Post-Excavation: What happens after you dig a site?

For my PhD research, I have been working on a couple of Early Iron Age sites in northeastern Botswana. To put these sites in a comparable context, they are hilltop settlements from prehistoric farming and herding communities that date to roughly 1000 AD in the Kalahari Desert. The sites I am working on are only a couple of dozens of known sites clustered in the region in which I have been working, and the region (northeastern Botswana) is generally considered part of the broader geographical and cultural region of Southern Africa (including what is now South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique). Southern Africa experienced a substantial influx of settlement by farming and herding populations (who migrated south from Central and East Africa) in the first millennium AD, resulting in many hundreds of archaeological sites that now dot the landscape. Part of what is fascinating about studying communities from this time period (commonly called the Early Iron Age, for the metal-working technology the communities brought with them) is how interconnected they appear to have been, despite the often very long distances and harsh terrain separating various settlement locations. Evidence of shared technology, village organization, ceramic styles, and participation in long-distance trade spans across much of Southern Africa for this time period. But equally fascinating are the sites, or components of sites, that don’t appear to fit the ‘typical’ pattern – certain archaeological sites have yielded ceramics or other types of artifacts with unusual styles or other unexpected material, for example, with radiocarbon dates earlier or later than would be expected for that kind of material.

Southern Africa was not a place void of human occupation before Early Iron Age population began their colonization of the subcontinent. Hunter-gatherer communities had thrived in the many varied ecological zones found in Southern Africa – from the damp, misty Cape to the sunny, arid Namib Desert – for tens of thousands of years before Iron Age communities establishes themselves in the area. Hunter-gatherers continued to subsist alongside the newcomers under a variety of conditions, sometimes coexisting in separate communities on the same landscape, at other times disappearing from the archaeological record (either moving to new territory or becoming subsumed into the more sedentary farmer society), or setting up camp nearby and apparently trading goods and services with the farming and herding villages. Archaeologists believe that the presence of hunter-gatherers in Early Iron Age communities can account for some of the ‘atypical’ sites or site components – the pieces that don’t seem to fit the basic Iron Age ‘pattern.’ It certainly would make sense, if two vastly different socioeconomic groups coexist on a landscape, to expect to see something different going on from when only one socioeconomic group is around. Of course, you can’t get even two archaeologists to agree on everything (where would be the fun in that?), and so a lot of the research being done on the Early Iron Age is to understand HOW much variation comes from the presence of hunter-gatherers, or even what it means to be, or ‘stay’ hunter-gatherer as part of a farming community, as well as understanding that part of the variation in the archaeological record that cannot be accounted for by hunter-gatherers. The Early Iron Age lasted for several centuries. Many archaeologists, myself included, expect that populations during this time period did not have perfectly static behavioral or cultural traditions. We want to tease out and better understand more of the differences among communities – nowadays there is a lot of talk about ‘regional variation,’ based on recent findings. My work, for example, looks to compare geographically broad understandings, or models, of the Early Iron Age with the very site-specific findings of the sites I excavated.

The tricky part of making sense of all of this, as is usually the case with archaeology, comes when one tries to fit the ‘broad view’, or general model of how things are understood, such as I just described above, with a more ‘narrow view’ such as the data one collects during fieldwork on a particular site, or after fieldwork during post-excavation data collection and analysis. The Early Iron Age of Southern Africa looks very, very different when viewed at the level of one site, or one set of artifacts in a lab, than it does as viewed through nice, neat descriptions on the pages of journal articles; it takes quite a lot of work to get from one to the other (more than I myself can even say – as a PhD candidate I have not published anything peer-reviewed yet!). So how DOES one understand what is going on at just one site, or just one batch of artifacts, in terms of how it relates to an entire centuries-long, geography-specific cultural horizon? It is more than just counting and naming the types of artifacts we found during our excavations at the site (though that is a part of the process too), and it is a lot more than simply plugging in one piece to an existing puzzle.

