Housing development in progress. Photo copyright to Durham County Council

Why Dig?

When modern survey methods, such as geophysics, give such a clear and detailed impression of archaeology without the need for excavation, why do we need to excavate at all?
Survey techniques can indicate that features exist below the ground, and we can interpret these features to suggest they may be the remains of a Roman fort or Deserted Medieval Village for instance. However, this can only be proven by excavation. Much of our information about the date of and use of a site comes from the study of finds such as artefacts, burials, seeds, pollen and other organic matter which can be radiocarbon dated and analysed for environmental information. These are all largely or completely missed by survey techniques, but are retrievable by excavation. Furthermore, experience shows that archaeological deposits are frequently much more complex than initially suspected. Survey techniques rarely pick up all this complexity. On occasions the results of surveys are downright misleading and excavation proves the features to be totally different to our initial suggestions.

There will always be a need for excavation, even with a preference in the planning system for 'preservation in situ'. Some sites simply cannot be left as they are, because natural or development-related destruction is inevitable. Skilled and experienced excavators will therefore always be required. These people need to begin their excavation training during their education as archaeology students, away from the pressure of development archaeology, so special training excavations will always be necessary. Archaeology is a lively academic discipline, and some excavation (often combined with training purposes) is necessary for certain research questions to be answered.

No reputable archaeologist would undertake excavation lightly - only if they were sure that the potential benefits of gathering new information outweighed the potential loss of in-situ archaeology would they go ahead.

If a site is not due to be completely destroyed by development or erosion, it is good practice not even to try to excavate all of it. Archaeologists are aware that their techniques and equipment are in a constant state of innovation and improvement. Our excavations today are much more effective at retrieving information than those of, say, 1950. However, those of 2050 will be far more effective again. Computer technology is making a huge contribution to effective archaeological practice. There may be some things, such as certain types of microscopic particle in the soil, to which we are paying no attention at present, but which will become very important in future for understanding the past. Leaving part of the site unexcavated will allow future generations of archaeologists to re-examine the site using these new techniques.

Return to Running a Dig.