There are many techniques of archaeological investigation which do not involve actually digging, which can tell us
a lot about a site. When an excavation is planned, they can be used to help archaeologists decide where to target
Excavation is much more effective at answering questions about archaeology if the area under investigation has been
studied and surveyed first. Occasionally, buried archaeological sites have left no trace at all, either on the
ground surface today or in old maps, photographs or written records. In these cases, the discovery of archaeology
is a complete surprise. This situation is quite rare, however. It is much more usual for the presence of an
archaeological site to be detectable before any excavation. Earthworks, cropmarks, artefacts scattered in
ploughsoil, previous finds, place-names, and descriptions or depictions in old documents and maps can all help to
pin-point the existence of buried archaeological deposits.
Pre-excavation work involves using a suite of techniques, all of which are applicable to some, but not all,
archaeological situations. The greater the number of these techniques that can be used in combination, the higher
is the likelihood of obtaining useful pre-excavation data. Studying published information, previous find-spots,
existing aerial photographs, old maps and documents, and sites and monuments records, is usually the most
productive first step in locating the areas of archaeological interest. This is often known as a 'desk-top' survey.
Following on from this, field techniques such as topographical survey, aerial reconnaissance, building survey and
geophysical survey can be used to map the site and its structures in detail, allowing excavation areas to be
carefully positioned over zones or points of interest.
Learn more about Geophysics, Topo Survey,
Aerial Photography, Research, or
GIS or return to main Teaching and Learning page.