Every archaeologist will probably give you a somewhat different answer to the question I just asked above, and there’s something about that which is crucial to understanding archaeology as a discipline – we don’t all work in the same way, because we not only have different specialties and areas of interest, but we also operate under some different sets of theoretical assumptions and employ some variation in our methods as well.  That said, here’s a rundown of what I have been working on in the last couple of months in the interest of advancing my PhD research:

  • Learning more about archaeological sites that are contemporaneous with the ones I excavated. I know – didn’t I take the time to read and research this before I set out on fieldwork? Of course I did, otherwise the National Science Foundation would have never seen fit to fund my work – but there is a major difference between what gets excavated at a site and what ends up published about it. I’ve been talking, endlessly, to anyone I can pin down in one place long enough to tell me more about the sites they worked on, and their assemblages, how they compare with mine, methods of analysis they used, and other information that I could not have anticipated before I did my fieldwork. Honestly I think some researchers see me coming and hide because they know I’m going to ask them more questions. But nevermind that – I want as much comparative, contextual information as I can (pragmatically) manage in order to understand the finds from my own excavations.
  • Cataloging finds and conducting basic analysis on some categories of finds. Inventory, inventory, inventory. I can’t say much of anything substantive about technology, behavior, diet or anything else from the Early Iron Age unless I know what I’ve got, how much of it I’ve got, and in some cases, what it’s made of or what class of thing it is. For example, how much animal bone and tooth was recovered, and where was it found on the site? Which excavation units contained glass beads or burned seeds, and at what depths? I can’t say how many times I’ve revised and revamped the spreadsheets and other forms that contain my catalogue, in order to make sure my data are being managed properly. The same ought to go for the artifacts themselves – it’s a bigger job in a lot of cases, but the artifact collections likewise need to be stored and managed so that they are properly preserved as well as easily accessible.
  • Networking with other researchers to arrange more in-depth analyses of portions of the artifact assemblage. I cannot do everything myself, especially since I do not right now have the specialized training needed to conduct radiocarbon dating, species-specific zooarchaeological (animal bone) identification, and a full-scale ceramic identification. I also don’t have the time – I am trying to finish my degree in about a year’s time, and each of these analyses can take months! Instead, as the lead investigator on the work at the site, I coordinate agreements with specialists to conduct some of the analysis for me. They get pay, and credit, and I get expert-level feedback which I can then cite in my dissertation. It also builds partnerships and may lead to further work down the road. It’s generally good for everyone.
  • Taking notes. Lab notes, field notes, conference notes, lunchtime notes if I have a sudden inspiration, whatever. Constantly documenting what I am doing and why I am doing it; who I’ve talked to and what they said, etc. Not only will this help me write the methods section of my dissertation, it has also proved crucial for maintaining a consistent and rational methodology while still in the process of collecting the data. It’s really easy to think you’ll remember why you labeled that artifact bag a certain way, but in your memory, that one detail is going to get lost among the millions of others eventually.
  • Asking for help. It goes without saying that I need help – I’m just one person, for starters, and I’m still a student running my first research project, for another. It also goes without saying that the networking, collaboration and feedback I talk about above would not be happening without substantial help from my advising committee, other graduate students, and colleagues who have stepped forward with suggestions and offers of aid. However, I also have had to push myself to ask openly for help, in the form of volunteer assistance, and faculty advice, loans of equipment, and all sorts of other things. No way I’d be pulling off this project without these. I am not the sort of person who instinctively or comfortably asks for help for just about anything, so it has really been part of my education to learn what I cannot do on my own, and how to seek that assistance.
  • Keeping up with the literature. It’s part of any academic’s work, and it doesn’t go away just because I’m actively dissertating! I had to scramble to brief myself on recent research findings just before a conference last month because I’d been so focused on data collection over the last year or so. I couldn’t believe how much I’d missed in just twelve months.
  • Working on other projects. As if all this weren’t enough, right? But it doesn’t pay the bills, unfortunately, and it won’t until I graduate and land a full-time position, so until then I make my way by teaching classes (when I can get them) and applying for small university-level scholarships and fellowships, some of which are stipends for smaller research or education projects. Then there’s also student loans, but I don’t want to think about those…

