Archaeological Excavation

In archaeology, an excavation is a destruction, but it is important. How can it be both? This article is to discuss everything about archaeological excavation.

As you may already know, the archaeological process, or the way archaeological studies happen, consists of six steps. One of them is excavation. So, what is archaeological excavation, and how is it any different from just normal excavation? Why is it important for archaeology? How do archaeologists conduct excavations? What are the steps in an excavation? What are the methods of archaeological excavation? All about archaeological excavation is right below.

What does archaeological excavation mean?

Archaeological excavation is the process of unearthing material remains from the past to study the human past. In simple words, excavation is the way to obtain material remains by digging the earth for study in archaeology.

In the subdiscipline called rescue archaeology, the purpose can slightly change, as the major concern in rescue archaeology is ensuring the safety of material by removing it from the site. However, in general, the archaeological excavation is the same.

Brief Introduction to the History of Archaeological Excavation

As archaeology was not born overnight, archaeological excavation was also not born overnight. It evolved through the centuries and blossomed into what we call archaeological excavation today. Hence, we can discuss the history of archaeological excavation under the phases of the history of archaeology, which you already know.

Before we move into the history of excavation in archaeology, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is that excavations that occurred in the past were not mostly archaeological excavations from the point of view we have today. The second is that if the excavations that occurred in the past had anything to do with material remains left from the past, we consider them early forms of archaeological excavations. The third one is that the excavations that took place in the past were for the purpose of looking into the past; we consider them early forms of archaeological excavation. So, accordingly, we can summarise the history of archaeological excavation as follows:

  1. Archaeological excavation in the background era of the history of archaeology
  2. Archaeological excavation in the renaissance era
  3. Archaeological excavation in the 18th century
  4. Archaeological excavation in and after the 19th century

(i) Archaeological Excavation in the Background Era of the History of Archaeology

This era marked the excavations that took place out of curiosity. The curiosity for material remains from the past, and the curiosity for the past of humankind inspired people who lived in this era to dig the ground. The first excavation evidently happened during the new kingdom era in Egypt (ca. 1660–1070 BCE). Paraoh at that time excavated and reconstructed the sphinx, which was originally built during the old kingdom. Then the next recorded excavation was the babylon king Nabonidus’ excavation. He excavated and unearthed the stone foundation of a building and interpreted those finds to belong to Naram-Sin. He even gave a chronological date for the monument. This marked the first ever excavation to reveal material data and provide an explanation.

(ii) Archaeological Excavation in the Renaissance Era

This era marked the rapid popularity of excavation for the purpose of finding material remains. With antiquarianism and dilettantism, excavation spread like never before. In the Renaissance era, people conducted excavations in search of lost treasure, lost antiquities, and lost cities and places that were described in myths, legends, and religious texts. During this era, excavation became popular as a method of obtaining antiquities (material remains left from the past).

(iii) Archaeological Excavation in the 18th Century

This era marked the first glimpse of excavation becoming a way to study the past. Excavators began to consider the fact that the excavations needed to be done carefully to obtain data. For the first time, excavators started interconnecting the data obtained from the excavations with the data retrieved from other sources to draw conclusions. This way, the treasure-hunting quests and religious crusades turn into an organised study. This marked the beginning of modern-day archaeological excavation. Excavation in this era consisted of the following steps: selecting a site, planning the excavation, conducting the excavation with specialised knowledge, obtaining data, analysing the data, providing conclusions, and even publishing the report. Excavations at Pompeii and Thomas Jefferson’s mound excavation were at the top of the list during this era.

(iv) Archaeological Excavation in and after the 19th Century

This era marks the most extensive development of archaeological excavation.

In the 19th century and after, archaeological excavation evolved further into a systematic act of study. Pit Reverse, Flinders Petrie, and Mortimer Wheeler were the pioneers of this age who contributed to the development of archaeological excavation. Excavation turned into a well-planned, systematic, and supervised process. Techniques such as mapping, scale drawing, section drawings, plan drawings, and model drawings came into practise. Chronology was considered more than ever to analyse the material remains that were recovered. Mortimer Wheeler introduced new methods, such as the grid method, in excavation. Accordingly, the areas of planning, systematic execution, recording, dating, and publishing in excavation developed like never before.

