Recording our excavation

Author: Rachel

Over the next few blogs I want to talk a little bit about how we recorded what we did on the excavation. There is a well-worn archaeological phrase, usually attributed to Mortimer Wheeler, that says “Archaeology is destructive”. As archaeologists we have to dig, and thereby destroy, a site in order to understand it. It is very hard for us to understand what we see in the ground without digging. Digging helps us to work out the shape and nature of various deposits, to see what type of finds are associated with it, and to work out whether it is older or younger than other features on the site. Yet, once you have dug the site you cannot put it back together again exactly how it was – hence the phrase “Archaeology is destructive”.

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The total station, an important piece of recording equipment. Image: Mareike Ahlers

However, archaeologists are careful types with an overriding interest in history – so we do as much as we can to record what we do. We photograph the site while we excavate it, we measure it, we draw what we see, we sample the site, and we carefully remove any finds from the ground recording where they were and then studying them in order to learn as much as possible. As a result of all this diligent recording I think it is more accurate to say the we do not completely ‘destroy’ the site but rather we transform the site into paper records, digital photographs, soil samples, finds, drawings and other records. To gain new knowledge about the site we have to unlock all the potential data buried in the ground: without digging our knowledge of the site is limited. The geophysics survey, the LiDAR analysis, and our knowledge about the nature of burial sites all pointed towards the site being a burial mound, but until we got out our trowels, pencils, pens, cameras, measuring tapes, record sheets and sample buckets we couldn’t be sure.

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Measuring and recording the site. Image: Mareike Ahlers

Future blogs will explain how we recorded our finds, how we photographed the site, how we drew the site, how we sampled the site, and the written records (called contexts) that we produced.  Since we packed up on the island we have been busy digitising all these records. I’ve been busy digitising paper records and organising all the photographs and Mareike has done an excellent job of digitising all the drawings we did on site. This is not simply a matter of typing up what we did (though we have also done this!) – as we go through our records we learn new things as we put the information together in new ways and we work out where the gaps in our knowledge are – all of this helps us to understand the site better and to shape the research questions that we would like to answer in the future.

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Drawing on site. Image: Mareike Ahlers

Ultimately, all our work from the dig this summer will be brought together into a report that we are writing for Manx National Heritage that explains our findings from this year. The report will be lodged with the library at the museum where you can go and read it and we are planning to post it on the blog as well.

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