Archaeological field survey

In Search of Rocks and Stones

Name: George Geddes

What do you do?
I’m an Archaeological Investigator with RCAHMS

How did you get here? 
I started with a BSc at Edinburgh followed by a few years on the Scottish digging circuit. An MA at York in 2003-4 focussing on the archaeology of buildings in the Western Isles led to five years at Headland Archaeology as their building surveyor. In 2007, I took up the post as St Kilda Archaeologist for the National Trust for Scotland, which led to an interest in conservation management planning. In 2008, I moved to RCAHMS to work on a range of archaeological survey projects.

What are you working on today? 
Today I am splitting my work over a series of projects: as aerial survey forms part of my work, I am interpreting and cataloguing photographs of cropmarks taken in the Lunan valley last year, an area where a whole archaeological landscape of multiple periods survives under modern land use.

Later in the day I will continue researching the work of Gordon Childe with RCAHMS from 1942 to 1946 and digitising the photographs, notes and sketch plans he made on about 700 sites during the war, so that they can be viewed on Canmore.

Gordon Childe, a Commissioner at RCAHMS for 4 years, in Edinburgh.

Gordon Childe, a Commissioner at RCAHMS for 4 years, in Edinburgh.

We are also producing a new book on St Kilda’s archaeology, surveyed by RCAHMS in 1983-6 and 2007-9, and I am researching and writing the chapters for the 19th and 20th century, exploring new approaches to the sites and their wider context.

My most recent fieldwork has been a re-survey of the fort at Finavon, and the discovery of a whole new and significant phase, and a trip to the Flannan Isles, where a medieval chapel and seabird hunters bothies survive – for both, I will begin the drafting of our detailed descriptions.

Favourite part of your job? 
In comparison to project manager, the job title ‘investigator’ seems so old-fashioned but the Ordnance Survey and RCAHMS used it for many years as it describes so well the process of critically engaging with the archaeological landscapes and collections in Scotland. Whether it is getting to grips with complex earthworks at Finavon, or teasing together the evidence of how we have got where we are today in interpretation, the focus at work is so often on that process of investigation.  When this process is coupled with a good old sense of ‘public service’, it can be very productive and rewarding.

What did university not teach you? 
While University was fantastic at providing a broad overview, and the opportunity to share and develop ideas, it did not provide an adequate grasp of either fieldwork skills (excluding excavation) nor of the character of Scotland’s field archaeology. While this can to some extent be learnt simply by tramping round sites on one’s own, as so many of us have done, the advantages of doing this more intensively (i.e. looking at everything within a study area), and with experienced colleagues, makes a huge difference. When one considers that RCAHMS has had staff in a similar post to myself since 1908 (initially in fact, the only staff), there has been a huge amount of accumulated organisational experience, passed on from generation to generation (this can include bad habits too!).

The chapel and lighthouse on the Flannan Isles

The chapel and lighthouse on the Flannan Isles

Surprising part of your job? 

George thinks his colleagues are surprising...

George thinks his colleagues are surprising…

The colleagues! No seriously, I’m surprised that there is still so much investigative work to do in Scotland. Though we are really far ahead of most countries in the world in having more than a century of relatively coherent and structured fieldwork (by many individuals and bodies) behind us, resulting in a fantastic collection not to mention an ever-improving sense of the past, great swathes of the country still require thorough field survey, to support research, planning and to enable the public to engage with the past. This national project, when combined with an excellent and robust system of planning-led archaeology, and community archaeology, must surely be the envy of many countries.

Top tips for aspiring archaeologists?  Earn a fortune in something else and then self-fund excavations and surveys in the land of your dreams (i.e North Rona).

Colleagues on North Rona

Colleagues on North Rona

Surveying Texas parks, where life’s better outside!

“To manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Texas Parks and Wildlife Mission Statement.

After almost 9 years working for a private environmental consulting firm, I recently joined the Archeology (that’s the official spelling here) Survey Team for the State Parks division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It’s a great career opportunity, a promotion and a raise, and involves less travel (and shorter stints), all of which were very appealing to me as I get older and want to settle down a bit.

John Lowe

Here I am, recording a rockshelter site for my new job!

But what I really like about my new job is encapsulated in our mission statement above: “manage and CONSERVE the…cultural resources of Texas.” After all, the “M” in CRM stands for “management”. I work for the people of Texas, as a steward of public lands, to help protect (manage) and conserve the archaeological record of this state.