Meanwhile, with the influence of other sciences such as geology, archaeological excavation evolved according to this new knowledge. For instance, stratigraphy in geology had a huge impact on archaeological excavation. Stratigraphy is important in an archaeological excavation because it enables us to determine the chronological order of layers and the artefacts within each layer. It provides enormous information on the chronological order of past human activities at a site, natural disasters, climate changes, and how humans reacted to environmental changes, etc. Additionally, with the use of natural sciences such as chemistry, chronological dating methods for material remains were introduced. Therefore, archaeological excavation had to become a complex process that concerned the way of unearthing material remains and containing them in such conditions to make them available for highly sensitive lab tests.

Additionally, after the 19th century, with ongoing warfare and development projects, archaeological sites faced a threat of mass destruction. Therefore, immediate excavations were needed to remove the archaeologically valuable material remains before the destruction happened. Also, accidental discoveries were made. To deal with these two types of incidents, archaeology evolved into subdisciplines such as rescue archaeology and accidental archaeology. Accordingly, the use of excavation intensified.

As discussed here, the history of archaeological excavation was a gradual process of evolution.

Read the full article: History of Archaeological Excavation

Curious about the history of archaeology? Read this article

What is the importance of archaeological excavation?

The importance of archaeological excavation goes beyond the obvious reasons we see. However, the importance of archaeological excavation can be listed as follows:

  1. To recover artefacts and other material remains,
  2. To understand the context of the material remains,
  3. To reconstruct the history,
  4. To test hypotheses and theories,
  5. To preserve and conserve archaeological heritage,
  6. To educate the public and encourage public engagement,

1. To Recover Artefacts and Other Material Remains

Archaeological excavation is important in archaeology mainly because it is the method of obtaining material remains to conduct studies in archaeology. Without excavation, there is no way to have material remain.

But do all archaeological studies need excavations? No. Not all archaeological studies need excavations because some studies are based on previous excavations or explorations, engage in conservation, or research new theories with old data.

2. To Understand the Context of Material Remains

An archaeological excavation not only provides us with material data; it also provides us with a contextual understanding of those material remains. Without context, the material remains incomplete. We can study the material we already have. Or we can unearth and study material remains by doing a simple dig. But, with archaeological excavation, we can study the context of those material remains embedded in the ground to reveal more information.

3. To Reconstruct the History

In the quest to reveal past human culture, behaviour, and cognition, archaeological excavation can reveal all four types of material remains as well as their interconnection. By analysing and interpreting the recovered material remains and the contextual data, we can reconstruct the history of mankind. So the excavation is almost like a passageway to the past.

4. To Test Hypotheses and Theories

Further,  archaeological excavation is the best way to test hypotheses and theories practically. As you may know, hypotheses and theories are formed based on the available data. Therefore, in order to test those hypotheses and theories, we need new data. In archaeology, the hypotheses or theories we introduce are always about the past. So, to test something about the past, we have to have materials to study from the past, and excavation is the way to get them.

5. To Preserve and Conserve Archaeological Heritage

Additionally, archaeological excavation is essential for preserving and conserving archaeological heritage. Some archaeological heritage is decaying and vanishing beneath the ground. We can only preserve and conserve them after conducting an excavation.

As mentioned here, these are the main facts that indicate the importance of archaeological excavation.

An excavation is always a destruction. Why?

Excavation is always destructive. That is one of the fundamental laws of archaeology. As you already understand, without an excavation, all of the material remains inherent in the past remain as they are. By doing an excavation, we intervene and destroy the natural or cultural deposit, and that is irreversible. No matter how much advanced technology we use, we cannot recreate history with 100% precision through excavation. And we cannot reverse the dig. And also, what we can retrieve from an excavation with today’s technology is most likely to be limited when we compare it with future technology. So, there is always damage done by excavating.

Here, someone can argue that some material remains will vanish due to corrosion or erosion if we do not recover them in time and preserve them. Though that is true, the arguments made above are solid. We destroy what we can retrieve tomorrow by conducting a dig today. And we destroy the untouched setting of archaeological deposits by intervening in an irreversible manner. Because of this, in archaeology, we consider that an excavation is always a destruction. The aim of all the methods and systematic processes used in archaeology is to reduce destruction and get the most out of excavation.

What are the steps in the archaeological excavation process?

