About Field Archaeology

Field archaeology is, not surprisingly, what archaeologists do in the field. However, it also
has a considerable pre-field element and an even more considerable post-field element. Sometimes
the term ‘field archaeology’ is used only to refer to techniques, other than excavation, used by
archaeologists in the field. ‘Field archaeology’ used in this way refers essentially to the battery
of non-destructive field techniques used to locate areas of archaeological interest (sites).
Excavation is, however, one of the techniques available to field archaeologists and so is part of
field archaeology. Excavation remains, however, both the most detailed and the most destructive,
and yet potentially the most informative, technique available to the field archaeologist.
Field archaeology starts with the location of archaeological sites. Immediately this runs into
the problem of what is an archaeological ‘site’. Most archaeologists see sites as places where
there are clusters of artefacts, often – but depending on what period they are dealing with –
associated with humanly made structures or features like dug pits. There may also be some
human modification of the natural environment in or around the ‘site’. How small, however,
does a cluster of artefacts have to be to constitute a site? Is a single projectile point found in a
woodland environment a site? Clearly it constitutes the material remains of a specific human
activity, presumably hunting, taking place at a specific place in the landscape. It clearly is a
‘site’, but equally clearly it is not going to provide the archaeologists with as much information
as, say, a tell site in the Near East. In many ways one could see the whole surface of the earth
as an archaeological ‘site’ with varying concentrations of humanly produced remains. Even
areas with no remains are part of the human story of the region. Why was there no human
activity in a particular area? A field archaeologist therefore has to look at data of different levels
in the field. An ‘empty’ area or a single projectile point provides some, but minimal, data. Sites
with high concentrations of artefacts, features and a modified environment potentially provide
masses of raw data about the past. These are the ones on which field archaeologists are likely to
So what are the elements of field archaeology which make some archaeologists consider
themselves to be field archaeologists while others are not? Clearly it is perfectly possible to be
an archaeologist studying material remains from the past without ever stepping into the field.
Many people are surprised that out of the 42 or so faculty members of the Institute of
Archaeology at University College, London (the largest university department in Britain), only
about a dozen could be safely let out to direct an excavation. This says nothing about their
competence as archaeologists, just that they do not engage in field archaeology.
The first element of field archaeology is to decide ‘why?’ There is little point in simply
going into the field to do field archaeology without having any questions to answer. At its
simplest, the question may be ‘is there any archaeology there?’ Clearly, if an area of the earth’s
surface is to be removed by, say, an industrial development, such a question would be the first
to be asked. If there is no archaeology there it becomes somewhat difficult to ask any further
questions, except perhaps, ‘why not?’ This question – ‘is there any archaeology there?’ – forms
the basis of many site or landscape evaluation projects undertaken within the area of salvage or
rescue archaeology. Such a question may, however, be equally valid when considering a research
project. Clearly if no archaeology is present, no further questions can be asked.
The first element of field archaeology is therefore to design the project. This involves the
creation of a research design. The actual content of each research design is naturally going to be
very different; there are, however, certain elements that should be common to all. A common
format starts with a general introduction to the project. This will locate the project area, tying
it into the national grid and preferably locating it on a map incorporated into the research design.
The introduction should include information about site ownership and any legal restrictions in
place on the site: in Britain it should ask, is the site protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument
under the 1979 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act? It is usually useful to have
had preliminary discussions with the landowner and statutory authorities before you prepare
your research design. If you are simply not going to be allowed access to the land, then there is
little point in proceeding in the preparation of a research design.
The second element of the research design should consider all previous archaeological work
that has taken place in the area or on the site. Excavation, even of the highest standard, will
destroy some archaeological information while recovering other. Having dug a site, the in situ
evidence is destroyed, even if recorded on paper. Excavation is an unrepeatable experiment.
Even surface archaeology like artefact collection from the plough zone diminishes the
archaeological resource. Therefore if there has already been sufficient archaeology done in the
area to answer all or some of your questions, then is it responsible to proceed with your
destructive project? Naturally, when considering previous work in the area, its quality will have
to be assessed. Was the project well executed and published? Even if an excellent project for its
time, are there now techniques available which were not available at that time? Was the site dug
before environmental samples were collected or before carbonized material could be radiocarbon
dated? On the basis of all this previous work it may be possible for section three of the research
design to outline the sequence of occupation on the site or in the region. This will form the
starting point for your project.
