Dig It! Intersections Between Excavation Methods and Recording Systems

Organiser Laura. H. Evis (Bournemouth University)
Email LEvis@bournemouth.ac.uk

Same site, same team, different methods. Will the raw data collected and the interpretation of the site be the same? For generations, archaeologists have continually developed new ways to excavate and record, but what’s driven the changes that have been introduced? Has commercialisation led to an increased emphasis on elaborate systematic recording systems at the expense of critical excavation methods? Are the strategies adopted for an archaeological investigation driven by the recording system, the excavation method used, or the questions under investigation, or all three? Where the overall goals of the archaeological investigation are the same why is there variance in the approaches adopted by different archaeologists? This session will address the issue of why excavation methods and recording systems used in modern field archaeology are the way they are, seeking to identify the causes of diversity, its impact on the data recovery, and its potential affect on the interpretation process. Case studies and evaluative reviews are invited from academics and practitioners working in any part of the world.

Down, Down, Deeper, & Down: Matching excavation methods & recording systems in commercial & research investigations

Speaker: Timothy Darvill (Bournemouth University)

In recent decades there has been a tendency to promote ‘standard’ methods of excavation and associated recorded systems regardless of the nature of the site under investigation or the questions being asked of the archaeological data. Such methodologies have become enshrined in guidance and documents issued by professional bodies. Here it is argued that we need to take one step back from the adoption of rigid frameworks for excavation and recording and instead develop systems that are closely aligned with the tasks they are expected to assist with, whether for application in the commercial sector or for academic research projects.

Context (Locus) Sheets as Procrustean Beds for Archaeological Data – Evolution & Perspectives

Speaker: Catalin Pavel (Kennesaw State University)

My presentation probes into the rationale of using context sheets, but also in the caveats associated with them. The structure of forms on which we record sites also structures our understanding of sites. The questions that we ask of the archaeological remains ought not to be preordained, but should respond to the challenges offered by the discoveries made in the trench. However, context sheets often act as filters interposed between the archaeologist and the stratigraphic units, or between the archaeological record and archaeological documentation, permitting some data to pass while filtering out other data. Just like the tools used in excavating, and particularly the technology used in recording the dig, the structure of the pro forma has a considerable impact not only on what data is retrieved and what data is lost, but also on which “data” becomes “information” and which does not. Data that is not patterned, or meaningful, or to which significance can only become attached in retrospect, is often not perceived. A question of particular interest is how can one best record what one cannot understand. Are we in fact able to meaningfully describe what we cannot interpret? Can context sheets help improve the recovery rate of such “vulnerable” data, or are they in fact a Procrustean bed which tailors reality to fit into their prompts and entries, thus numbing the attention of the excavator?

A dazzling variety of pro forma have been designed that try to solve this dilemma. The diversity of these context sheets results from the interplay between the personality of the archaeologist and the personality of the site, the goals of the excavation, the approaches to publication and outreach, and even archaeological legislation and stakeholders’ interests. By exploring examples stemming from the British, American, German, Italian, and French traditions for recording the excavation, I ultimately try to disentangle archaeological attitudes towards the ethics of the excavation, the constitution of archaeological knowledge, and the conflict between interpretation and description.

We like what we know & we know what we like: A comparative view of excavation methods with examples from Europe, the Andes & the Caribbean

Speaker: Frank Meddens (PCA Ltd) & Gary Brown

Excavation methods vary considerably from place to place.  The nature and complexity of the archaeological sequences limit the applicability of the methods used. This has not stopped archaeologists from imposing approaches which have repeatedly and consistently failed to deliver useful results particularly with respect to questions of sequence and chronology. In these cases it has been common practice to blame the nature of the archaeology rather than to change the methodology used. This paper reviews some of the methods applied in Cuba, the Netherlands, Peru and the United  Kingdom, considers the reasoning behind their use and discusses their appropriateness for the sites on  which they are employed.

