One of the turning points in my research was when I began to actively seek out archaeological reports. It happened when I was looking at the publisher of a book, and saw “Canterbury Archaeological Trust” on the back cover. I wondered, were there any OTHER Archaeological Trusts in England? Lo and behold, the entire country is covered by them, (search on uk archaeological trust) and they are public charities that help oversee and manage archaeological excavations in their region.
For the uninitiated, many archaeological reports are overly dense, with not enough photos. Often, the most useful books are actually not catalogues that list every item found, but typologies, that describe the differences between various styles, and what date that type generally represents.
But once you understand some basic realities of archaeological investigations, you will find it easier to understand the excavation reports, and your ability to learn from them will expand. While many of these comments may also apply to other countries, I have primarily worked with English sources, as it was both an area of interest, and required no translation. I write this NOT from an academic viewpoint – I have not taken any courses in Archaeology – but I believe my understanding is, in general, correct. (As always, I will gladly accept comments correcting any mis-understandings.)
At least in the England, the laws for years have required an archaeological review before any construction. The first step of that review is book work, examining the ownership history of a piece of property or area. It can be conducted from an office. The national scheme called Sites and Monuments Record lists various known sites of historical interest – by reviewing the nearby sites to a proposed project, the archaeological review team can make a good guess at the likelihood of discovering any artefacts.
Depending upon the results of that review, construction may proceed without any on-site archaeologists, with someone monitoring the site, with a quick exploratory excavation of a few sample trenches, or possibly with a full excavation plan. Businesses don’t really want to have a full excavation, as that raises costs. If the sample trenches don’t result in any ground-breaking results, they may continue with construction EVEN if some finds are made.
This is especially true when the construction is of a type that will cover and not destroy the land – a parking lot or highway only disturbs the surface layers. It is actually considered beneficial in archaeological circles to leave some finds un-excavated, with the hope that in later years or centuries, more advanced testing and analysis will reveal information that current procedures and analysis methods couldn’t. When you look at the history of excavations, especially in the 18th & 19th centuries, you can understand why this viewpoint has been chosen. There are so many burials excavated in the past without recording the details we record now, and a realization of the vast quantity of knowledge that was discarded unthinkingly makes one weep.
In those cases where significant finds are discovered, the type of excavation then undertaken is often a “rescue” excavation. That means the archaeologists have to collect as much information as they humanly can, in a very limited time window. Everything is photographed in situ (where it was found), notes on location are kept, and the items numbered and stored. More staff time is taken on features that will be completely destroyed by the construction project, like any shaping of the land, or “post holes” – dirt that is a different color because once upon a time, a timber post was placed in the ground, which shows the outline of building construction. Movable artefacts are given little attention beyond the basic recording of when & where & what with it was found. Most are stored for later analysis, unless they have great importance.
BUT – – – ANALYSIS of those movable artefacts is not guaranteed. The cost of the excavation is charged to the construction. Analysis of small finds often depends on spare cash, the research budget of a university, or a specific grant request. There are un-analyzed small finds all across the country. To make it even worse, PUBLICATION of the results of the excavation is also not guaranteed, and is usually not a part of the construction budget. Archaeological publication is a specialized field, with a very limited market, and requiring a lot of staff time to develop properly. Archaeological illustration is a specialty field, as is archaeological photography. Including lots of photography, drawings, charts, graphs, and maps raises the difficulty of layout, and increases the cost of publishing dramatically. There are national grants which help fund the publication of books, but the pool of funds is much smaller than the possible requests. So only the most ground-breaking finds get quick publication, while solid and yet uninteresting excavations might face a 30 year backlog before publication.
Any interim summary or report that was primarily for the use of the archaeologists on the excavation team, and which could be shared upon request (if you knew to request it) was termed “Grey Literature.” The use of grey literature is huge in Archaeology, but is less respected than actual print publications. The only people who could analyze and critique grey literature were the people who got access, while print publications could be analyzed by anyone. This was the state of affairs, at least before the internet.
Widespread internet usage changed everything. It was far easier to share information. But the conservatism of academia didn’t embrace the internet immediately. York Archaeological Trust seems to be one of the first who really bought into digital publication. At first it was just PDFs of grey literature reports. Then they added access to databases too. They now have many publications that once were printed available for download. With web publishing, the cost of physical publication could be avoided. It was possible to share digitally charts and spreadsheets that wouldn’t fit on a single page of a book. Bruggeman’s typology book on Anglo-Saxon beads has a link to the database, for the vast amount of information that wouldn’t fit in the book.
Various academic institutions didn’t really have the infrastructure to store and share that level of detail. And so the Archaeological Data Service was born . This is an AMAZING resource, which requires a log-in. It is well worth the effort. Many different archaeological sources are collected here – grey literature, published journals (some very old,) excavation data, and theses. There are other high quality online databases as well, often more specialized . But this is one of the two must-visit places on the web if you are interested in English artefacts.
The other must-visit site is the Portable Antiquities Scheme, aka PAS, aka Finds Database . It has changed its name and revamped itself several times over the years, and is extremely useful. (But old links may not work.) The PAS is based on English law about metal detectoring and chance finds. According to the English Treasure Act of 1996 items over 300 years old which are at least 10% gold or silver, or finds with at least 2 coins in the group must be reported as treasure, among other criteria. Treasure must be offered for sale to a museum, but can be kept if no museum wants to purchase it. The finder is paid the value of the find, as determined by a public body. The importance of chance finds is in comparing items which were probably accidentally lost to those that are deliberately included in burials. For example, Anglo-Saxon scutiform bractates are mostly found in graves as gold, while they are found in PAS in copper alloy, but with the same overall size, construction technique and design aesthetic.
Now metal detectoring is an odd field. One in which telling everyone WHERE you found something is a good way to have your prime site claim-jumped, but the only way to prove you are good at metal detectoring is to show your finds off to other people. With the development of the PAS, and appointment of Finds Liaison officers in each region, the concerns about location security were addressed. Now all “treasure” MUST be reported, but any find COULD be reported. The exact location would be recorded by the Finds Liaison Officer, but not released to the general public. That information could then help inform archaeologists going their background analysis of construction sites. The Finds officer would measure and often photograph the item, and include the information on the database. Metal detectorists in England embraced the scheme. Thousands of finds have been recorded. The opinion of Archaeology in relation to metal detectorists has risen. Metal detectorists have proven their worth as a partner in the search for the past, rather a destructive force. It is now common for an archaeological survey to begin by enlisting volunteer detectorists. It is also becoming more common for a metal detectorist to realize that they have stumbled onto a site, and call in the archaeologists.
More – in part two.