Chapter 4 - The Archaeological Process


Archaeological research is a process with many parts to it.  Historical research, proposal writing, mapping and soil study are early parts of this process.If an excavation (digging) is required - often to save a site from being lost to construction or damage - there are several other parts of the process an archaeologist must undertake.

1. The site must be mapped. A point on the site is chosen as the datum. This is a point that will not move.  It is located using maps and surveying equipment so that its NTS location and height in  metres above sea level (MASL) are known.  All things on the site will be measured from this point so that their location will be known too - horizontally: usually east and south of the datum and vertically as a DBD or depth below datum measurement.

2. A grid is laid out over the site, often in 1 metre x 1 metre squares (though the size of the squares depends on the size of the site, overall).  This grid is both drawn on maps and physically placed on the ground with stakes, nails or pins and string.  At underwater sites, a grid of metal rods is often used.

3. Once the site is mapped, the archaeologist can begin to remove the soil in layers.  The top layer may be very recent or all mixed together (disturbed).  The site survey will tell the archaeologist this information.  Sometimes, shovels or large, earth-moving machines are used to remove recent or disturbed soil to reach the older layers.

In the older layers of soil, archaeologists will dig very carefully, using a trowel.  The soil is taken away in layers across each square.  The walls and floor of the square is kept flat (without holes or pits).  Soil changes and artifacts can be noticed better in this controlled way.  Soil layers and the artifacts n them won't be mixed together.

4. Anything the archaeologist finds is mapped and recorded in notes and photographs.

5.  Important artifacts are collected into bags to be numbered and studied.

6. Soil that is removed from a site is usually passed through a screen to find any evidence that may have been missed during excavation.

7. Artifacts are cleaned and labeled.

8. Drawings are done of artifacts, soil layers, walls or other features found in squares.

9. Paperwork is completed to note information about the soil layers, artifacts, features and work done at the site.

10. The archaeologists discuss the work they do each day; record this in their field notes and plan how to continue the work.

Excavation stops when:  -the goals in the research proposal have been met,
                                        -uninhabited soil is reached,
                                        -the permit to excavate expires,
                                        -conditions (weather, funding, politics) are too difficult to continue.

Archaeologists must be able to do, or understand the work of other people who do many different types of work during the archaeological process i.e.:

-historical research
-writing research proposals
-reading and making maps
-soil science
-record keeping, filing
-artifact study
-technical drawing, with and without computer programs
-physical labour
-using technology (radar, GPS, computer programs)

There are many other aspects of archaeological work to be discussed.  Excavation is only one part of the work of an archaeologist.  Often, for every minute of excavation, an archaeologist will spend ten minutes doing other work in a laboratory or writing about the work.  The work after excavation is the important work that makes sense of what was found and that preserves the past for all of us.  Without the work after excavation, the digging would just be treasure hunting and the information from it would be lost forever.  This kind of work will be discussed in the next chapter.


1. What is a datum?

2. Why does an archaeologist use a grid pattern to map things on a site?

3. Name two ways an archaeologist can excavate on a site and explain why each is used.

4. How does an archaeologist know when an excavation is finished?

5. What other work does an archaeologist have at an excavation, besides digging?

6. Why is the work that happens after excavation so important?


to note the many parts of the archaeological process up to and including excavation
to emphasize the many skills and parts required in the archaeological process


-demonstrate knowledge of the stages of the archaeological process and their order

-map points using an x,y co-ordinate grid map
-use pictorial evidence to make deductions
-work as part of a team to complete a task

-note the value of (scientific) archeological research as compared to treasure hunting


-a known, immovable, locatable point on an archaeological site from which everything is measured and mapped.  This point helps locate every point on a site map, horizontally across the land and vertically, above sea level

-depth below datum - is a measurement below the datum on an archaeological site.  It is usually used to plot the vertical location of artifacts, features or soil layers in individual square units, then changed to a measurement above sea level for records

-the careful removal of archaeological evidence from the ground or water by licensed or permitted archaeologists

-an immovable object created by people, or the result of an event of activity e.g. a wall, a trench, a soil stain from a decomposed post

-metres above sea level.  Sea level is the point at which the ocean meets the shore.  It is taken as a known, fixed point from which the height and depth of all points on Earth are measured


Bernier, Marc-Andre et al.
Les Archéologues aux Pieds Palmés Saint-Lambert: Héritage jeunesse, 1996.

Boutilier, Brenda et al.
Discovering Archaeology Halifax: McCurdy Printing and Typesetting, 1992.

Duke, Kate
Archaeologists Dig for Clues New York:  Harper Collins Publishers, 1997

Fladmark, Knut
A Basic Guide to Archaeological Field Procedures Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, 1978.
Land of the Spirits website by Friends of Bonnechère, 2006 (virtual excavation and research)

Joukowsky, Martha
The Complete Manual of Field Archaeology Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1980

Newlands, David and Claus Breede
Canadian Archaeology Toronto:  McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ltd., 1976.

Peturson, Rod
Windows on the Past Toronto:  Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999.


Instruct each student to place several items on his/her desk or table.  Give each student a ruler or measuring tape.
Students should map the items on graph paper by measuring from the top left corner of the desk (the datum).

The students should remove the items from their desk and give their map to a partner.

The partner places the objects back on the desk using the map as a reference.
Cut up into individual squares, the gridded map of a hypothetical site, from this publication.
Divide the class into groups. Give each group:
1) one or two of the squares from the map
2) the page of artifact
co-ordinates from this publication.
Ask students to plot the artifact locations (this will not be possible). Discuss why the task cannot be done without knowing the location of the squares on the site.

Have groups work together to a) order the squares into a site map,
b) plot artifact locations.
Students should read the information pages that introduce this chapter.

Provide groups of students with copies of the photographs from this book that show the parts of the archaeological process. Students should place the photographs in chronological order i.e.
1. test pit survey
2. screening dirt
3. photographing unit
4. cataloguing artifacts
5. drawing artifacts
6. discussing work.
Students should give reasons for their ordering.


Provide students with a grid like the one in this publication. Students may draw 3 or 4 artifacts from a culture under study in class (e.g. First Nations, ancient Asian) onto the grid.

With a partner, students may play a game like "Battleship", calling out co-ordinates to locate the artifacts on the site.  The score of artifacts located in a given time may serve as a formative marking scheme.
In the field notes the students have been keeping they should record their initial impressions of the distribution of artifacts on the site map.
Are there patterns to the distribution?
Do the patterns suggest any human behaviour?

Ask students to fill out a job application for work on an archaeological site. They should include:
1) skills they have that are applicable to archaeological work,
2) the kind of archaeological work for which they feel they would be best suited, and why.


Junior Intermediate, Extension
The class should discuss
a) why it is not helpful if someone digs into an archeological site just to pull out an artifact,

b) what they could say or do if someone came to them with an artifact they had gotten that way.
The class should discuss what their reaction could/should be if they were to see a person with a metal detector, or an unlicensed diver take an artifact from an archaeological site.  How would their response differ if the person were
a) a stranger,
b) a friend? 


Intermediate, Extension

1) grid map

1) site map
2) co-ordinates
3) artifact photographs

4) evaluation rubric

1) information at beginning of this chapter
2) photographs of archaeological process
3) answer key
4) evaluation rubric

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