Critique of Archaeological Reason
7. Themes


Laerke Recht – February 2016

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The English word ‘excavate’ comes from the Latin excavatus, “to hollow out”.

The words for excavation in other languages have similar meanings - for example, “Ausgrabung” (lit. “dig out”) in German, “scavo” (“hole”) in Italian.

The etymology does not reflect the meticulous procedure associated with modern archaeological excavation, but does convey something of the physical practice involved.

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Suggested definitions

More elaborate definitions are offered:

     "[Excavation is] the deliberate recovery of buried objects in relation to the stratum and other associated objects in its original deposit. Excavation must be performed with meticulous care so that every deposit is discovered and preserved. Recording must be accurate and precise so that associations are clear between objects and their find spots. Any perceived cultural relationships must be published so that other scholars can relate to the data excavated." (, 70-171).      "[E]xcavation: the systematic recovery of archaeological data through the exposure of buried sites and artifacts. Excavation is destructive to any site, and is thus accompanied by a comprehensive recording of all material found and its three-dimensional locations. As much material and information as possible must be recovered from any 'dig'. A full record of all the techniques employed in the excavation itself must also be made, so that future archaeologists will be able to evaluate the results of the work accurately. Excavation is also costly. For both these reasons, it should be used only as a last resort. Excavation can be either partial, in which only a sample of the site is investigated, or total." (Bahn 2001, p. 150).

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Role in archaeology

Excavation is generally considered the cornerstone of archaeology, to the extent that is it part of the very definition of archaeology for many. There is a widespread attitude that excavation is what makes an archaeologist, and that one cannot practice archaeology without at least at some point actively engaging in excavation. This is almost certainly due to the embodied experience that excavation is: despite detailed attempts of archaeological guides and manuals to explain how to trowel, shovel and recognise layers and features (e.g., Burke & Smith 2004; UCLAN 2016), the act of excavating can only really be felt through the physical activity entailed.

Excavation is the main method of acquiring ‘new’ data in archaeology. Other non-destructive archaeological field methods include various types of surveying such as surface mapping, photogrammetry, geophysical and magnetic surveying, and field walking.

Despite this, excavation is only one form of archaeological investigation, and, as evident in the quotation above, often seen as a ‘last resort’. Arguments against excavation can be found in e.g. Cherry 2011.

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Excavation was not always central to archaeology. Archaeology developed along different paths in different countries (something which is still visible in archaeological practice today), originating in disciplines such as the history of art and geology and heavily informed by contemporary cultural, national and political events (Díaz-Andreu 2008). In the beginning, archaeology was preoccupied with the areas of typology and classification, with the material coming from, for example, museum collections. The shift in fieldwork techniques happened with a shift in focus to culture (Lucas 2001b), which requires better contextual data.

Very early excavations did take place, but one is here confronted with the issue of definition and what really constitutes an excavation. The ancient Aztecs of Mexico are described as “excavating” the abandoned Toltec city of Tula (Diehl 1983, p. 27) some time after 1300 AD, but not in a manner approximating the modern concept; more accurately, we would call it looting. Other appropriations of sites by later cultures have appeared in a similar way - not least the Roman use and movement of Greek art.

Early expeditions at Stonehenge from the 17th century onwards are also described as “excavations”, but again have little in common with modern practices.

Concepts approaching the modern idea of stratigraphic excavation are mentioned at least as early as 1836 by Thomsen. Along with his extremely influential Three-Age system (with the beginning of an understanding of stratification), Thomsen provides a remarkably insightful “guide” to excavation considering the time. It included notes on the caution required in excavation and the removal of objects from the ground, including recording the association between finds. The guide is further developed by Worsaae (1843), who cautions against excavation as a first option and done by anybody other than trained experts. Preparations and drawings should be done beforehand, and the excavation itself should be done stratigraphically and with sections.

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Excavation types and techniques

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Commercial and research excavation

Excavation is sometimes referred to as academic/research, rescue or commercial. Not all types exist in every country. Rescue and commercial excavations are typically carried out when ancient remains (or suspicions of ancient remains) are found in connection with modern building activities.