I am at the point now where I’ve collected the great majority of data I need for analysis, and arranged for the rest to be conducted by specialists. My own in-depth analysis of the data will be the next step: I am planning a multi-scalar spatial analysis of the material components of one site with the intent to compare them to some other contemporary sites excavated by other researchers in the past, with the intent to gain a better understanding of how much spatial patterning is the result of site formation processes and how much is the result of patterned, intentional cultural behavior. How much of this will end up in the dissertation is up for discussion, because that’s a LOT of work. But if there’s one way to sum up archaeological research, it’s this: there’s always more to do!

The Bitterley Hoard – Part One – Discovery and Excavation

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The work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme sometimes throws up moments of pure joy and excitement, when all the pieces fall into place and the hard work of many years pays off. An example of this can be seen in the discovery of the Bitterley hoard declared treasure today (28th June 2012) at an inquest in Bridgnorth, Shropshire.

A hoard of silver coins

The Bitterley hoard

The hoard was discovered by Howard Murphy, an experienced and keen metal detector user who regularly reports his finds to me at Ludlow Museum Resource Centre. Howard and I met a number of years ago when he came on a course run through Shropshire Museums. This course looked at practical ways archaeological sites could be interrogated, culminating in a season of fieldwalking on a Romano-British site in North Herefordshire. This course relied on two key concepts, provenance and context.

Fieldwalking a Romano-British site on the Shropshire / Herefordshire border. Howard Murphy – Middle of group

The Discovery

The first I heard about this find was a phone call late one evening in February – it was from Howard – he said ‘I’ve found a hoard – a pot full of silver coins – and I’ve left it in the ground for you’. Howard is from Yorkshire and it takes a bit to ruffle his feathers – but there was a quiver in his voice –he was worried – had he done the right thing? We arranged for me to go out to the site over the weekend and have a look. We were both concerned that if we left it someone else would come and take it away, but the findspot was (thankfully) well off the beaten track and out of sight of prying eyes.

Howard and his hole

On the visit we had a good look at the surrounding area, Howard pointed to the area he had found the coins and we quickly took the soil back out of his hole. At the bottom were a group of silver Elizabethan coins glinting in the light and we could just make out an area of the rim of a thin walled pot. I knew that we couldn’t do anything then so we back filled the hole and made the site look as undisturbed as possible – this included moving a large number of mole hills to blend the findspot with the surrounding field.

The find was made on land under semi-permanent pasture. It had a series of interesting low earthworks and the remains of a hollow-way nearby. From what we had seen we had no idea what the underlying archaeology might be. The hoard could be inside a house or a ditch and there could be other things associated with it. We also had no idea of the size of the hoard – whether there were just 20 coins or many more.  The only way to find this out was to dig it up – and so we arranged a full rescue excavation for the following week.

The Excavation:

Tom Brindle

We decided that a small number of people were needed and so we kept things very local, Howard with his detector and spade, Tom Brindle (FLO for Staffordshire and the West Mids) came along to help with the digging and recording and the farmer also lent a hand. The weather was typical for February, although the day stayed relatively dry. When we got to the site; it was clear that no-one else had found it and the hoard was still safely in place – the first stage was to record the hole that Howard had dug.


Section and plan of the finders excavation







Once this had been done we cut a larger trench with the hoard at the centre. We cleared the turf and topsoil cleaning the soil back at a layer just above the hoard. We were looking for any traces of a pit or other archaeology present, especially changes in colour and texture in the soil. This was tricky given the conditions but everything seems to be very uniform and most importantly the soil had little evidence of other material such as brick, tile or pottery. These factors led us to believe that the site was not directly associated with a building (with walls or floors) or other feature such as a ditches and pits.

With no archaeology showing in plan – a small sondage (section) was cut close to the vessel to see if anything could be seen in section – like the profile of a pit. Unfortunately nothing could be seen and the section was all uniform until the natural undisturbed clay was reached. Again – this was drawn planned and described.