Integrating Tribal Consultation, Mitigation Measures, & Research Trajectories in a CRM Context: The Riverfront Village Experience

Speaker: Thomas G. Whitley (Brockington and Associates, Inc)

In the United States, data recovery (or Phase III) excavations are employed as mitigation for adverse impacts from proposed development permitted under the authority of federal agencies. This relates to sites identified through the process defined under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and considered eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Data recovery is one small part of the list of archaeological activities which fall under the larger umbrella of Cultural Resources Management. Prior to carrying out a data recovery, an excavation and research plan is submitted to the lead federal agency for approval, and codified in a legal agreement. The methods used during the fieldwork are laid out in this plan, but are largely driven by the goals and needs of reviewers or other interested parties. This includes the archaeologist with the lead federal agency; who is required to comply with federal laws, agency mandates, and regional or departmental directives, and who has the final authority to approve the entire process. It also includes the state archaeologist; who may have different goals with respect to state requirements for historic preservation, and particularly in regard to public education. Additional partners in the process are the Native American tribal communities; who must be consulted under federal law, and who are primarily concerned with tribal heritage, burial discovery and preservation, and in maintaining their role in the consultation process. The excavation methods used and the research goals of the principal investigator need to be placed within this context. The case study presented here discusses how data recovery was designed and implemented at a large Mississippian village on the bank of the Savannah River in South Carolina, and how the needs of these diverse partners were ultimately fulfilled by the process. This case is a good example of how the excavation methods for archaeological work in a CRM context are often driven by factors outside of the immediate control of the excavation supervisor, and how finding a balance between these different objectives is a challenge in itself.

“The theory is data goes in here & results come out there”. “That’s bollocks!” – Comparing the use of Intrasis in Norway & the UK

Speaker: Kevin Wooldridge (Bergen Museum, Universitetet i Bergen)

Intrasis is a GIS designed by the Swedish National Heritage Board to handle and structure archaeological documentation and field data. The system has  been used piecemeal in Norway since 2000, but for the past 2 years,  has been extensively trialled and evaluated in projects across the country; part of a process that may lead to adoption of the system as the ‘national’ archaeological recording standard.

The archaeology section of English Heritage (EH) have been using Intrasis in their field projects since 2008. Field  trials followed a year or so of development spent considering how the Intrasis system could be integrated into  existing EH working practices across a broad range of activities, covering not just field excavation, but also environmental sample analysis, finds processing and cataloguing, data indexing and post-excavation analysis.

In this paper  I will recount my personal experience using Intrasis in both Norway and the UK and what I consider  advantages and disadvantages of the system. I will focus on the way Intrasis can be adapted to suit different record methodologies  and essentially different recording philosophies.  I will also touch upon issues such as staff training, site methodology, financial efficiencies and possible alternatives to the Intrasis system.

A burning issue: The significance of excavation recording for cremated remains & associated archaeological features

Speakers: Priscilla Ferreira Ulguim & James Gillespie (University of Exeter)

Our understanding of cremated remains has been transformed by archaeological and forensic studies, from being perceived in early research as limited sources of information, into remains with significant informative potential. Although the scientific analysis of cremated remains and associated features related to the cremation process is developing rapidly, the systematised recording of the burned bones and features during the excavation process has not evolved at the same pace. In this regard, knowledge about the potential of advanced techniques of analysis and experimental work on burned remains, linked features as well as the application of consolidants can change our understanding, conception and interpretation of such remains in situ. Therefore, this provides the basis for detailed and precise recording to comparable standards, allowing a more accurate and comprehensive interpretation. The main aim of this presentation is to provide insights into the applications of some of these techniques and experimental results, and furthermore propose a flexible but indispensable general protocol for recording cremated remains and associated material which can incorporate many aspects of new technology, and yet may be adjusted by archaeologists for use in different archaeological contexts.