In archaeology, excavation is a process that consists of several important steps. Those steps are crucial for a dig to be an archaeological excavation. Those are as follows:

  1. selecting the site and place in the site
  2. planning and estimating
  3. execution and recording
  4. report writing

Here, these four steps are unique to the archaeological excavation process. Other than these four steps, steps like taking legal permission, preserving and conserving material remains found, and doing laboratory tests and analyses are included in a study based on archaeological excavation. Here, only the basic four steps of archaeological excavation are mentioned, as steps like doing lab tests, analysing, and preserving fall into another two main steps in the archaeological process.

1. Selection the Site and Place within the Site

Selecting a site and place to excavate is the first step. To find the best site or the best place within the site, archaeologists conduct a survey. We call this survey an archaeological exploration in a broader sense. Usually, first we select an area to do the survey. Then we set up the grid in the selected area. Then, according to the grid we set up, we conduct a survey to find the best possible place to do an excavation. Setting the grid means using the main sea level indicator nearby, taking the measurements at the site, and dividing the site into longitude lines until one grid is 10m x 10m. Then, within this set-up grid, archaeologists select grids to excavate.

2. Planning and Estimating

According to the selected grid and the purpose of the study, archaeologists plan the excavation. This is where archaeologists decide what type of excavation to carry out and what types of methods to follow. They estimated the duration of the excavation and the budget as well.

3. Execution and Recording

After planning, the excavation begins as planned. As it progresses, archaeologists actively record everything. Usually, as we go forward, removing layer by layer, we should record everything in between each layer. And in special cases, we should do the recording as necessary. There are a few methods of recording, such as plan drawing, section drawing, mapping, model drawing, photography, and videography. There are principles, such as using a scale and a direction indicator, when taking photographs.

When the archaeologists find any material remains, they slow down the excavation and make adjustments to study the context of the material remains as well as the preservation of the material remains. For example, if someone finds full or partial pottery, it should be contained in an airtight and heat-resistant container in order to get reliable lab results. If the pottery piece gets heated by the sun or in any other way, the thermoluminescence dating results could go wrong. If the pottery of an ancient container is opened, it could be contaminated with pollen in the air, so it won’t be suitable for pollen analysis. That means that that finding will not be able to be used to recreate the environment that existed in the past. That way, we could lose the most important data forever. Therefore, there are methods and guidelines for conducting an excavation and recording.

4. Report Writing

After completing the dig, archaeologists write a complete report of the excavation. It starts with the purpose of the excavation and ends with the findings of the excavation. Most importantly, this report is limited to the excavation. Here, archaeologists compose the report, including records of every step in the excavation with all the maps, drawings, plans, photographs, etc. Mostly, this includes the purpose of the excavation, the plan and estimations of the excavation, the detailed records of the excavation, and limitations and problems related to the excavation. After the excavation is over and the conservation starts, it goes under another report as a conservation report. Finally, in the final report, archaeologists include every step in the archaeological study process, from exploration to conclusions.

What are the types of excavations in archaeology?

Archaeological excavation is a broad topic. Practically, archaeological sites as well as the purposes of archaeological studies can be very distinctive. Therefore, according to the nature of the site and the purpose of the study, archaeological excavation has to change. To achieve this, archaeologists have developed four excavation methods.

Before we move into those four methods, it is noteworthy that these four methods are four different ways of directing an excavation on a site. In simple words, these four methods are about managing the size and shape (structure) of the dig pit but not about determining how to remove the soil. These methods are as follows:

  1. grid method
  2. open method
  3. trench method
  4. quadrant method

1. Grid Method

The grid method is one of the major excavation methods in archaeology. Mortimer Wheeler invented this method in the Verulamium excavations in 1930–35, and Kathleen Kenyon refined it in her excavations at Jericho in 1952–58. Hence, we call it the Wheeler-Kenyon method in archaeology.

Wheeler believed in the equal importance of both horizontal and vertical dimensions in excavation recording. His concept was to capture not only the length and width of a site but also its depth and the passage of time. Thus, he invented the grid method, specifically designed for large-scale excavations, which today we term “area excavations”. As Wheeler outlined the criteria for a successful area excavation,

  • Clear divisibility for effective recording and control.
  • Progressive expansion without compromising initial datum lines
  • Preservation of complete vertical sections at multiple points until excavation completion
  • Integration potential into broader regional excavations.
  • Unhindered access for soil removal without disrupting the site’s layout.
  • Adequate openness to enable well-lit inspections at various depths

To meet these requirements, the method involves excavation only along the square perimeters, with unexcavated areas, called baulks, left between the squares to maintain the integrity of the grid. Through the grid method, archaeologists meticulously unravel the layers of history, ensuring comprehensive data collection and systematic analysis.

