Recording our excavation: drawings

Author: Rachel and Mareike

With drawings from: Chris, Eleanor, Eloise, Charlotte, Cathleen, Holly, Maddie, and Rachel

It might seem a bit old fashioned in the world of digital photographs, RTI, and 3D modelling but archaeologists still do a lot of drawing. We do two main types of drawings: plans and sections. Plans are drawings done from above: a bird’s-eye-view. Sections are drawings of the archaeological layers we dig through. Plans help us to understand the layout and extent of a site. Sections are particularly helpful when it comes to understanding the history of the site and working out how different events in the past have produced different layers in the site. Sections help us to work out how these relate to each other in time (i.e. what came first and what came after). All our drawings are to scale (either 1:20 or 1:10) and follow standard drawing conventions in archaeology. These are not artistic drawings aimed at giving an impression of the site but accurate drawings to capture data and represent the nature of the site.

plan drawingjpg
Drawing of a section of the site by Eloise and Eleanor. This drawing joins with others on either side. You can see all the individual rocks that have been drawn, the edges of the trench and the hachures (black triangles with tails) which indicate the shape of the slope of the site.


Drawings are not just representations though, they actively help us understand it. When you are carefully drawing the site (literally stone-by-stone) you are able to consider what it is you are looking at, how it was constructed or formed, and what it might be. Often more importantly, you have the power (and the pencil) to decide how the site will be represented – what you decide to emphasise and where you place boundaries between different features can go on to effect the overall interpretation of the site.

Section Scan
Section drawing by Chris. This shows the different layers on the site and how they relate to each other. The light nature of these drawings is because they are completed on a type of tracing paper (so they can be layered) using a particularly light type if pencil.


Some drawings on site are completed using tapes strung between known-points on the site with measurements taken in relation to these known points (this is known as an off-set plan). Alternately when we are drawing complicated parts of the site with lots of details we use planning frames. These are meter square wooden or metal frames with internal divisions (usually at 20cm intervals) that help us to accurately (and hopefully quickly) draw the different features we can see. Drawings done with planning frames are also (crucially) related into the overall site grid. Some of our drawings might be of single parts of the site such as a pit or the cist (commonly referred to as single-context plans), these drawings all contain information on the spatial location of the feature and can be related to the overall site grid and layered together with other drawings to show the whole site effectively. We do all our drawings on a type of weather-proof paper called perma-trace so that we can layer them together. All the drawings also contain ‘spot heights’ these are points we have recorded the location and height of using the total station. Changes in the spot heights, together with the ‘hachures’ (black triangles with tails coming off them) can be used to interpret the varying shape of the ground.

Off-set planning  underway on site. Image: Mareike


Grid planning underway on site. Image: Mareike


Since we travelled back to the UK Mareike has been working hard digitising our plans from the site. We completed 25 drawings whilst on site so this has been a big task. The digitised drawings are excellent and will be used in up-coming blogs, in lectures and presentations and in the report about the excavation we are writing for MNH.

Digitised section drawing. Drawn by Chris. Digitised by Mareike


Overall Site plan. Drawn by Eloise, Eleanor, Cathleen and Charlotte. Digitised by Mareike

Recording our excavation: photographs

Author: Rachel

We take LOTS of photos on site. We take photos of the daily comings and goings on site, of people doing things and what has been happening. We also take some very specific types of photographs. We take photographs regularly that record the site and the features within it. We take photos before we excavate, as we are excavating and when we have finished. For ‘site photos’ we use the site camera, we use scale bars in the photos and we enter all the information in the site folder where we keep all the paper records. For all the site photos we record the number of the photograph on the camera, which contexts (archaeological layers and features) are in the photo, the direction we were facing when we took the photo, the size of the scale bar, who took the photo and when it was taken. We also give the photograph a description that records what it was we were trying to capture in the photograph. All this information is now digitised in a spreadsheet that allows us to search through our photo archive for photos that show a particular feature, or were taken on a particular day or even by a particular person.

photo record
Part of the photo record
Kerb and cairn emerge.jpg
Kerbing and ring-cairn material begin to emerge on site. Image: Rachel
Cairn overview
Kerb and cairn material showing following excavation. Image: Rachel
Cairn overview 2
Kerb and cairn material showing following excavation. Image: Rachel

Above, and below, you can see a small selection of the photos from the excavation of the cist.

We also photograph all of our finds. This is part of the basic recording we have done of the finds we made during the dig. These photos also have a scale in them and the details of where the object was found that are associated with each find. This means that we have a basic record of what the various finds look like (handy as we continue to work on the project away from the island). We can use the information in the photos to trace back through the other records to learn about the context the find came out of, any other photos it might appear in and the spatial location of the find within the site grid. I will be back on island in October and I’ll be taking some more detailed images of some of the finds to help us continue to interpret them and the site.

Finds photos
A tiny selection of the finds photos from the dig

Taking all these photos can be tricky – it is always a team effort!

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”.

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.

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.

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.

The Dig in Numbers

Author: Rachel

The trench has been re-turfed, the equipment packed away and our students returned home for the summer. Over the coming weeks the blog will begin to describe what we have found, how we excavated the site, what we have learnt, and what further research is still to come.

Busy on site. Image: R.Cannell


But, this week I am going to give you the dig in number!

Our team worked incredibly hard:

  • 2 project directors, 1 site supervisor and 1 outreach officer
  • 9 students from Newcastle University and 1 student from the University of Leicester took part in the excavation
  • Over 350 hours were put into the project by local volunteers over the two weeks! Our volunteers included those who had worked on Centre for Manx Studies projects over the years, local students, metal detectorists, and people who had never been on a dig before!