Archaeology as Product: The implications for deep prehistory of a developer-led methodology

Speaker: Robert E. Hedge (Foundations Archaeology)

The introduction of PPG-16 was the catalyst for dramatic changes to the nature of archaeological investigation within the UK. The archaeological process has become a product; our results and interpretations have commercial implications for developers. This has had a significant impact upon the strategies employed and the presentation of results. Investigations are often driven by the necessity to produce spatial analyses at the micro-scale to inform or facilitate development. Such analyses can become the defining feature of an investigation, to the detriment of other aspects of the research agenda.

Drawing upon case studies from commercial investigations within the UK, this paper seeks to identify the consequences of this focus upon spatial analysis of discrete features for the recovery and analysis of data pertaining to the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. These periods remain poorly served by current commercial practice, yet this is by no means an inevitable by-product of their ephemeral nature and scarcity.

Solutions explored in this paper include improved training in geoarchaeological and geoenvironmental principles, more widespread use of Landform Sediment Assemblages and a move beyond established methods of evaluative commercial excavation; such approaches may serve to bring Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology within the reach of the commercial process.

Site Interpretation & the Primary Records: useful or useless?

Speaker: Rebecca Hunt (University of Birmingham) & Kevin Colls (University of Birmingham)

Since the 1970s, in light of the professionalisation of archaeology and the rise of developer-led archaeology, the primary records for archaeological excavation have evolved into a highly formal archive of indices, visual records and context recording sheets. Given the likely destruction of sites, either from archaeological excavation or subsequent construction, the primary purpose of this archive is to preserve this information within the archaeological record for all future generations. Whilst this is invaluable, all too often the primary record fails to record the thought processes that occur on-site which lead to the final interpretation and ultimately the ‘site story’ which is disseminated through publication. The moment of excavation, whilst archaeologists are completely engaged with the material in context, is the moment of greatest interpretative potential. This paper will begin to critically assess the interpretative value of current recoding systems, focusing particularly on site notebooks/diaries and their use by archaeologists in the field.

The state we’re in: fieldwork in the past, present & future

Speaker: Steve Roskams (University of York)

Post-processual critiques of archaeological fieldwork have portrayed developments in recording methods in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a blind alley: it is almost conventional wisdom today in some quarters to criticise the ‘tyranny of the context sheet’ and thus prioritise ‘interpretation at the point of the trowel’.  Here, I wish to dissect this criticism, briefly at a general level (modernism has always been self-critical: in that sense, ‘post’-modernism has never really existed) and then a detailed, archaeological level (the failure of advocates of reflexivity to identify the real problems faced by the fieldwork profession today: any malaise comes not from the divorce of theory and practice, but from commercialisation).  My conclusion is that fieldworkers can create a more vibrant and innovative engagement with their material, but only by being both creative and systematic.  Thus we need to maintain the distinction between data gathering and data analysis and to focus on the team, not the individual.

Reskilling the Diggers: handing over the means of interpretation

Speaker: Chiz Harward (Cotswold Archaeology)

Commercial and academic archaeologies have both developed techniques and methodologies to allow the excavation of the widest range of archaeological sites, but in their approaches the actual archaeologists digging the sites have often been squeezed out of the higher level picture and have been reduced to mere technicians removed from all but the most basic level of interpretation. This paper will look at the current state of play in commercial archaeology from an anecdotal basis and argue that current systems widely used across many parts of the country deskill and disenfranchise archaeologists and can result in simplistic and poorly interpreted archaeology.

How we can make Site Technicians become Archaeologists again? Can we do this by developing recording systems, by training and mentoring, by communicating, asking questions and listening or by increasing Diggers’ involvement in interpretation?