Rescue excavations can be carried out by both commercial companies and public institutions such as universities or museums. They have to be finished within a strict time limit in order to ‘save’ as much of the ancient material as possible.

Academic and research excavations are most commonly done by universities, with teams that include students and volunteers, and are slower, with permits that apply to excavation seasons of several years.

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Excavation strategies

Strategies of excavation vary according to the type and aim of project, the place and time where it takes place, and current ideas in archaeology. Excavation units, trenches and test pits are laid out according to what the excavator expects and the questions asked. Excavation may be ‘total’, uncovering a whole site, but this is rare and in many cases impossible in practice (Roskams 2001). Instead, one must choose what is believed from pre- excavation procedures to be the most useful or representative. Different strategies may result in what Carver rather directly calls “one big hole or many smaller holes” (Carver 2005, p 79).

Excavations today are always (at least ostensibly) stratigraphic, but this can mean a number of things (see theme on Stratigraphy). Focus may, for example, be on either vertical or horizontal excavation. Horizontal excavation might be favoured when a more complete view of a site or a specific phase of a site is desired. Excavating larger areas or several units to the same level can facilitate this. On the other hand, if an understanding of the complete sequence of a site is wanted, a ‘vertical’ approach might be taken, where a deeper sondage or test trench is dug with a view of the different layers in the section. Different ideological goals may inform the strategy used (for example, processual and post-processual approaches emphasise different aspects - see e.g. Sabloff 2005, p. 161).

The difference is essentially between understanding a site more completely in one specific time period and understanding a site’s history from beginning to end. The choice between these determines excavation techniques, and ultimately the broader end result. In many excavations today, a balance is attempted between the two.

Another option, characterised by what is sometimes called high definition archaeology (the most famous excavation using this method is probably Çatalhöyük in Turkey), is an extreme attention to detail in usually small units of excavation. In these, as many samples as possible are taken of every kind of material - from mud brick walls to floor deposits - and examined under the microscope. The samples contain valuable information about the site and people that lived there, but this type of excavation can be painstakingly slow and runs the risk of losing the overall picture.

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Pre- and post-excavation

Although excavation is central to archaeology and requires a large amount of time and effort, it is in practical terms only one piece of the puzzle that makes up the archaeologist’s tasks.

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Preparing for excavation requires careful planning which involves selecting a site, creating a project plan with research questions and goals, obtaining permits, funding and suitable staff, along with all the practical and administrative matters of the field. During this process, important choices are made concerning the methods used in the field, which ultimately have bearings on how the site is interpreted and finally presented.

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Post-excavation is equally time-consuming. Initial recording of finds is usually done in the field, and after the excavations, all the material has to be analysed, synthesised and eventually published. Even the most preliminary report requires much work and involves interpretation. Publication can take a number of forms, each of which implies certain ideological backgrounds, often with roots in current archaeological paradigms. After a season of work, preliminary reports might appear in recognised academic journals. If the finds have been particularly ‘sensational’, these might be accompanied by short appearances in more public domains like newspapers or online media.

After a few years, more complete reports may be made in the form of monographs that present the site or certain aspects thereof in a general manner. Traditionally, this will include an introduction to the project, the site and its environments, followed by the specific areas of the site, then a discussion and finally specialist studies on for example pottery, lithics, and osteological remains. The narrative is linear. With the dawn of the internet, digital publication in various forms has become popular. The advantages of digital publication is that it allows for much larger quantities of data to be presented and searched, it has the potential to reach a broader audience, and non-linear presentations become possible.

Beyond analysis and publication (both metaphorically and temporally), are concern about what happens with the site after excavation has finished. In fact, such concerns should be part of the pre-excavation planning, and come into practice during the actual excavations.

In the case of ‘rescue’ sites, the structural remains may be either completely or partly covered by modern buildings, or in some cases be integrated into them - for example by creating a confined compartment below the new building that can the accessed like a basement or viewed through glass from above. At many other sites, the excavator must plan how and to what extent to conserve, preserve and/or reconstruct parts of the site. Another set of strategies apply to these concerns.

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Challenges of excavation

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Excavation as destruction

Excavation is often referred to as destructive; an unrepeatable experiment. Thereupon the dispute concerning the status of archaeology as a science also builds - a science being understood as one whose claims can be proved or disproved through repeating the primary experiment.

