Friday 20 March 2020

#042 Archaeology In Practice - Oxford University

The effect of Coronavirus has touched everybody's lives these past couple have weeks. People, families, communities and businesses have all been affected. These are difficult times for everyone. At home, due to her health issues, Dolores is in the high risk category and we are making every effort to isolate and socially distance. Naturally our guided walks and trail running events have had to be deferred. We've been putting in long day's in the 'home office' to offer our clients, participants and friends have a range of options to choose from when things get back to something like normal. The expressions of support from the outdoor community and colleagues is hugely appreciated. It gives us energy and determination ride through these unprecedented times and bring you all great days on the trail and grand adventures in the hills.

Amidst all this, a couple of months ago I began a short online course in archaeology. The aim of this was to increase my knowledge of prehistory, in particular the transition from hunter gatherer to farming, which took place in Britain around 6000 years ago, known as the Neolithic Revolution. It's a period which I find fascinating, in no small part due to passing the Level 3 Bushcraft Leader course with John Ryder at the Woodcraft School a few years ago and more recently leading  Bushcraft sessions at The Peak Centre.

Also I see the archaeology course as a way to share a broad range of humanity and science topics with young people at The Peak Centre, and inspire them outside of a traditional classroom environment. 

Here is my first marked written assignment, with comments from my course tutor Dr. Morrison and the highlighted test to which she refers.

Archaeology in Practice – Assignment 1

Assignment Question 1: Should sites be chosen for excavation because they are being damaged or because they are well preserved; should small parts of several sites be excavated for comparison, or should money be spent on finding less well-understood archaeological sites?

Stuart Westfield*

Rapidly growing global population is placing increasing demands on land usage through development and infrastructure projects. At a time when archaeologists have the most diverse range of analytical tools at their disposal, the associated workload, costs of excavation and analysis have escalated.

Yet, a significant proportion of modern excavations remain unpublished years after completion. Estimates for Britain alone are a shocking 60% (Cherry, 2011) representing an immense loss to the archaeological community and humanity. Hence, perhaps the question is not, what should we choose to save, but how do we prioritise what we can afford to lose?

Dr Morrison - It is slightly better now, with the rise of digital publishing and ADS archiving of Grey Literature, but it is still not where it needs to be!

Archaeology Today
Modern technology, data and research capability has meant archaeology is nowadays a slower process, acquiring more samples of materials and requiring lengthy laboratory time, which inevitably comes at a price.

Systematic sampling offers a partial solution, especially over large areas where a representative selection of deposits is sufficient to examine a site’s overall characteristics (Cherry, 2011). Essentially, excavating less but better (Demoule, 2011).

Most excavation done today is rescue archaeology where, often, the site will be lost to a construction project. But, to prioritise rescue archaeology above academic archaeology brings the danger that continual fire-fighting delivers little by the way of rigorous analysis or new knowledge.

In the United States, “rescue archaeology publishes little and contributes little to scientific journals. Some North American archaeologists consider the results from the greater part of these excavations as un-useable”
                                                                                    Jean-Paul Dermoule

The juxtaposition of archaeology is that while remote, non-invasive and sampling methods are more cost effective and time efficient on-site. Wood, bone and textile artefacts can currently only be examined by excavation (Cherry, 2011). From them we gain a deeper interpretation into human behaviour, culture and anthropological understanding.

Dr Morrison - Hitting the nail on the head there!

The Future
Remote sensing technology of unexcavated sites will eventually reach the same quality as current high-speed 3D laser scanning of excavated sites. Detailed ‘walk through’ virtual reality renderings may one day be possible without breaking ground. For certain sites with identifiable structures this may yield enough data to satisfy a particular question, thus saving time and funds in excavation.

However, for paleolithic sites where evidence is often just a charred hazelnut (Oliver, 2011) or fragment of bone, geophysics is far less effective, open area excavation is still more appropriate.

Meanwhile, if properly archived and accessible, aerial photography in various seasons and crop conditions will continue to indicate areas to be ‘banked’ for future investigation with emerging technologies. (Williams, 2018) Thus, preserving in-situ, with a watching brief, to influence and warn of detrimental planning decisions at an early stage. (ICA, 2014)

In Conclusion
Ultimately the decision to excavate will come down to the perceived value of the site with regards to answering archaeological questions and the potential to provide fresh evidence, based on prior non-invasive due process.

The archaeology profession is not alone in the drive to do more with proportionally less funding. Prioritisation of whether, when and how far to investigate and choice to excavate is a dilemma which is set to intensify.

This may not always be the most obvious choice in the public’s perception.

Dr Morrison - Excellent observation!
*Stuart Westfield BEng(hons) FRGS
Hayfield, United Kingdom                                      

Alexander Major, GIS officer, Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park Authority for sharing experience of developing trends in surveying technology.

1          John F Cherry Still not digging much. Archaeological Dialogues 18 (1) 5–10 Cambridge University Press 2011
2          Jean Paul Demoule We still have to excavate – but not at any price. Archaeological Dialogues 18 (1) 5–10 Cambridge University Press 2011
3          Neil Oliver A history of ancient BritainSeries 1 BBC documentary 2011
4          Tim Williams Conservation and management of archaeological sites – A twenty-year perspective. Getty Conservation Institute. Spring 2018

5          Institute of Chartered Archaeologists Standard and guidance for an archaeological watching brief. December 2014