Site Diary: What Archaeologists Do When They’re Not Digging

Amanda Finds Boxes Minsmere

Think of an archaeologist at work and you probably picture someone outdoors, in a trench, with a trowel. If that’s the case, then what on earth has everyone at DigVentures been up to since November, because it sure hasn’t been digging more holes…

The truth is that fieldwork is actually a pretty small part of what we do; most of it actually takes place before, and after, the dig. Right now, we’re in the ‘post-excavation phase’ of the six major archaeological projects we worked on this summer. But what does that really mean? The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like doing a very, very large jigsaw puzzle. To go about fitting it together, any puzzle-solver worth their salt will have a strategy. Let me extend the analogy and show you how it goes…

Step 1. Open the box

What’s the first thing you do you when get your jigsaw puzzle? Most people will take a good look at the picture on the front of the box. Unfortunately, archaeological sites rarely come with a picture of what it once looked like, or who the people were that should be the focal point of the image. But to say we don’t have any impression to work with other than what we excavated, however, is not quite true.

Before we start digging, we will have done plenty of research. We’ll have had a comprehensive look at nearby archaeological sites, and spent time revising the period and area we’re investigating. We’ll probably have also done some geophysical survey work, and gathered up as much evidence as we can from local museum stores and archives. This ‘picture’ we put together before the dig now comes into its own. Although it won’t tell the complete story it will certainly give us a guide to where some of the newest the pieces of the puzzle – the evidence retrieved during fieldwork – will go.

2. Count Your Jigsaw Pieces

Is there anything more frustrating about doing a jigsaw puzzle than realising long after you’ve started that half the pieces are missing? Before we can really start the analysis, we need to check that everything is in order. Have all the structural features like pits, postholes and any building foundations been mapped? Are the artefacts cleaned, washed, sorted, weighed and added to the database? Are the descriptions of the layers in which they were found complete? Are the soil samples dried, labelled and safely packed?

Checking through the site records at this point is the equivalent of counting the pieces in the box, and retrieving any missing pieces from the back of the cupboard. Once done, you will now be surrounded by neatly organised boxes, and a satisfyingly complete database. So what next?

3. Find your corners

I fear the jigsaw analogy is being stretched a little now, but stick with it! Every puzzle has a corner which is a distinctive colour, or a very specific pattern. Once they’re in place, you can start building up small areas.

Coming back to archaeology, the corners are most likely to be the big ‘in the ground’ features – the building foundations, the postholes, the pits and the ditches. These are the pieces about which we know the most. Although the ‘corners’ do change from site to site, they will generally fall into four major categories; the ‘in the ground’ features we’ve just mentioned; environmental evidence (like soil samples); artefacts; and also landscape (survey data, aerial photography). Once you have established your corners, it’s time to start talking to the specialists. Who is going to analyse the animal bones? What do we want to know about them? Who can identify and date the pottery? How do we want them analysed? Who can tell us what those strange metal artefacts were? And can they get them conserved? Is there anyone available to investigate the soil samples and tell us what the ancient environment was like?

4. Start with your favourite corner, and work from the known into the unknown

Whilst you are waiting to hear back from your team of specialists, you can work out what you think is going on in the trenches. First, identify your features: is that a flagged floor surface over there? How does it relate to the nearby ditch we excavated? Where in the chronology of the site does that group of pits sit? You can start to build up a picture of the site based purely on the stratigraphic relationships – that is, identifying what happened before, or after, the bit you are working on. We use a kind of grid called a Harris Matrix to work out how everything relates… it’s a bit like an archaeology Sudoku… a puzzle within a puzzle!

5. Join up the different sections

Once you have a good idea of the features on the site, you can see roughly how they might all fit together. This is like getting to the stage in a puzzle when you have some key groups pieced together – some toys and presents in one corner, the Christmas tree in another, Santa’s feet coming down the chimney… you get the idea. Now you need to find the bits that pull them all into one whole picture.

For archaeologists, this is the point at which we might start building up a chronological (or ‘phased’) narrative – a description of what happened at the site from the earliest finds to the latest. We can build quite a complex picture from the stratigraphy alone – but to really join up the pieces, we will need that information back from the specialists! Can thepottery specialist tell us whether that pit was full of medieval cookware, or high end tableware? Can the environmental expert tell us whether that area was freshwater or an inlet from the sea? Can the bone expert tell us where an individual came from? And did that 3D model of the landscape our drone operator made show up any additional lumps and bumps?

This is the colour and the detail of our developing picture, the stuff that enriches our understanding of the archaeological features that we so carefully excavated and recorded onsite and allows us to tell the story of the people who lived and worked at the site we have investigated.

7. Stand back and admire your handiwork (but be prepared to have it dismantled)

There is always an element of interpretation in archaeology – it is not an exact science and depends on creativity and imagination to knit together the scientific and technical detail into a coherent story. But it’s no good stopping there; you need to write it up for other people to read. When you do, there is a very good chance that someone will come along with a different interpretation. Discussing archaeological sites can often lead to multiple explanations, which can develop out of exactly the same box of evidence. The next person that comes along could put it all back together in a slightly different way and find a new picture.

8. Start a new puzzle (or get an expansion pack!)

Now imagine doing not just one jigsaw, but six all at once! Since leaving the field, DigVentures has reached at least stage five on all of our archaeology jigsaws, including Lindisfarne, Morecambe Bay, Leiston Abbey, Under the Uplands, and Oldbury Camp.

That means we’ve got some really great specialists around the country taking a look at the artefacts and soil samples we want to have analysed, and are waiting for the results. In the meantime, we’re doing the outlines of our reports. On top of that, we’re setting the wheels in motion for next year’s excavations. What do we need more evidence of? Where are we most likely to find it? Getting ready to go back and do more excavation in order to get more evidence is like going out to buy an expansion pack for your puzzle… suddenly the picture is going to get a whole lot bigger!

We’re getting very excited about sharing news from the specialists with you in the New Year. Keep watching, because the results are about to start coming in…

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Manda Forster

Written by Manda Forster

Manda is DigVentures' very own finds manager. Much as she loves digging, archaeology for her is all about what happens next: getting everything analysed in the lab. She's an expert in Viking soapstone, makes a mean paella and loves doing jigsaw puzzles.

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