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This concise, readable, well-illustrated introduction to practical archaeology presents new excavation techniques and challenges traditional approaches to site organization and recording.
|Publisher:||The History Press|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Digging Up The Past
An Introduction to Archaeological Excavation
By John Collis
The History PressCopyright © 2013 John Collis
All rights reserved.
There are two schools of thought about the development of archaeological technique. One, the usually accepted view in Britain, sees the development and improvement of excavation techniques as something technical – we devise better methods and techniques, and so can better understand and get more information from excavations. The other viewpoint, which I wish to put forward here, is that the best archaeological excavators have always been efficient, it is merely that the aims of excavation have changed. I was once asked to play the part of Thomas Bateman, one of the best of the nineteenth-century antiquarians, and to argue in public against my students that in fact modern excavators waste a lot of time recording irrelevant information – and I won the argument, not because Bateman could excavate better, but he was clearer in his mind about what he wanted to achieve. Excavation is very much a matter of deciding what one wants to know or obtain, and setting about finding it, even though what one finds may refute the original hypothesis, and this should be as true for rescue excavations as it is for pure research projects.
This view of archaeology is akin to the general approach to science, which argues that science is based not so much on observed 'facts' but on the logical framework within which we place those facts. This is what scientists refer to as a 'paradigm', and in archaeology we can demonstrate that methods of excavation have been dominated by the prevalent paradigm in society at large. However, as I shall discuss later, this is very much the purist, academic, view of archaeology, and the reality of modern excavation is that we are driven by events as much as by research. Increasingly we recognise that archaeological sites are precious documents, and that digging a site is like a historian reading a unique document, but tearing it up as part of the process of reading, so that no one else will ever be able to read it again. For unique and special sites such as Stonehenge, this is obvious, but it is also true for more mundane sites – there may be many farms or town houses from which we may draw generalisations about architectural, social or economic history, but each site has its own unique history.
This attitude has now been enshrined in a number of international agreements, notably the Treaty of Malta (or Valetta Convention) which the British government has just signed; indeed, this lays down the legal and ethical framework for the archaeology carried out in all countries in Europe which are signatories to it. It states that the archaeological resource is limited and is rapidly being diminished; once it is destroyed, it is gone for ever, so it should be preserved as far as possible. So, although there are still excavations which are carried out for research or for social reasons (for example to display a site to the public), most excavations occur because the site is threatened by development. It is therefore up to developers to preserve the archaeology by avoiding sites or, where that is not possible, either to minimise the site destruction or to ensure its preservation 'by record' – that is, to pay for an excavation to take place. There is a lively debate, which I shall come back to in the last chapter, about how far such 'rescue' excavations are, or should be, dictated by research problems, and to what extent we are merely trying to record even when we have no research questions to ask. Should only threatened sites be excavated, or should some excavation be carried out for research reasons? Whatever, excavation is a privilege, and we need to accept that we are privileged in a way that future generations will not be; once the majority of sites have been irreparably damaged or destroyed, excavation may well be the exception.
Though there are occasional records of people digging holes to obtain information in the classical and medieval periods, essentially early excavation was intended only to find treasure. In Britain until recently we were hampered by the concept of 'Treasure Trove' and the conflicting rights of the finder, the landowner and the state. This concept still exists in the financial rewards given to people who find valuable objects which are declared to be the property of the state; it is also reflected in the flourishing trade in antiquities which has led to conflicts between archaeologists and the art world about the display of objects known to have been dug up clandestinely and sold. Many objects such as coins come from the work of 'treasure hunters', some of whom work closely with archaeologists so that their finds can be given greater meaning; others do it merely for money, and disguise the true origin of their finds if they have been removed illegally.
On some excavations in Britain you will be asked to sign a disclaimer to any gold or silver objects you may find, as sometimes coroners' inquests have found in favour of the person who actually discovered the object, including in one case a volunteer on an excavation. In other countries the right of the state to all antiquities is better established. The general view of archaeologists is that objects removed from their context lose much of their scientific value, and equally that they should be preserved somewhere where they will be available for other people to study and look at – so do not pocket anything you find on an excavation, even pot-sherds from the dump, without prior consultation with the person in charge. You may find that even (s)he does not have the right to give you that permission, as in most countries finds are the property either of the State or of the landowner.