Excavation is destruction in the sense that when we remove the soil and its contents, we do so once and for all. Excavation is now often called ‘preservation by record’ because the idea is to ‘preserve’ as much data as possible by the most careful and meticulous recording before, during and after excavation. However, the concern is that in doing so, despite every endeavour to the contrary, there may be factors that went unnoticed or were not considered significant enough to be recorded. Along with this is the progressive nature of scientific methods which allow us to obtain further information. For example, micromorphological methods have only begun to be applied recently, and even these are still not part of every project.

However, excavation is not destruction in the sense that it annihilates things. As Lucas points out, excavation instead displaces the material remains (Lucas 2001a). The soil is moved to dumps, or in some cases filled back in, and objects, bones and botanical remains are removed or sampled. The site is therefore transformed but not in fact destroyed. Something new is created, parallel to the ‘new’ creations made by processes of preservation. This is frequently experienced in excavations where trenches of previous projects can be discovered, and the activity of the previous team be recorded in a manner similar to that of ancient events (Roveland 2006).

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Lack of publication

A major problem of archaeological excavation in many countries is a lack of publication. As Joukowsky writes, “The failure to publish promptly has marred too many expeditions. To ignore the rule of prompt publication is to deny the ethics of the profession and to cheat the scholarly world” (Joukowsky 1980, p. 457). An unpublished site has a status similar to that of a looted one (Cherry 2011): the remains have been irretrievably displaced and removed from the context that essentially provides the new knowledge. In order to ensure publication, many countries have laws in place that require it within a certain time limit, although this is not always effective.

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Excavation as social practice

Excavation is a profoundly social practice. It always involves teams of excavators and specialists, and frequently archaeological projects take place in relative isolation. In academic projects, students of archaeology may travel halfway across the world to spend several months in a new place, in constant close contact with a limited number of people. Such projects often have their own living quarters, eating and sleeping arrangements.

This situation has prompted anthropological studies of archaeologists themselves, sometimes with a rather satirical effect (Erdur 2006).

Excavation becomes part of the archaeologist’s identity: “It is by doing excavation that archaeologists are made” (Carman 2006, p. 98). Archaeologists often also have personal toolkits that form part of their identities and tell stories of their life through wear, damage and labels. On a higher level, sites or finds can literally make an archaeologist, in the sense that whole careers are at times built on the excavations of a site (van Reybrouck & Jacobs 2006; Yarrow 2006).

The acknowledgement that excavation is a social and human practice leads to discussion about subjectivity and interpretation on site. While archaeologists aim at making actual digging and observations as objective as possible, there is increasing recognition that object (the thing excavated) and subject (the excavator) cannot be kept entirely separate. This is especially an influence of what is sometimes called ‘interpretive archaeology’ (Hodder 2005).

Interpretation in fact already starts before the trowel first touches the soil; extensive preparations have been made, a specific trench has been laid out, and there are certain expectations as to what might be found. As we start to excavate, we alter the ground and the finds in it, and in turn they alter us and our actions (Yarrow 2003). To excavate is not only to observe and record, but also to interpret. One of the factors of interpretation is individual social and cultural background - Gero demonstrates that there may be a difference in the way men and women excavate, and the result is a de-emphasis on anything ambiguous or not easily classified (Gero 1996.

To facilitate such matters, some projects emphasise precisely this interpretative aspect by keeping a record of both initial and later observations made in the field, for example through diaries and video recordings. The Urkesh Global Record, UGR, makes use of a similar system in which all observations are kept, even if later analysis shows them to be ‘wrong’. We thereby achieve as transparent a record as possible, and somewhat of a reflection of the archaeological process in its multi-vocality. The aim is a hermeneutic approach with a dynamic relationship between theory and practice.

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Further suggested reading

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Relevant sections in CAR

  • 1.1: The themes.
  • 4.1: Objectivity as calibration of perception.
  • 4.6: Observation as the foundation of objectivity.
  • 4.7: The nature of strategy.
  • 8.7: The interpretive filters.
  • 8.9: The delay in archaeological publishing.

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