Pride & Prejudice – Examining Excavation & Its Qualities

Speakers: Ian Hanson & Paul Cheetham (Bournemouth University)

Excavation methods and the data that arise from their application fundamentally underpin all our understanding of the past. Such methods vary widely, often steeped in local geographical, institutional or academic tradition transmitted through master novice relationships and outside of any overarching control of logic or quality. There is an increasingly frequent application of archaeological methods to answer questions (often in legal settings) where examination of those methods is normal; planning as well as forensic investigation are examples. Requirements to demonstrate and justify methods, standards and results in relation to specific ‘research’ questions have exposed the lack of an employment of a ‘normal science’ with respect to archaeological excavation procedures. Within forensic science, demands for agreed and peer reviewed methods, uniformity, and much more importantly for auditing of repeatability and effectiveness of methods used has led to reflection among archaeologists on what excavation is, how it is undertaken and why methods vary. Issues around excavation approaches including resistance to change, external pressures, regulation, experience, subjectivity, bias, ethics, individuality, non-repeatability and variation in interpretation must be addressed to understand and explain method choice and use. Methods need to be accepted as scientific and effective data collection techniques by courts and the developing world of highly regulated forensic science. Measured application of appropriate, justified and diagnostic methods are required to fulfil this need. This paper looks at the challenges that face archaeology in getting its excavation house in order and fit for the 21st century scientific and societal demands upon it.

Forensic Archaeological Method in the context of the Crime Scene

Speaker: Karl Harrison (Cranfield University)

The past twenty years of development has seen forensic archaeologists develop from being university-based individuals utilised by local police forces on an ad hoc basis, to being recognised as part of a much wider group of crime scene scientists that encompass a range of ecological evidence types. The development of a set of intricately linked processes and evidence-gathering methods between forensic archaeologists and scenes of crime officers, plus the growth in importance of a written forensic strategy held by the Crime Scene Manager has arguably had an effect on the approach adopted by the forensic archaeologist. Adopted methods of search, excavation and recovery have to be discussed with all scene personnel, as hasty adaptations to approach may have unforeseen implications for other scientists and criminalists relying on the work of the archaeologist.

This brief paper will argue that whilst it may be important to assess the methods of forensic archaeology in and of their own right, it is absolutely crucial that these methods are not assessed in isolation. They must rather maintain internal integrity whilst integrating seamlessly with other crime scene interventions.

Time for Change: the utilisation of nanoarchaeology & its impacts on the social context & research agendas of commercial & academic fieldwork

Speaker: Martin Carver (University of York)

The relationship between what archaeologists want to know about the archaeological past and what they actually do in the field is a fascinating one and, like many other relationships, is always changing. Archaeology involves land and citizens, and if only for that reason is a socially embedded subject. Field archaeology is therefore not an isolated research activity, a lonely dialogue between a theorist and a clod of earth; it is done in public: a publicly sanctioned reduction of a part of a common resource in exchange for accurately anticipated scientific benefits. For this reason the correct intellectual location for archaeological investigation is within a social contract. This is also the root cause of our need for multiple modes of communication, in publication, exhibition and site presentation. However, as the discipline of archaeology has developed, both the research and commercial archaeological sectors have come to be locked into traditional practice – much of which is uncreative. Whilst there are multiple attractions in applying standard methods, the use of dogmatic approaches – such as context only recording and Wheeler boxes – does in fact diminish the research potential of the site, lower standards, and with them, the expectations and yields. Furthermore, our targets in the field are no longer just macro-entities (walls) and micro-assemblages (seeds) but nano-samples from the invisible domain of molecules. In order to capture such data, the archaeologist is now more CSI than SSI, and is engaged in a responsive dialogue of ever increasing sophistication, the archaeologist’s tool kit of potential methods of inquiry has now gone far beyond the shovel, trowel and spatula, and our records too must now go well beyond the simple ‘context’, both technically and conceptually. Therefore, if all brands of field archaeology are at the same time scientific, creative and socially embedded, how can a theory of practice integrate and reconcile all these factors? In each case the task is to match what has survived, and our powers of detection, to the desires of research and the demands of ethical factors: what we want to know, out of what we can know, out of what we are permitted to seek. The solution presented here is value-led archaeology which champions a staged itinerary, gated by evaluation and design. It is compared with other procedures in operation in France, the United States of America and England, showing that the key variable in archaeological quality is not technique, but purpose. This solution is capable of accommodating any theory and any political system, provided we are sufficiently vocal about what we value.

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