Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Unsung Heroes of the Job Site- Post-excavation Techniques

Everyone has an image of what an archaeological site looks like. To some Indiana Jones springs to mind, to others excavation brings about memories of Time Team episodes and there are some who will always think about Jurassic Park…A reminder: Archaeologists do NOT dig Dinosaurs. But one thing that people rarely think about is what happens after excavation. So we’re here to dispel the myths and welcome you to the world of POST EXCAVATION!

We all love the romantic image of archaeologists carefully scraping away layers of dirt to uncover exciting treasures or undiscovered societies but what actually happens to these objects once they’re out of the ground and how do we form our conclusions as to what they mean. During the Berkeley excavations, and throughout the year, staff and students are discovering just that through finds processing, cataloguing and archiving that is critical to our archaeological understanding of the significance of each site we work on. This week, students in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol have been conducting their own excavations in the wet and dry labs. One of the post-excavation supervisors, Dr Tamar Hodos, tells us that discoveries have included Mesolithic cores from Somerset, Classical Greek pottery from the Athenian Agora, ethnographic African archives, a partial plastic human skeleton and a host of other artefacts that record the Department’s activities from the 1970s until the present day. In addition, all finds from the Berkeley excavations are being catalogued and processed as they come in daily. This is so important because it allows us to draw conclusions from the mass of material that we uncover and has led to many rediscoveries and a re-examination of the past of Berkeley. In effect, post-excavation is allowing us to re-write history!
Finds processing in the department
 As the Berkeley Castle Project is interminably linked with students, we thought that we would get a few student opinions together about the work that they have been conducting over the last week.

‘Post-excavation is the only way that we can recognise stuff when it comes out of the ground. It is a vital learning technique.’

‘Without post-excavation, excavation is just destruction with no cause.’

Post-excavation is absolutely critical to the discipline of archaeology. Without the research side, and the discussion of finds, archaeology would just be treasure hunting with no sound interpretations. One student gave the example of the enormous amount of slag (industrial residue) that we have found at Berkeley. Through careful cataloguing and archiving at the post-excavation stage we can infer that a great deal of industrial metal working has taken place at Berkeley.

Happy final year students doing finds washing
Finally, post-excavation allows us to highlight really important finds and guides the ways that archaeologists will store and conserve the material once excavation has taken place. As so much of archaeology is our involvement with the public and defending the significance of cultural history, proper processing of the finds ultimately allows people to engage with their history, and that cannot be undervalued. 

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