It was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain that the first excavations took place, the results of which can still be used by modern archaeologists. The aim of these excavators was simply to acquire objects for their private cabinets, be they of classical or local origin, and in certain circles an interest in antiquities was an indication of a cultivated and educated person. Finds from the classical world had greater prestige, given the debt that Europeans from the Renaissance onwards ascribed to their Greek and Roman predecessors, but by the nineteenth century this value was extended to other civilisations of the Near East, as well as India and China, and it is these values which still form the foundation of the monetary worth ascribed to objects by the antiquities market. The best objects, then as now, could be obtained either by excavating in ancient tombs or by pillaging monumental buildings of inscriptions and sculptures. This activity was very much an upper-class activity, though in general those who did the actual pillaging were, and often are, local peasant farmers.
The best of the early excavators, like William Stukeley, Sir Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington, recorded in addition the place where these objects were found, and published illustrated descriptions of the finds and the circumstances of discovery. Items found together with an individual burial would also be noted, and sometimes the associated material and stratigraphy (a concept of a chronological sequence of deposits taken over from geologists such as William 'Strata' Smith) deserved comment; for example John Frere observed in 1797 that hand axes occurred with the bones of extinct animals in the gravels of Hoxne. Since complete or well-preserved objects worthy of display were required, in Britain burials were the favourite hunting ground of the early antiquarians, especially where these were observable on the surface as barrows. Burials tend to be in the centre of the mound, so the most efficient form of recovery was to dig a hole in the middle (Fig. 1.1).
In the early nineteenth century Colt Hoare was already attempting to assign greater meaning to his objects, by dating them and assigning them to different peoples in the past, though he himself remarked how difficult this was for the period before written records. One major interest in the early to mid-nineteenth century was the question of racial origins, and of the peoples who made up the nation state, as well as those who populated the less civilised parts of the world. One solution to the problem, advocated by the Danish anthropologist Daniel Friedrich Estricht, was the study of skulls, especially their dimensions and shape. By 1850 the Derbyshire antiquarian Thomas Bateman had started to collect skulls in addition to the artefacts, and this led on to the detailed publication of skulls by Joseph Davis and John Thurnam in Crania Britannica. Details of pottery styles and burial rites were linked to the supposed racial groups (long-headed people buried in long barrows, and round-headed in round barrows), and these were assigned to specific 'peoples', usually defined by their language – the change of head shape from 'long' to 'round' was often interpreted as the replacement of pre-Indo-Europeans with Indo-European-speaking people! These questions increased the need for recording, with plans of burials and sections appearing in published reports, but these were minimal and idealised, usually done after the excavation and for purposes of description only. Excavation of barrows began to be more systematic, like Thurnam's clearing out of the eastern chamber and passage of the West Kennett long barrow to obtain human skeletons.
The Technological Paradigm
Christian Thomsen's concept of the Three Age System for the first time provided a chronological framework into which these antiquarian discoveries could be placed, linked with the concept of technological advancement, as first stone, then bronze and finally iron were adopted by prehistoric man. This idea of technological advance was to be a dominant theme throughout the nineteenth century, so again archaeology was merely reflecting the interests of society at large. It was another Dane, J.J.A. Worsaae, who first applied the concept to field observations, recording the different types of artefact turning up in the shell middens and the megalithic tombs, and so building a basic chronology. Sophus Müller, a later Director of the National Museum in Copenhagen, noted that Stone Age graves tended to be the deepest in barrows, with graves inserted later occurring at depths varying according to their relative age – a simple form of stratigraphy – and this chronology was later confirmed by finds from the Danish bogs where the associated plant remains could be studied.
By the time these ideas had become generally disseminated in the mid- to late nineteenth century the concept of evolution was becoming widely accepted. This could be applied to objects as well as to living creatures, and the Swedish prehistorian Oscar Montelius developed the concept of typology, by which objects such as bronze axes could be demonstrated to change over time, becoming more efficient in design, especially as better technology became available. To demonstrate his thesis Montelius used a modern analogy: the evolution of the railway carriage from the stagecoach. His use of association of objects in hoards and graves required greater precision in observation and publication, firstly to demonstrate how the typologies of different artefacts could be tied together (e.g. axes and swords), and secondly to link the chronologies of northern Europe with the historically dated sequences of the Near East by cross-dating (by studying the context of exports from one part of Europe to another, and so linking the sequences in the two areas). Though modern methods such as dendrochronology give us much greater precision, Montelius's basic chronology for the later phases of prehistory is still right in its general outlines. It also allowed greater potential in dating archaeological sites. This in turn placed a greater emphasis on field recording, noting the associations of objects with one another in burials or in hoards, and, where possible, making stratigraphical observations in burial mounds.
