Archaeology - A quick guide for absolute beginners

What is it and what does it involve?

Archaeology - A quick guide for absolute beginners

What is archaeology?

Humans have been walking the earth for around 4 million years – we only have a written record for a small fraction of that, and this doesn’t tell us everything.  Archaeology uncovers those hidden stories from our past to understand how we lived, moved about, built, farmed and traded. And how ideas, cultures and beliefs may have spread.

Why is archaeology done ahead of construction work?

It’s written into the UK’s planning regulations. These recognise the importance of protecting our cultural heritage and require all developers – even potentially people building small extensions – to have their sites assessed and excavated by archaeologists. Many of the archaeological discoveries in the last thirty years have come about as a result of construction projects.

What do archaeologists do?

Well it’s not all about digging! It starts at a desk researching a site, its history and any previous excavations. The next step is finding out where potential archaeological remains might be found. A range of techniques are used:

  • Geophysical surveys which can accurately pinpoint what lies beneath the surface building a “map” of objects, structures and features. These include gradiometer surveys which use magnetism and ground penetrating radar.
  • Field walking - scanning the ground to find objects uncovered by ploughing.
  • Small test pits (typically 1m2) and larger trial trenches will then be dug in areas that look the most interesting, but also in places with lower potential.

This helps create a plan for the main dig: the where, when and how.

A team of people will then get on with excavating the site, beginning with the modern day topsoil, moving further into the past with each layer removed. A variety of tools are used, including trowels and even small picks (similar to a dentist’s) for detailed work. Evidence such as human burials, animal bones, pottery, tools and even soils, charcoal, ancient seeds, nuts and shells can help reconstruct the past. Samples are taken and sent off to the lab to be investigated further.

After all the digging is done, the complex task of sorting, analysing and interpreting begins – this can take years for larger sites. The whole investigation is written up in a report which tells the story of the site. The results will also be shared through publications, videos and animations, digital museums and archives, webinars, VR experiences, blogs and much more. 

What happens to all the things that are found?

Once the analysis and report have been completed, finds are deposited with local museums or archives. Many will be put on show and exhibited to the local community.

There is much more to the fascinating world of archaeology – for lots more information, visit Wessex Archaeology website.

Surveying a test trench with a GPS.
Surveying a test trench with a GPS.
Excavating within a test trench.
Excavating within a test trench.