Read the full article>> Grid Method Excavation in Archaeology

2. Open Method

The open area method is one of the major excavation methods in archaeology and is ideal for large-area excavation. In this method, the entire area of the site that is chosen to be excavated is excavated without baulks or sections. Instead, the entire area of excavation is considered a single excavation pit. Every step of the excavation process takes place accordingly, as it really is a large single pit. As for recording purposes, this method is also based on a grid plan of the site. But the excavation is not always laid out according to the grid. Here, it is free to lay out sections of the plan of the excavation as necessary.

And also, the excavation does not necessarily have to be conducted all at once in the whole area. It can be executed gradually according to the plan or situational needs in any direction and in any shape required. Archaeologists developed this method after the grid method, eradicating the disadvantages of the grid method mainly due to its key feature of baulks.

Read the full article>> Open Area Excavation Method in Archaeology

3. Trench Method

Trench excavation means excavating a long and narrow pit throughout the site. Archaeologists apply this method to excavate features that are horizontally distributed in the site, such as city walls and roads. Additionally, this method allows us to reveal the chronological distribution of features horizontally. For instance, trench excavations across a lard archaeological site can provide us with a clear chronological sequence of human acts, such as the expansion of a city throughout the site. This method allows archaeologists to examine two continuous sections of the site.

4. Quadrant Method

The quadrant method means dividing an archaeological site or mound into four equal quarters and excavating each quarter individually. This method is ideal for mound excavations. For instance, when a Buddhist stupa is excavated, archaeologists apply this method. When the excavation of only one quarter is completed, they can verify almost everything about the stupa underneath. Then, archaeologists have the luxury of excavating the opposite quarter for further understanding. Or they can leave the other quarters unexcavated, as they already have a comprehensive understanding of the feature.

When it comes to Buddhist stupas, archaeologists can leave the other quarters for later studies, or they can start preservation right away once they excavate a quardrant. Because excavating a mound and identifying it as a stupa essentially changes the excavation. Since a stupa is a well-structured architectural feature, not a mound of waste or carcass, excavating the entire stupa mound means destroying the entire archaeological feature. Hence, archaeologists apply the quardrant method for mound excavations as it is the most time-saving, fund-saving, and less destructive method for the subject.

Usually, when the entire area or all four quarters are excavated, archaeologists leave a baulk in between each quarter, leaving it as a huge cross. This baulk facilitates a complete cross-section of each quarter. Also, this provides a section view of the mound, but when the baulks are left, the centerpoint of the mound is left unexcavated. If archaeologists decide not to leave baulks and excavate one entire quadrant or two or all, that provides them with two complete cross sections that lie in the main four directions.

How to remove the soil in archaeological excavation?

The way that archaeologists remove the soil in archaeological excavations is unique. They go deeper, step by step, in the soil. That means they dig layer by layer. This way, they remove a very small amount of soil at a time and ensure the safety and recovery of material that remains hidden beneath. In order to do an excavation like this, there are methods that archaeologists use in this particular area.

The methods of soil removal in archaeological excavation come with a recording method in pairs. Each excavation method (soil removal technique) comes with its own recording method. Therefore, the way archaeologists dig the soil is parallel to the way archaeologists record the excavation. Mainly, there are two main methods of recording in archaeological excavation: the context method and the unit-level method. The context method consisted of two: the single context method and the standard context method. Each comes with unique soil removal techniques. Accordingly, there are two prominent methods for removing soil layers in archaeological excavation, as follows:

  1. Planum method
  2. Context method

1. Planum Method

What is the planum method in archaeology? The planum method, the arbitrary method, the spit method, or the metrical method is the method in which we remove the soil or any deposit in the excavation spit by spit according to metric units. That means the thickness of a spit is predetermined using metrical units, and a spit usually ranges between 5 cm and 10 cm. The thickness of the spit depends on the study.

When conducting an excavation using the planum method, we remove one spit, record it, and remove the next spit. First, we define the boundaries of our excavation pit. Then we remove the soil according to the pre-determined spits. If we find artefacts while excavating a spit, we leave a pedestal of soil around the artefact until we finish the entire spit. Then we measure and record both the horizontal and vertical locations of the artefacts. After that, we only removed the artefacts and soil pedestals. This process continues until we complete the excavation.