Charles Lyell's publication in 1830–3 of the Principles of Geology opened up for archaeologists the possibility not only of using stratigraphy and type fossils for dating different strata but also of finding remains of early man in association with extinct animals, indicating climates very different from the modern. In 1859 the various observations which had been made about such associations, such as Frere's notes at Hoxne, or Jacques Boucher de Perthes's discoveries in the gravels of the Somme around Abbeville, were brought together by Sir John Evans and Joseph Prestwich. This triggered excavations not only in river gravels, but also in French caves and Danish bogs. In both bogs and caves stratigraphy can be complex and difficult, so considerable precision is needed if artefacts and other finds are to be correctly located – in the case of the caves with animal bones, in the bogs with macro-fossils of plants (later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was recognised that pollen also survived, and was a better indicator of climatic change). The excavation techniques which evolved laid a great emphasis on detailed stratigraphy, coupled with detailed plans of bones and artefacts in situ.
The methodology was to excavate slices of the deposits, and this was gradually systematised into excavation in one- or two-metre squares, each with a series of superimposed plans, and a series of drawn sections, which in this book I shall call the 'squares' method. Only rarely was a surface of more than a few metres square opened up, and each square was treated as a separate unit. It allowed the collection of the artefacts by the metre square, and so allowed density of finds to be plotted – useful in studying, for instance, camp sites of hunter gatherers; this became the standard technique in the 1930s for the excavation of Mesolithic sites in Britain. The classic example of this kind was Grahame Clark's excavation of Star Carr in the 1950s (Fig. 1.2). However, attempts by French archaeologists to employ this technique on more complex sites, riddled by pits and ditches, such as my French colleague's excavation at Aulnat in the 1960s, were less successful, and despite the detail of their recording it is now very difficult to assign finds to individual features, and especially to identify groups of associated finds.
Evolution was also applied to the development of society as a whole, with the realisation that society had become more complex as mankind had developed. Perhaps the concepts of anthropological and sociological writers such as Morgan and Engels were not immediately applied to archaeology – that was the impact of Gordon Childe a generation or more later – but the awareness that societies other than our own had lived on the same land, had used it and left traces of their activity in the soil led to a marked change in excavation technique. In Britain this change is usually associated with General Pitt Rivers, the 'father of British archaeology', but in fact he enjoys this reputation more because of his excavation technique than because of the conceptual framework that lay behind it. His museum at Farnham in Dorset contained not only an exhibition of the finds and excavations he had carried out on his estate on Cranborne Chase, but also a large ethnographic collection demonstrating technological evolution on a world-wide basis.
Pitt Rivers and his contemporaries were trying to demonstrate the life-style of previous inhabitants of this country. Thus the emphasis shifted from the discovery of individual objects (and thus an emphasis on burials) to settlement archaeology and a concern with the more prosaic elements of life – what sort of animals did they keep, what sort of pottery did they use, what sort of ornaments did they wear? Excavation was on a large scale, with complete excavation of settlements where possible (Fig. 1.3), and detailed descriptions of the finds. Excavation was still the domain of the rich middle and upper classes, but it was no longer simply an enjoyable way to spend a weekend; instead it became a seasonal activity, with workmen employed full-time over a period of weeks, if not months.
Authors such as Wheeler, who see the evolution of excavation technique as essentially technical, have often contrasted Pitt Rivers's excavations on Cranborne Chase with those carried out at the same time at Silchester, and they express surprise that Pitt Rivers, though he visited Silchester as the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, passed no comment on the limitations of the excavation techniques employed there. At Cranborne Chase every find was measured in, its stratigraphical position recorded, and all significant finds were illustrated and published. At Silchester the aim was to discover the plans of buildings, so that walls were followed, with little concern to study finds within their stratigraphical context. However, the difference was in many ways one of scale. The quantities of finds at Silchester were huge compared to those found by Pitt Rivers, and no excavators then understood the complexities of stratigraphy or were able to identify the ephemeral traces of timber buildings. Both were trying to do the same thing – to describe the societies they were excavating, and place them within their evolutionary context. For Pitt Rivers on Cranborne Chase it was the peasant farmers of the prehistoric and Roman periods; for Fox and St John Hope at Silchester it was the inhabitants of a Roman town. What they did not realise was that they were dealing with several towns one on top of the other, and that the Roman town did not remain static through the four hundred years of Roman occupation.
Excerpted from Digging Up The Past by John Collis. Copyright © 2013 John Collis. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
2 Site Preparation,
3 On Site,
4 Finding Things,
6 Making the Record,
7 Finds Processing,
8 Stone Buildings,
9 Wooden Buildings,
10 Pits, Ditches and Banks,