With no other buried archaeology present we decided to lift the hoard in a single block – this is always a worrying operation as we knew the size at the top – but not the base – so the soil was removed to leave a single column of soil and excavated to a depth well below the natural. It was then supported with cling film and bandages – and then slowly undermined. Luckily the soil was wet and solid and the block stayed in one piece, coming from the ground after more than 300 years. It was packed up in a box and taken to the museum in Ludlow.

The undermining and lift

The hoard itself was kept refrigerated (in an old fridge from the staff room) to inhibit the growth of mould and to stop the surrounding soil drying and cracking – we had no idea what was inside (and museum colleagues had to find somewhere else to store their milk and packed lunches).

We had to wait several months before the hoard could be taken to London and the staff at Conservation and Research Department, at the British Museum could work on it – but the wait was well worth it.

Tom Brindle Finishing up the recording

Cleaning up and going home

See next post: The Bitterley Hoard – Part Two – Conservation

For more images  see:

PAS Flickr Account and

 Peter Reavill

29th June 2012

The Row

The Row is a codename we use for one of our sites which may be the oldest provincial Jewish cemetery in the UK, the site has suffered badly from neglect, vandalism and hate attacks and was completely sealed off in the 1950s. Surrounded on all sides by industrial properties and wasteland, and unused since the early nineteenth century the site has turned into a jungle growing on top of an illegal dump. The charity set up to restore the cemetery relies entirely on donations so work has proceeded in fits and starts as and when the company and the charity manage to raise money. Recent successes have included obtaining free 3D laser scanning and polynomial photography for the surviving inscriptions.

Work today involves continuing the never-ending battle against the vegetation and dumped rubbish which has had free reign since Queen Victoria was on the throne and had reached heights of over 8’. One of our first visits to the site involved the sweat-drenched, machete-chopping and plank-battering a corridor through solid vegetation. It was amazing how much heat the mass of plant-life gave out and was indistinguishable from a tropical jungle, although we were on a northern industrial estate. Since then we have removed tons of plant waste and dumped rubbish. One of AAG’s major regrets for the site was the missed opportunity regarding the archaeology of garbage and the homeless camp built against one corner of the site, which had recently become abandoned. A 150+ year deposition of illegal dumping would have been a great exercise in garbage archaeology, and the archaeological studies of homeless sites in Minnesota by Larry Zimmerman was one of the most relevant studies of homelessness ever undertaken.

The layers of rubbish continue to turn up increasingly bizarre and nostalgic finds, high hopes for a Millennium Falcon were dashed on closer examination when it turned out to be a 2005-issue Burger King toy. The Goblet of Fire and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story on VHS are welcome finds and a mint condition plate from the DDR is an unexpected bonus. The site is a harsh one due to the lack of budget, but morale remains high. The gigantic nettles are capable of stinging double-gloved hands through heavy duty rubber gloves and pervasive ivy tripwires floor the unwary. Pain and frustration are released against the larger items of dumped rubbish pulled from the site, which are reduced to fragments and stuffed into rubble bags. The greatest hazard has proved to be the scran van which has disappeared in the last few days, possibly as a result of selling some extremely dubious chips. Few graduate jobs can involve so much physical work, and it always amazes me how much of the archaeologist’s day is spent cleaning things up, and doing the farmer’s walk while loaded down with tools, spoil, or samples. Moving gravestones and stonework onsite has to be done by hand as the site is like a sloping obstacle course and at certain points of the day resembles a World’s Strongest Man final.

As the day ends we climb out and do the best to cover our tracks with whatever materials are lying around, the ruptured bags of household rubbish seem to be the most effective. Recently we have used a fake dog turd and a plastic garden chair with one missing leg stolen to block gaps holes in the site perimeter, both now stolen. Where the three-legged garden chair is now we would love to know, we suspect it is somewhere near a pile of bricks capable of supporting it. We did admire the resolve of whoever took the leap of faith to pick up the fake turd.

