In archaeology, the term excavation simply means the ‘dig’. It may sound like an over-simplification but ‘dig’ is probably the most concise word to describe the process of excavation on an archaeological site.
Clearing the Ground
On the first day of an excavation season, after completion of the geological survey and any trial digging, the area must be cleared of grass and other foliage. Often this is done by mechanical means but in remote areas everything must be done by hand.
Once all organic matter is removed but before the first spade hits the ground, field supervisors provide instruction in preparation for the opening of the trenches.
An important part of the first day is the tour of the site, headed usually by the site director and field supervisors. Diggers are introduced to the history and topography of the site, as well as to excavation methodology and theory.
Survey maps and site diagrams are used to locate the position of trenches to be opened during the new season. Students and area supervisors get together to identify their areas of responsibility on the site.
Tools of the Digger
After the site is cleared and the task of bringing tools, buckets, sifters and other gear needed for excavation is complete, work begins. Based on the survey maps the field director and the site architect locate the corners of trenches and cord lines are strung out to mark the edges. These will form large squares five metres by five meters with a one metre baulk or scarp between each one. The experienced assistants begin to cut the precisely aligned scarps that will create the vertical boundaries of the digging area trenches. The trenches are covered with pole mounted shade cloths or tarpaulins for protection from the sun and rain.
Tools for excavation include a trowel, shovel, measuring tape, hoe, wheelbarrow, pick, whisk broom, plumb bob and various small ceramic tools and dental picks, along with hundreds of rubber buckets.
The process of excavation is achieved in many ways depending on the nature of the deposits to be removed and time constraints. For the most part, deposits are lifted by trowel and taken away from the area by wheelbarrow and/or bucket.
The field director will determine the speed of removing debris and fallen remains from the trench. Thus the digger’s tools could range from a pick and shovel to a dental pick and brush. Every handful of dirt must be analysed. Usually dirt is trowelled into labelled buckets that are hoisted out from the trench and their contents are sieved. Finds are recorded in the field notebook. Field supervisors record drawings, diagrams and descriptions of trenches developments, which includes information on architectural stones, strata and small finds. Potsherds are placed in buckets while other finds are bagged and labelled, all to be taken elsewhere for cleaning, conservation, cataloguing and storage.
Significant finds are also photographed in situ before removal. Often an artefact protrudes from the vertical baulk. The sides of the one metre thick baulk permit a visual identification of each stratum layer and cannot be removed. Therefore any item in the baulk must also stay. As the digging level gets deeper the surveyor will take fresh readings using laser levels from predetermined bench marks.
After many hours of hot, arduous work, the archaeologist is ready for a bite to eat. The site management usually provide a daily picnic lunch sourced from local produce.
The end of the digging day sees a sweeping and general tidy up of the area. When the excavation of each individual level or stratum in locus is completed the trench is shaded and photographs are taken.
Listening to the Experts
The excavation team retires from the site and excavated objects are taken to the conservation lab where they are cleaned and consolidated. Experts will comment about finds and answer questions for student archaeologists.