The nuts and bolts of the job aren’t much different than private sector CRM. My coworkers and I conduct archaeological surveys of existing and proposed State Parks and State Natural Areas, where we identify and assess cultural resources (primarily, but not necessarily limited to, archaeological sites). We walk transects, we dig holes, we identify and sometimes collect artifacts, we note previous natural and artificial impacts to the sites, assess the integrity of the deposits and the potential research value. Often, this is project specific work; if a park wants to develop a new series of trails, or expand a campground, there’s a survey beforehand.

photo (6)

One of the many stark, beautiful views from the canyons of the Lower Pecos region of Texas

Recently, we have been surveying a new, not-yet-opened, property in the Lower Pecos. We are helping the park planners determine where campsites, roads, and trails can be placed to have minimal impacts on cultural resources, while also allowing our park guests the opportunity to experience and explore the area. This is also something we must consider in our work, as high visibility sites (such as rockshelters, structures, and large burned rock middens) will certainly draw attention and visits, even if they’re not in the immediate impact areas. In fact, one of the criteria we use in evaluating sites is potential for vandalism (a sad, unfortunate fact of life).

Our work doesn’t stop with the planning of the park. One of the things we do is develop a cultural resources management plan for the park rangers and superintendents. This may involve a regular visit to some of the sites (the time frames differ, depending on the significance and visibility), limiting access to extremely sensitive areas (a last resort), or doing nothing. We thoroughly document the sites with maps and photographs to assist with the monitoring.

We also help with interpretation. In our reports, we try and tell the “story” of the park. We are fortunate to have access to broad yet constrained areas for our studies, as opposed to the long, narrow, linear surveys so common these days in CRM. We also have the luxury of time to do background research and analyses that can help us in our understanding of the parks; after all the resources are being protected (although our budgets are certainly not unlimited). Finally, we (as an office, it’s not really part of my job) can develop interpretative displays and materials for the parks, so that the guests can also know the story of the park, and appreciate some of the resources. We are always learning and thinking of new ways to do this.

So that’s what I do, in general. What am I doing today, on the Day of Archaeology? I’m working on a report for a survey done at Bastrop State Park following the devastating wildfires of September 2011. Right now, I’m finishing chapters on the artifact analysis and the sites that were recorded. Eventually, I will be bringing in the information from all of the previous work done in the park to tell the story of the park. I’m not even sure what that is just yet, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

(note: the words, thoughts, and opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent the official words or policies of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, except where explicitly quoted)

A day of archaeological geomatics

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in flight.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in flight.
Image © Callen Lenz

Well, firstly, I can’t believe it’s been a year since last time! Doesn’t time fly? What’s happened since then I hear you cry? I’m still the Geomatics Manager for Wessex Archaeology, responsible for GIS and Survey. The big news is my desk is now paper free and I’m trying to keep to a paperless work regime, essential seeing as most of my workspace is taken up with computer equipment, leaving no room for unnecessary clutter. In the photo you can see not only my laptop but the recently rebuilt GISBEAST machine with it’s quad cores, 64-bit OS and 12Gb RAM, tooled up with all the software I need to do what I do. (more…)

Zen and the Art of Curation


Greetings from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Champaign! Recently, I have been spending my days in the lab helping to update and transcribe site inventories into a digital database.  The excavations that produced these artifacts were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, and the only inventories that exist are on hard copy.  Additionally, some of the artifacts are still in their original paper collection bags.  I am currently relabeling and rebagging artifacts, mostly lithics, and entering catalogue and provenience information into a digital database.  (Provenience refers to the exact location on the site at which the artifact was found; as opposed to the “Antiques Roadshow” term provenance, which refers to the entire history of the object from its discovery to the present).  It is important to curate these items using materials and technology that will help to preserve both the artifacts and their associated provenience information.


While this task might not entail bullwhip-cracking excitement and Spielberg-worthy finds, I think it is every bit as valuable as the discovery of a new site, the excavation of a unique artifact, or the ground-breaking research taking place daily.  This is due in part to my recent completion of a Master’s thesis in which I analyzed artifacts from the Chesapeake Bay region, despite living about 800 miles away in the Midwest.  I was able to conduct a majority of my research and some data collection using the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture database (, created by the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory and other Chesapeake archaeologists and collaborators.  This information was available to me thanks to the careful curation and meticulous inventorying of thousands of artifacts by Tidewater archaeologists in Maryland and Virginia.


As I work on curating the artifacts and information from excavations conducted years ago in Illinois, my recent research experience is always in the back of my mind.  I hope that our careful curation of the artifacts from decades-old excavations will assist researchers investigating these sites to more easily access this information.  The field of archaeology continues to advance both technologically and theoretically, and it is important to preserve artifacts and information as completely as possible to assist future researchers in the reinvestigation and reanalysis of previously-excavated sites.  Who knows what exciting reinterpretations might someday be based on these nondescript bags of broken rocks?