The fourth, and perhaps most important, element of the research design should outline the
aims and objectives of the project. This element will be different in every case and may involve
both broad and specific questions. You will, however, be designing your project on the basis of
very imperfect knowledge, and if the project involves excavation you will have only one
attempt, as the process of excavation destroys the site even as it reveals it.
However careful your design, the fieldwork will inevitably throw up expected information
and new questions. This is where archaeology differs from most other associated disciplines
like history or anthropology. A historian, when searching for evidence of the wool trade in
fifteenth-century Europe, say, can reasonably ignore a reference he or she finds to the seventeenthcentury
wool trade or fifteenth-century pottery trade. An archaeologist working in the field
cannot do this. If the evidence is found on or in the ground, then removed, but not recorded, it
is gone for ever. Historians can return to the documents later; the archaeologist cannot return to
the dug site and find data in situ to re-read it. Aims and objectives must therefore be flexible
enough to allow redesign as the project progresses. The fieldwork may throw up new questions
you had not even thought to ask. Field archaeology requires flexibility. An over-rigid research
design at best leads to disaster, at worst to archaeological irresponsibility. Unfortunately some
funding bodies, and especially in the realm of ‘contract’ archaeology in Britain and the United
States, often require very rigid research designs. These designs are more often related to tight
financial controls than good archaeology.
Having decided what your aims and objectives are, the fifth element of a research design for
a field archaeology project should cover methods. How are you going to achieve your aims and
objectives? What techniques are you going to apply to the site or area? Are the techniques
available and will they work in your area? The techniques available may simply not work. If
techniques are not available to answer the questions you want to ask, you have three possibilities.
You can either develop new techniques, ask new questions, or forget the field project.
The time spent on the field element of a field archaeology project may, of course, be only a
fragment of the time spent on the whole project. The bulk of the time spent on the project will
be on post-fieldwork analysis and publication. The sixth element of the research design should
therefore consider the post-fieldwork or post-excavation and publication programme. Here you
immediately run into a problem. As you have not yet undertaken the field survey or dug the site,
you do not yet know what will be found, so what needs what analysis, or how such information
should be appropriately published. With experience, however, it is usually possible to predict
a surprisingly accurate picture of what may be found. On a palaeolithic site you will find lithics,
but no pottery. On a dry, acid site organics will not survive unless they are carbonized. Organics
will survive if the site is waterlogged or desiccated. Within certain parameters you can estimate
the broad range of material and structures that could be expected. Your research design for the
post-field element of the project must, however, remain flexible enough to incorporate the
unexpected: the unique neolithic deposits with pottery found dug into your palaeolithic site, for
The publication element of the field archaeology research design is in many ways there
purely to remind you of your commitment, and to remind your funding agencies of the potential
cost of publication. Publication in some form, on the printed page, in electronic journals or even
on CD-ROM, must be seen as the final element of any field project. The data you recover in the
field cannot be regarded as yours. You briefly hold it in trust for all humanity. If you do not make
it available to other archaeologists and the public at large, you have in effect destroyed that
information. The only truly bad archaeologist is one who does not publish the results of his or
her field investigations. All else is opinion. By publication, of course, I mean making publicly
known rather than necessarily words printed on the pages of a book like this one. A properly
curated archive in a public museum may constitute publication. The obsessive secrecy some
archaeologists have for ‘their own’ data is not only unprofessional: it is also immoral.
The final element of a research design for any field archaeology project should consider
requirements of staff, time and money. This is a requirement of the real world. It is not,
however, straightforward. If you were building a bridge you could accurately determine exact
quantities of materials and exactly how long it should take how many people to put the various
elements together. In excavation you can only define broad parameters. A dry site may suddenly
reveal a perched water table containing preserved organic artefacts. The cost of the excavation
may then double overnight. Your staffing, budget and timetable should therefore be kept as
flexible as your funding agencies will allow. Even then a contingency amount should be built in.
 From the books By
Peter L. Drewett

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