Digging a site is not just about trowelling – we also do a LOT of recording

  • We kept Mareike busy using our total station to record 993 different locations on site. The total station records the location and height of a given point on the site onto a grid. We recorded locations for our finds, our drawings and the different features across the site.
  • We completed 21 context sheets – these record the details of every layer and feature we find on site. More about these in a future blog!
  • The team did 25 different drawings of the site – each drawing is an accurate, to scale representation of what we can see in the ground.

Our finds went to the museum on Tuesday – every find is photographed and documented.

  • 1100 finds were made on site! This is a pretty impressive total from 11.5 days of digging!

This number included:

  • 83 fragments of burnt bone – but none of these are a complete cremation rather just single fragments scattered across the upper layer of the site by plough action. What they do tell us is that there are burials within the mound!
  • 894 pieces of flint including scrapers, blades, burins, arrowheads, and lots of evidence of flint knapping having occurred at the site.
Some of the struck flint from the topsoil.


Amber, our outreach officer was very busy!

  • Amber visited 7 different schools on the island where we ran archaeology workshops.
  • 329 students took part in the workshops learning what archaeologists do and about the Bronze Age on the Isle of Man. We challenged them to identify and record a variety of finds.
  • 135 people came on site tours led by Amber and our students. They got to see the excavation in process. The site tours booked up before the dig even began!

Finally, archaeologists always need feeding:

  • Our student team made over 225 sandwiches to eat on site at lunch time (that is a lot of bread, cheese, ham, salami and the all-important peanut butter!)
  • We ate over 10kg of rice and 3kg of pasta!
robert 15 team shot
A hungry team back-filling the site. Image: R.Cannell

Cist Burial!

Author: Rachel 

We’ve been keeping a bit of a secret since day two of the dig! Whilst we were still deturfing we came across some upright slates which we were pretty confident were part of a Bronze Age burial cist!

The cist poking through the subsoil

Today we excavated the cist! The cist is very close to the surface and has been damaged by ploughing. The capstone was missing and rocks from the mound have fallen into the cist. 

Half sectioned cist

We half sectioned the cist – meaning we took out half of the contents first so we could see the layers within it. During the half section it became clear that we had prehistoric pottery within our cist!

The Urn appears!

The vessel we have appears to be a Collared Urn that has been turned upside down and placed within the cist. The base of the urn has also been damaged (probably by the plough). 

Collared Urns in cists are often inverted over cremated remains (as at Staarvey). We block lifted the whole pot by wrapping it in bandages and cling film so that it can be carefully excavated in lab conditions back in the museum! Expect more updates on the excavation of the pot in the future!

The excavation of the cist made for a very exciting day on site which was rounded off by a wonderful feast with our wonderful landowners Robert and Anne! Very happy archaeologists!

Kevin’s Blog: flint galore

Author: Kevin

Date: Tuesday 4th July 2017

Hello, I’m Kevin (see fig. 1), a second year undergrad from Newcastle University, and I’m your blog writer for the day. The weather has taken a turn for the worse and our camp has become some sort of ark for wildlife, with some birds deciding to raid our mess tent last night. After 2 days of people melting in the sun, the rain should be a welcome relief. But nope, we’re (mostly) British, so the complaints are still filing in. The downpour has meant that we’re offsite back at camp sorting the flint from the last two days, much to Chris Fowler’s dismay. As the supposed expert on flint, and seeing as I was volunteered by everyone, it’s fallen to me to write the blog post for the exciting prospect of flint counting and sorting.

Fig 1: Cleaning the flint from the first two days

We found a wide variety of flint that were arranged into 3 broad categories: unstruck, struck, and the struck flint recognised as tools. After some rather heated discussion, with the advent of the Chris Fowler special edition ‘other’ tool, also known as the ‘Swiss army knife of flint’, we actually managed to sort out the quantity in each category. The tool category was then split into more categories depending on the function of the tool, as the table shows.

Broad Category Specific Category Number
Unstruck Unstruck 25
Struck Struck 65
Tool Blades 36
Scrapers 15
‘Tools’ 33
Flakes 9
Burin 1
‘Other’ 1
Blade/Scraper 1
Arrowhead 1


These flints have come from the topsoil and subsoil. Not only that but we did find some pottery, which has been loosely dated to the 20th Century. Holly is very proud of her scraper that she found yesterday, and Chris Long also found a spectacular scraper. Jonny has already advanced far into double figures with the number of flints he has accumulated, like some sort of flint magpie.

Fig 2: Busy on site

Altogether, the mood at camp is mostly positive, despite the weather and British complaining. The supply of food, drink, and card games (Uno) has done much to improve morale. Personally, I’m enjoying the views of the Isle, especially those across the Irish Sea from the beach by the campsite, and I’m looking forward to visiting various Prehistoric sites tomorrow, as well as Tynwald day.

And with that, I’ll leave you with a picture of us enjoying our lunch on site whilst avoiding the camera.

Fig 3: Lunch time on site!


Many hands make lighter work.

Author: Rachel 

The dig began yesterday in grey weather that would later turn sunny. Our local volunteers as well as our students from Newcastle and Leicester spent the morning working up a sweat as we de-turfed our first trench. We’ve opened up a 10 x 10m area to start. It was a tough digging day especially as the wind picked up and it got hotter through the afternoon. 

Today (Monday) Amber and Rachel had lots of fun at Laxey school with 64 students from year 4 and 5! We talked about archaeology, how we learn about the past and prehistoric burials before getting muddy cleaning finds. Afterwards we used our deductive reasoning skills to try and identify some finds!