These chert samples were collected from a site investigated in the 1960s and 1970s.


Field Walking in Binbrook, Ontario, Canada.

Field survey is not the most exciting thing to do in archaeology. It’s often hot or muddy or exhausting or all of the above. Sometimes you walk for eight hours and find absolutely nothing. Sometimes you find really cool things.

Today, we took a break from our excavation of a large lithic site to check out a field.

Fieldwalking in archaeology is pretty much exactly how it sounds. You get assigned a field, you drive over to it and walk a lot. The field has usually been ploughed a few weeks before and we wait for a few good rains to settle the dust. Canada does not have a significant period of architectural development, so the vast majority of our archaeology can be found less a metre below the surface. Ploughing brings artifacts up to the surface and rain washes away excess dirt, leaving them ready for us to find.

Walking along, looking for cool stuff.

We do it systematically. Standing five metres apart from each other, we walk in straight lines in a grid pattern, staring at the ground in front of us. Most of us have been doing this for so many years that artifacts seem to leap up from the ground and we spot them as easily as if they were glowing pink. When we find something culturally modified (a flake, an arrowhead, etc), we put a bright orange flag next to it.

Walking, looking at the dirt in front of me.

When we find something, we reduce our survey to a smaller scale. Instead of being five metres apart, we stand shoulder to shoulder and walk more slowly, doing an intensive survey of the area for roughly 15m square. If we find more artifacts, we flag them as well and expand our area until we have a significant buffer zone of no artifacts. If we find enough artifacts and place enough flags, it is declared a site. And thus, most of the archaeological sites in Canada are found.

We did well today. Our site was a field within a sod farm. The sod had been harvested a while back and the land had been ploughed for us. We had a few decent rain storms over the past few days, so the weathering was decent. We started out and almost immediately found a few flakes. Intensive survey didn’t reveal much else, so they were declared to be “IF’s” (Isolated Finds) and we moved on.

First flake of the day!

It was pouring when we got up in the morning but by the time we actually started working, it was nice outside. We’ve been having a really hot and dry summer so far, so the cool breeze and overcast sky was appreciated. And since it was a sod farm, the land was mercifully flat. Sometimes, we have to survey giant hills with badly ploughed fields, where each step is both exhausting and dangerous, not knowing where your feet will land. This was a walk in the park in comparison.

Around 11am, we found our first arrowhead. Not the prettiest specimen ever made, but hey, it made us happy. Looking around the point revealed tons of other lithics and we declared our first site. Half an hour later, we found a decent biface and some more flakes, leading to our second site.



Yay, biface.


Yep, this is what an archaeological site looks like in Canada before excavation.

After lunch, we finished walking the property with time to spare. We finish up the intensive survey and start cataloguing our finds. Each IF is noted on a map. Each “diagnostic” (an artifact, usually a tool, that can be used for dating methods) is automatically recorded as a site, regardless of whether we find much much else around it. Anything with seven or more finds on the surface is also declared a site. We record what we find, where we found it and we get a GPS reading of the location on the property. When the time comes for us to return to dig it all up, we’ll look over it again and map out the exact location of all the finds before we start digging.

Steve collects all the lithics.

After the day’s work, we come out with two sites that will require further excavation, two tools and tons of isolated finds. And, best of all, we finish an hour early on the Friday of a long weekend and we head home happy.

The Big Picture: Archaeological Records after the Project is Done

Greetings! I’m Jolene Smith. I work for the Department of Historic Resources in Virginia, USA. I decided to post on Day of Archaeology because I am most certainly not what most people would consider a “typical” archaeologist. I manage digital and paper records and mapping for nearly 43,000 recorded archaeological sites in Virginia through our government agency, which is also the State Historic Preservation Office.

Sometimes I miss being out in the field, but certainly not today. It’s currently 100°F/38°C outside at lunch time, so I’m very happy in my air conditioned office cubicle.

Distribution of Sites in Virginia by County

Distribution of Recorded Archaeological Sites in Virginia (work-in-progress!)

My work so far today has been very heavy on GIS (Geographic Information Systems). I spent the morning creating a quick map showing the density of recorded sites in Virginia’s counties for a publication of the Archeological Society of Virginia (our state’s wonderful avocational archaeological organization). It’s still a major work-in-progress, but I’m happy I was able to easily generate this data. The ASV hopes to use this info as a guide for where to conduct future archaeological surveys. With a little more work, I’ll be able to clean up some errors, pretty it up, and label everything so the data will be easily understandable.

