Urban Archaeology is the particular sub-discipline of conventional archaeology, which specialises in the study of the material remains of cities towns and substantial sized other settlements, where human habitation has been more than temporarily occupied.
Layer upon Layer
In the Middle East many archaeological sites that are producing a rich yield of artefacts are located on a tel. A tel is a raised mound, often very predominant on the landscape, which is the result of many layers of habitation and occupation, often covering thousands of years.
Basic homes for workers and the peasant classes were inadequately constructed to endure the ravages of weather and war not to mention natural disasters like fire or pestilence. Poorly built homes would often collapse after serious storms, invasion, or due to insect and rotting attacks or destruction in whole or in part by fire. The occupants of these damaged dwellings would rarely attempt to repair them and instead they collected from the debris their goods of importance and began to level the site as a firm foundation to begin a new structure.
As a result of this levelling / building process even a relatively small settlement in antiquity may be built on layer upon layer of former habitations. Thus, any settlement today that has its own foundations on a tel site will be substantially higher than the first settlers’ homes.
Seeking out the History
The benefits archaeologically are that within the city limits there is a deep stratigraphy of archaeological data that dates back to the origins of the first inhabitants. Archaeologists desire to seek out the history of such settlements and after analysis of all of the archaeological data, including artefacts, structures, and humanly influenced or manipulated topography, try to explain the story of its history.
People today choose to live and work in a location for many of the same reasons that the ancients chose the very same spot. Hence, the desirability of the location means that subsequent generations will build on and over the same piece of land time and time again. This poses complications and difficulties for urban archaeologists. The deep, dense stratigraphic foundations, found at major sites that are of extreme interest to the urban archaeologist are nearly always in close quarter building areas of modern population centres.
Small Area Invasive Method
Where space is tightly contested for high-density housing, most open land is utilised for some form of building purpose. There is very little open space for ‘open area excavation’. However, many private homes, some factories, and public parks and gardens do have sufficient space to permit a single digging square to proceed. The solution then is to modify the method of excavation and reduce the scale of the excavation to one, five metre by five metre invasive area.
In a conventional dig, all neighbouring area squares will be excavated together in order to maintain an overall uniformity of stratigraphy. Features, such as walls and special floors, are retained. However, in urban archaeology the luxury of the full scale field operation is only a dream and the urban archaeologist will need to be content with focusing all endeavours on the single square and removing everything in it.
Unlike conventional stratigraphic excavation covering many areas, urban archaeology will rapidly push down until the first layer of significance is discovered. Each object discovered is recorded conventionally and also re-drawn in single context onto a transparent film for that stratum.
When the data collection for that layer is completed the area is reduced further until the second stratum of interest is located. This process will be repeated, rather more rapidly than on a usual open dig, until the human layers cease and a natural deposit layer is located.
Analysis of the Transparencies
The hole will need to be refilled and the area restored. Later, the strata transparencies are viewed. Each sheet is studied individually and in overlay. Through overlaying consecutive strata the urban archaeologist can often see incremental changes of occupation or use over time.
An urban archaeologist is not simply an archaeologist digging in town. There are many ancient archaeological sites that are in the centre of towns and cities and the discovery of them through excavation was not performed by anyone calling themselves urban archaeologists. The difference is that the urban archaeologist has a focus on understanding the human relationship with the place of occupation. Many urban specialists are also rescue archaeologists because the two sub-fields are very closely aligned.