Still Digging


Still Digging
The Process of Archaeology

While most teachers and students are clear on the subject of ancient history because it has been part of the school landscape for many years, they are just as equally unsure about the role of archaeology.

Is it just a glorified aspect of art history where the participants spend their days gazing at tomb paintings or is it a search for the mysterious and the fascinating (with Indiana's whip in hand)?

The answer, as always, is somewhere in between. Much of archaeology is about object recognition and many archaeologists do set out on quests to discover a particular aspect of a culture.

However, the vast majority spend their time at widely scattered sites quietly yet solidly chronicling the history and culture of the ancient societies with which they are concerned.

In order to understand the job of an archaeologist, we have set out the archaeological process for a generalised site below. Here the many stages of a typical excavation can be seen - a routine of some complexity.

Region to be investigated is surveyed and sampled

The initial survey takes the form of field walking the landscape while making notes of any archaeological features such as pottery scatters or ancient walls. Once this has been completed, a detailed pottery or stone tool sample is collected from interesting locations.

These artefacts can give an indication of the different chronological periods one might hope to find at a particular site. If the results of this stage are encouraging (i.e. sites of the size and date in which the archaeologist is interested have been found) then planning for the excavation may begin.

Planning for an excavation

Once a site has been decided on, the archaeologist must obtain permission from relevant government bodies, attract finance (a two month season at a Middle East site, budgeted from Australia, could cost $100,000 per year - most often this money would come from government sources but it can sometimes be private) and enlist staff.

Staff would either be university colleagues, university students, professionals with a particular skill or people with an interest in the excavation.

To run a medium size excavation, the archaeologist would require most, if not all, of the following personnel: about 6 trench supervisors (They do the day to day digging and recording and more often than not would be university students studying archaeology); a photographer; a conservator; illustrators and various cataloguers (for pottery and non-pottery artefacts, for bone - human and animal, for botanical remains and for any other artefact class that may be discovered on site).

These individuals would be experts in their field - either graduates working on material for their PhD - or post graduates brought to the excavation either for wages or for the chance to publish their findings.

Arrival at the site

Once the main team are in place, it is time for the archaeologist to travel to the site for the next round of organisation.

Now the archaeologist must secure vehicles, lodgings for the team, a cook, tools, desks, chairs - in short, everything down to the smallest plastic bag which will be needed through the coming months of excavation.


Once all is ready, excavation can begin. The site to be excavated is placed on a survey grid and trenches are laid out in positions which look the most promising. Depending on the information which is wanted, the trenches may vary in size from two square metres to ten metres square.

Often a site which has not been excavated before will have its trenches scattered so as to have the best chance of finding the richest deposits.

In excavation the archaeologist would be investigating one or more of the following possibilities:

  1. To cast light on a particular episode from history (i.e. what evidence is there for the Roman siege of Masada?)
  2. To work out the historical chronology of a particular region (i.e. when did the Bronze Age begin in southern Germany?)
  3. To find objects which will add to our understanding of a particular region - either from an aesthetic or a historic viewpoint
  4. To work out the nature of an ancient society (i.e. the political structure of the Levantine city-states in the late Bronze Age)
  5. To study the evolution of a particular artefact class across time in a particular region (i.e. the changes to stone tool kits in Tasmanian aboriginal communities)
  6. To gain an understanding of how people lived and died in ancient societies.

The process of excavation

All archaeological digs agree on one thing - the need to understand a particular site's stratigraphy.

Stratigraphy is the sequence of layers or deposits which have formed due to human occupation. These layers may be floor surfaces, building fill, post holes or any number of occupational activities which leave their mark on the archaeological record. It is only through an understanding of the stratigraphy of a site that the archaeologist can work out which layers are earlier than others.

The reason why it is necessary to work out the chronology of a site is not mere curiosity but involves the major aspect of an archaeologist's work.

No site is dug in isolation. At all times the archaeologist at one site is trying to fit their site into the general framework of history that has emerged from work at other sites. Each site will be different and have its own local variations but what is important is how that site relates to others.

Generally this is done through artefact examination.

Let's pretend that we are excavating a particular site in Syria. As we excavate down through the layers or stratigraphy of the site we can, if we are careful, build up a range of pottery where we can determine that this shape is earlier than this. This is known as the relative chronology of the site.

In time, a full corpus of information will emerge so that the archaeologist can be sure that layers with this type of pottery are earlier than layers with another type of pottery.

But this is only part of the story. To make our excavation in Syria tie into other sites, we need to establish an absolute chronology for each pottery piece we excavate. Rather than being able to say this is earlier than that, we need to say that this dates to the late sixteenth century BC. Once we can do that, the story of our site becomes more expansive.

Say there is evidence of destruction in the level dating to the late sixteenth century BC. Now that we know the absolute chronology of our levels we can tie our site into the broader picture. Was an Egyptian Pharaoh campaigning in Syria at this time? Could the destruction be related to this? As you see, no longer is the site in isolation but it now becomes part of broader Levantine history.

Just how do you determine the absolute chronology of a particular level? Sometimes it is luck, more often it is sheer hard work. Luck plays its part if you excavate an artefact of a known date along with your local pottery. An Egyptian scarab, for instance, or a coin will give you an absolute date. If you are not so lucky, then hard work is the answer.

Anyone who has leafed through an archaeological report will notice the large numbers of artefact drawings which are published. This is to allow other archaeologists to examine the finds and make comparisons with their own site.

In this way you do not need to have the luck of finding an absolute date on your own excavation - but can rely on others.

It works something like this. Let's say our excavation uncovers a lot of tall jars with distinctive handles but we have no idea of their date. By an examination of excavation reports from surrounding excavations we find another excavation containing levels with the same jars but also dated by a scarab.

Care needs to be taken but generally you could then start to make parallels with your site concerning the date of these jars.

The process to build up a complete picture of a site's absolute date can be long, involved and require a team of professionals to sift through the information.


A lot of work is carried out on the material retrieved from an excavation long after the year’s field season (most often two months each year) has ceased.

With this material the archaeologists proceed to examine their site in detail. Some will concern themselves with pottery, another glass. Some will catalogue the animal bones and others will examine the metal objects.

In the end, each has to rely on the others. Absolute dates are likely to come from pottery studies but these may be 'fleshed out' by the work of the glass cataloguer. The botanical remains by themselves are rarely interesting but when tied to the overall history of the site they become fascinating.


Normally archaeologists publish preliminary reports each year - most useful as progress reports for other archaeologists who may have an interest in the site.

However, once all the relevant studies are in place it is time for the full publication of the site. This publication brings together the major conclusions of the archaeologist with a full accompaniment of photographs and illustrations.

Not until this work is published can a site be seen as having been fully excavated.

Essay by Ben Churcher

To find out about our video, This is Archaeology!, Click Here.


Excavation in progress at a Middle Bronze Age tomb (1500 BC, Pella in Jordan). This tomb was a communal burial with over 50 skeletons and 2000 individual objects left as dedicatory offerings for each new burial.


A piece of Bronze Age pottery at Pella in Jordan is about to be collected. The full bucket of pottery sherds indicates that this particular deposit has been rick in finds, indicating an event such as rubbish disposal, or as in this case, destruction by an earthquake.


An excavator precariously balances on a ladder as she cleans back her section in preparation for recording the layers she has excavated. The white tags in the section indicate to the excavator where she changed levels as she excavated the trench.