I spent much of the rest of the morning working on creating records for a large project conducted by a CRM (cultural resource management) consultant, making sure the GIS mapping is accurate and matches the information in our databases and in the printed site form records. Quality control is a big part of what I do. It’s fundamental to remember that archaeology is inherently destructive, so it’s critical to have good, clear records.

Here’s what I have on tap for the rest of the day: I’ll work with some more consultants to create records for new archaeological sites and add information to previously recorded sites. I’ll also be responding to a few emails from members of the public interested in recording small cemeteries in our inventory. Then, I’ll probably review a few archaeological projects that have been conducted at the future sites of mobile phone/telecommunications towers as part of Section 106 compliance to make sure that there won’t be impacts to important archaeological deposits. Quite a variety, isn’t it?

Of Discovery and Avoidance

Let me begin by saying that it is a pleasure contribute, and I am honored to be a part of this effort to celebrate and share archaeology through social media.  I first learned of this Day of Archaeology thanks to social media. Indeed, it would seem that archaeologists have taken to the Internet recently, especially since the launch of Google+ some weeks ago. It is exciting to think that the advent of new technologies has made archaeological study more cooperative, immediate and accessible.

Okay, so onto the matter at hand.

I am a Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeologist and consultant working for an environmental services company in Oklahoma. I work with an inter-disciplinary team of biologists and environmental scientists. Most of the clients we work with have interests that are related to energy development, oil and natural gas chief among them. Our charge is two-fold:

1. Discover, document and avoid natural or cultural resources that could be adversely affected by a given project.

2. Obtain permits from state and federal agencies so that a given project can proceed without running foul of the law.

These laws, or rather congressional acts, often  include compliance with the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). All this sound a bit like “alphabet soup” but, it is the essential legal basis that holds companies accountable and drives a large portion of CRM survey work in the US.  It also provides me with a pay check so that I can dutifully pay back my student-loans (coughs sarcastically).

My work alternates between survey in the field and reporting in the office. Over the course of a year it balances out to about 50%/50%. Unfortunately for you, the reader, today is a rather typical in the office. My team and I are gearing up for a week of field survey in Louisiana next week. That means  today we are gathering equipment, producing maps, updating our GPS data-loggers, booking hotel reservations and arguing over which Cajun restaurant has the best red beans and rice (for my money it’s the Blind Tiger in Shreveport).

In addition to sorting out the logistics for this upcoming project, I have a keep other projects simmering on the stove-top, so to speak. Today, I am performing “desktop-based” studies on proposed projects in Oklahoma, Montana and Texas. Basically, I am using GIS databases and archives to located any known archaeological sites or historic locations that may have been recorded within or near a given project area. When finished, I will compile the information into a report for our clients advising them of the potential for encountering these resources. I will also provide them suggestions for a path forward through the regulatory process. More often than not, these desktop studies will develop into actual field surveys. Occasionally, they will include deep testing regimes or partial excavations. The name of the game is avoidance. Unfortunately for me (read as: the recalcitrant academic), clients would rather go around a site than wait to excavate it.

My other duties today include: completion of archaeological site forms for two prehistoric Paleo-Indian Period sites (ca. 12,000 – 8,000 years ago) for submission to the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey (OAS) and the Texas Historical Commission (THC). I also have to purchase flagging and fencing in order to demarcate the boundaries of a historic homestead property (ca. 1898) in southeastern Oklahoma.

There you have it,  a snap-shot of my work on this Day of Archaeology. In the world of cultural resource management, it is not often that we get to delve deep into site analysis through testing and excavation. I am envious of my friends any colleagues who get to ask the “big” questions and are able to spend considerable time researching particular topics in ways that enlighten and inform us about our prehistoric past. However, unlike them,  I am able to travel often and encounter scores of  sites in order to document and protect them for other researchers to examine more closely in the future.  Most days, that is alright by me.

Keep Digging & Cheers,

R. Doyle Bowman


Archaeology + spatial geekery = archaeogeomancy

Survey at Stonehenge

Survey at Stonehenge

A few words of intro before the full and glorious meat of archaeological computery geekery that will ensue through the day. My name is Paul Cripps and I am the Geomatics Manager at Wessex Archaeology. The title of this post comes from my blog, Archaeogeomancy, where I usually talk about things I’m doing, researching or otherwise interested in, focussing on archaeological geomatics. Bit of a play on words there (as described here) based around the term geomatics. Many people ask me what is geomatics and I generally quote verbatim the rather good wikipedia entry:

Geomatics (also known as geospatial technology or geomatic engineering) is the discipline of gathering, storing, processing, and delivering geographic information, or spatially referenced information.