What to do when the excavation is ‘over’!

For most people, archaeology is excavation. It’s what comes to mind when you ask them what they think archaeologists do. Well, as with most other jobs, there’s much more to it than meets the eye.

Tools and equipment packed and ready to go on to the next project.
Despite looking like a building site – largely because that was the next step – these are the some of the tools and equipment used by archaeologists packed and ready to go on to the next project.

The first thing to do when the excavation is over is, of course, pack up and go home, or on to the next job. However, archaeology is a little different to most professions as there is usually more to take away than you arrive with – there are site records such as context sheets, finds records, site levels, drawings, photo logs, site diaries and not forgetting all the finds/artefacts. Tools and equipment need to be cleaned before they are used again or stored away. The picture on the left shows a typical selection of equipment archaeologists might use on an excavation in addition to their own ‘personal’ tools such as trowels etc.

Archaeologists, being simple folk, call this phase ‘post-ex’ and it is during this period that a great deal of work is undertaken in labs, offices and workshops in order to process finds and information that go into producing a detailed analysis of the site. For example, each layer or context that is excavated has a record sheet detailing everything about it, from colour to consistency, size and shape, inclusions (stones, charcoal etc) as well as an interpretation as to what it might be – the fill of a post hole etc. Now each context is given a number and each site has many such numbers. The Dorstone Hill excavations we blogged about this summer had well over 200 such records and many excavations records thousands! It falls to someone to make sense of all this data. Archaeologists use something called the ‘Harris matrix’ to do this. Each layer or feature such as a wall is given a number and it is allocated a place in, surprise surprise, a matrix! The matrix allows archaeologists to map out all contexts as they have been laid down over time, with the simple rule of if its lower down in the matrix then its older. There’s a really helpful short video by Archaeosoup Productions to explain this.

There are a number of other tasks that go on too. In the gallery below are some images from behind the scenes at the University of Manchester’s Dept of Archaeology. As you’ll see, students not only get good experience of excavations, they also take part in the post-ex process giving them an all-round grounding of archaeological work.

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Once all the analyses of finds, environmental samples and contexts has been done, all that remains to be done is to write a report. It is usually a requirement of an excavation that a report is written for several agencies. It might be one of the national bodies such as Historic England or Cadw in Wales. It may be for the body or firm who has funded the excavation such as a property developer. In addition to this there is also the question of what to do with all the finds and records. Well more of that in a later blog!

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