more acceptable. EH are billed as England’s “Heritage Champions” but in many ways they act as Government fixers, which is the opposite so it’s hard for us to hear you say archaeology is transient in that it moves on to another project leaving the resultant custodial elements to other areas of historic custody (which reads like a sort of shrug) and “Archaeologists are not the ultimate guardian of monuments” – because if EH aren’t (and NT certainly aren’t lately) and archaeologists in general aren’t, then who is?
by Nigel S
OK, this article is mainly about non-prehistoric stuff but my excuse is that it didn’t start that way as I visited the village of Kempsey in Worcestershire to see the ramparts of an Iron Age promontory hill fort, just west of the church and close to the River Severn. Not spectacular these days but real enough. I chatted to the priest and he made me feel silly by saying some of it might be the “bund”, the very recent flood defences, but I don’t think the bit in the picture is, at least.
What caught my eye though was this, adjacent to the churchyard…..
It was erected by the locals following the discovery of 42 ancient graves during the construction of the flood defences and it contains the inscription: “Marking the reburial of our Saxon and Mediaeval ancestors 800-1300 BC”. The actual interment was just the other side of the fence, within the churchyard, but the stone was erected outside the fence so that passing ramblers would be able to see it. That strikes me as a great example of a village taking the trouble to mark its past, a past that is still connected to the present in some ways: as the priest pointed out, those who had been re-buried would all have been familiar with this …
Not all of Kempsey’s past is cherished though. Some of it is being exploited IMHO. First (like every village by now probably), Kempsey has been visited by metal detectorists under the unique Bonkers British legal umbrella which says they needn’t tell anyone about 99.98% of the historical finds they come across. One wonders just how much cultural knowledge of its past that has cost Kempsey bearing in mind that ARCHI UK, the database aimed at metal detectorists, lists 271 archaeological and historical sites within 10 km of the centre of the village!
Second, over on the other side of the village from the church there’s this new estate being developed ….
Note the name, Saxon Meadows. I bet there’s a new estate near you with a similar name. Being a bit of a cynic I read it as: “We’re probably destroying archaeology but this name shows we really care”! In the event they found a bit of Roman but no Saxon. Still, it’s the apparent caring that matters – although some gestures of caring in Kempsey are more obviously genuine than others!
It’s been a while coming, but their website has finally been given a bit of a makeover, and looks fresher and cleaner, making it easier to read and to find the articles of interest. But the big news is that they now also have an e-commerce component to the site (known to you and me as ‘a shop’), to be known as eRescue.
It’s now possible to sign up for membership online, and to purchase hardcopy books, PDF downloads of the ‘Rescue News’ newsletter, and other products, or to just make a donation to the cause. And as a special bonus, registered members get a discount on everything they buy via the online shop!
There is also a special Members’ Area, called ‘Rescue Premium’. This is a bit bare at the moment, containing only a video of a talk from this year’s AGM, but I’m advised that more content will be coming soon.
As a charitable trust Rescue do not receive any state support. They are entirely reliant on the contributions of members to support their work as advocates of the historic environment, at a time of unprecedented threat. So if you care about our heritage, please stop by their website and consider joining (only £15 a year for individuals), making a donation no matter how small, or purchasing one or more items from eRescue.
Now here’s a great idea! You’ve all heard of book clubs, where members all agree to read a particular book by a given date, and then meet to discuss the merits of said book? Well extend that idea to archaeological papers, throw in some technology to negate the need to physically meet but still allow real-time discussion and what you end up with is the Archaeology Reading Group, a new group set up to accomplish exactly that.
It’s early days at the moment – the first meeting is set for June 16th – and due to the technological constraints of Skype, each meeting is limited a maximum of 25 attendees, but there’s no reason that the group shouldn’t be a success despite that.
There are many different interests within the group, from Neolithic to Bronze Age, Viking to Medieval. Each month they intend to look at a different topic and/or period, so you can be sure there will be something of interest for just about everyone.
It’s a small group at the moment and consists mainly of archaeology students and enthusiasts. But regardless of background, everyone is more than welcome to join and share some thoughts. The only commitment is to read the selected paper before the meeting so that you can participate fully.
The first two monthly meetings are already scheduled. Even if you can’t make the meeting, the papers look to be of sufficient interest for anyone with an interest in the past, but it’s a shame that the paper selected for the first discussion is not freely available, requiring a £25 fee for those not blessed with academic (Shibboleth/OpenAthens) library accounts. But that aside, we wish the group every success for the future.
Day 12, and our last trip out for this holiday. Our holiday days are usually filled by trips to sites, or to see friends. This trip was to include both as we’d arranged to meet with HA member Mark Camp (accredited Blue Badge tour guide) for lunch and a stroll on Caradon Hill. But first, we took a brief diversion to visit the Nine Maidens stone row at St Columb, in order to check out Sandy Gerrard’s thoughts on alignments and reveals.
Sadly, the ground was very boggy, and only got worse the further uphill I went. In addition, the hazy sun from earlier in the week continued and it was not easy to tell where the clouds ended and the sea began. It was only when I was about halfway up the hill that I realised a sea vista had at some point opened up to my left.
Although I would have liked to continue on up to the Fiddler Stone to see a possible northwards sea vista appear, the combination of strong winds and thick gloopy mud underfoot meant I beat a hasty retreat back to the car instead, to continue to Minions for lunch.
Having arrived early, I took the chance to take a very brief look at the Hurlers complex, following the Mapping the Sun project and excavations there in 2013 which uncovered a ‘crystal pavement’ – shades of Carwynnen Quoit? Whatever, the moor is very open to the weather, and it was quite blowing a gale, so I took a couple of quick photos (via my glitchy camera) before heading to the warmth and shelter of the pub. I have to say that whether its a result of the excavations, or the wind scouring the ground, the third circle was more prominent than I’ve seen it on previous visits, and it’s easy to make out all three circles from the base of the hill.
After lunch at the Cheesewring Hotel in Minions during which we caught up with Mark’s latest news, he led us up the trail to the summit of nearby Caradon Hill to investigate some prehistoric cairn sites. If I thought it was windy down by the Hurlers, on top of Caradon Hill can only be described as ‘blowing a hoolie”! We were nearly swept away as we made our way around the TV station masts, investigating various clumps of rocks. Some, it has to be said looked distinctly ‘cairn-like’. Others looked as if they may be remains of hut circles, but the ground was so lumpy and bumpy that I’m sure most of it was mining spoil or natural, despite being marked as ‘Cairns’ on the OS map. Without excavation, it is near on impossible to definitively identify what is what up there.
After an hour or so of battering by the wind, taking a last look around from the summit we had a good view of Stowe’s Pound, the Hurlers and the rest of the moor. Turning around, we could just make out Trethevy Quoit next to its cottage, we said our goodbyes to Mark, and headed back to our base in West Penwith. Our last day on holiday (and the first with non-stop rain!) was spent circumnavigating the peninsula, making note of sites to investigate further on our next visit later in the year. That’s what I like about Cornwall, there’s always more to come back for!
Day 11 of our holiday in Cornwall, and we decided to revisit Carwynnen Quoit, just south of Camborne.
I was last here at the reconstituted quoit in June 2014, when the capstone was finally placed upon the uprights, amid much celebration. The paraphenalia of the restoration has long been removed – although some outlying stones in the field are still exposed in their excavation pits – and it was wonderful to have the quoit to myself for a short period of reflection.
The quoit is now settling nicely into the landscape, and a new tradition is being established that visitors may leave a pebble on the pavement. This pavement reflects the original (buried and preserved in situ) pavement that was originally discovered during the excavations.