Predictive Modelling for Archaeological Heritage Management

Marlies Janssens (Vestigia BV, The Netherlands) is analysing Dutch soils today.

Vestigia BV, a Dutch company, operates in the field of commercial archaeology primarily as a consultant to policy makers, project developers, spatial planners on the role of cultural heritage, archaeology and history, in corporate, social and sustainable development. Colleague Marlies Janssens is conducting fieldwork today, with the aim to test the predictive model that was constructed based on desktop survey.

“Six in the morning: no office outfit for today. I’d better wear an old pair of jeans and firmly tied shoes. Because in my job at an archaeological consultancy company I’m not only working at the office. Several days a month I’m out in the field all through The Netherlands.  Today is one of those days. Together with one of my colleagues, in a car filled with geological and archaeological equipment like hand corers, sieves and sample bags, we’re heading for the cover sand region in the province of Brabant, The Netherlands. The local authorities here have asked us to develop an indicative map of archaeological values that can serve as a starting point for their local policy on archaeological heritage management. To develop this map we’ve already been analyzing existing maps (like soil maps, historical maps, geological maps), known archaeological sites and archaeological databases. However, analyzing a landscape from maps and databases will always leave us with questions which cannot be answered by desktop survey only.  “What do the soil layers look like?”, “Can we see former landscape surfaces which might have been inhabited during the past? And if so, are these surfaces and soils still intact? Or have they been disturbed by recent human activities?” To answer these questions we’ll have to conduct fieldwork.

And that’s what is scheduled for today. We’ll visit several sites as part of a larger project where several colleagues, each with his or her own expertise, will aim to answer these questions. Today we will mainly focus on the landscape an soil characteristics, since me and my colleague are both physical geographers and approach archeology from the landscape point of view.

The first stop is at a site which is indicated on the soil map as an ‘enkeerd’ or plaggen soil. This man-made type of soil is often associated with late-medieval farming, when people added a mixture of heath sods and cattle manure to fertilize their arable land. By doing this year after year, they created a thick humic agricultural topsoil. These soils have a high archaeological potential; archaeological remains can be found within this plaggen cover (for the late medieval period), or underneath the cover (for older the period prior to that). After we’ve asked the owner for permission to enter his field, we start coring and find a thick humic sand layer. First, we think that this might indeed be the enkeerd soil as described on the soil-map, but while getting deeper, we start doubting whether this is really the medieval soil we were expecting to find. The humic layer looks very homogeneous, and the transition from the black topsoil to the yellowish cover sand  underneath it looks very sharp. Imagine this farmer ploughing his land, blending the black topsoils with the yellowish cover sand year after year. That probably won’t result in a sharp  boundary between the two layers. Furthermore, an older soil, which is often found underneath these man-made soils, is completely missing.  Looking at the landscape and noticing that this field is extremely flat and somewhat lower than the surrounding areas, we have to conclude that this soil has probably been disturbed recently and is leveled with black sand. Former surfaces or soils are missing, so the archaeological potential might be lower than we would have thought before.

The next coring, we had better luck. About a few hundred meters away from the previous site, we’ve found a podzol soil, which is still intact. These soils have been formed in cover sands since the start of the Holocene, about 10.000 years ago. This means that the surface we are standing on now,  is the same surface as the one people could have lived on  since the Stone Age.  Later in the afternoon we were also lucky enough the find a nice undisturbed enkeerdsoil, with remains of an older podzol soils underneath, meaning high archaeological potential for the complete range of historical and even prehistorical periods.

At the end of the day, after visiting some more sites in this cover sand region and several brook valleys, we’re heading back home again, feeling a bit tired from working in this very sunny afternoon, but also satisfied.  Actually seeing the landscape and the (sub)soils  in the field definitely gave us a better idea of the this area, which will help drawing up the archaeological document. Moreover, this was again one of those days that make me realize how lucky I am to have a job in archaeology that offers the opportunity to go outside and work in these lovely Dutch landscapes.”