Since we remove layers according to the metric units, recording is easier in such excavations. We conduct recording for each spit, providing a sequence of spit records from top to bottom. Each spit may contain the artefacts found within it, and the larger artefacts may be recorded in a few spits in succession. However, careful attention is required to avoid mixing layers inadvertently. The planum method is important as it can represent the timeline of past human cultural evolution.

2. Context Method

The context method in archaeological excavation focuses on material remains and their natural and cultural surroundings. Context means the artefact or any other material that remains in a deposit with its surroundings. As in the planum method, the removal of material from the dig pit in this method also happens layer by layer. But, unlike in the planum method, we do not leave pedestals around artefacts and wait until we excavate the entire spit. Archaeologists are free to follow through a single context or a few contexts in the excavation pit.

It is very important to understand that in any archaeological excavation, including this one, we remove soil or any other deposit layer by layer. The difference here is that There are no restrictions to archaeologists to excavate the entire spit. Instead, they can choose a certain area of the spit and excavate it deeper without excavating the rest of the spit. Here, this certain area is what we call a context.

For instance, when we find a cut and fill (something like a garbage pit) within the boundary of the excavation, we can continue excavating the cut and fill until leaving the outsite of the cut and fill to excavate later. But we remove the deposition of that context layer by layer. This is like conducting excavations within excavations. As mentioned earlier, this soil removal method comes with the context method of recording.

In this method, archaeologists consider the uppermost layer as context one. Then move deeper, numbering each context according to chronological sequence. So, in this method, we need a thorough understanding to correctly determine which context is chronologically new or old. However, each context is given a number and recorded individually, and since the measurements for each context are taken by each layer as the excavation goes deeper, locating them is never an issue.

It is noteworthy that these two methods are not the ones for deciding how excavation extends on the ground. We use these two methods to carry out the excavation by removing the layers after we start the excavation according to any of the methods: grid, open, trench, or quadrant. And these two methods are not just about soil removal. These two methods are about excavation and recording.

What are the tools used for excavation in archaeology?

Archaeologists use a variety of specialised tools in excavations. These tools, adapted to various excavation needs and technological advancements, facilitate precise and systematic excavation.

  1. Trowel: A handheld tool resembling a small shovel, used to delicately remove soil layers and expose artefacts.
  2. Brushes: Soft brushes of varying sizes help gently clean and reveal intricate details on artefacts.
  3. Pickaxe and Shovel: These sturdy tools aid in breaking through harder soil and removing debris.
  4. Total Station: A surveying instrument that precisely maps the site by measuring angles and distances
  5. Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR): a non-invasive radar system that reveals buried structures and features without digging.
  6. Drones: Aerial imagery captures site layouts, providing an overview of large areas and site features.
  7. Photography and Photogrammetry: High-resolution photos and 3D modelling document findings and site context.
  8. Measuring Tools: Tape measures, rulers, and laser devices ensure accurate documentation of artefact positions.
  9. Notebooks and Tablets: Field notes, sketches, and digital records document excavation progress and findings.
  10. GPS Devices: Enable precise site coordinates for mapping and future reference.

These tools, whether traditional or technologically advanced, empower archaeologists to achieve a scientific excavation.

What are some examples of archaeological excavations?

There are hundreds of significant excavations that have happened in the world, and it is hard to name only a few as significant. But, however, the following excavations are a few of the most history-changing excavations to date.

1. Pompeii

In 79 AD, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius ensnared the Roman city beneath layers of ash and debris. The volcanic eruption destroyed the entire city instantly yet it preserved it for hundreds of years until excavations happened. Pompeii was first discovered in the 17th century, and excavations began in the 18th century and continue until today. These excavations have revealed an entire city with its inhabitants, including humans and animals. The natural poses, day-to-day life, socio-cultural activities, town planning, living conditions, economic status, gender—everything from the Roman era was revealed. Eventually, the excavations at Pompeii opened the eyes of people around the world to excavations and archaeology.

2. Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, in Peru, is an ancient Incan citadel in the Andes Mountains. It remained unknown for many years until it was rediscovered in 1911. This remarkable archaeological site features impressive stonework, terraced landscapes, and special ceremonial areas. Through excavations, researchers found various buildings, homes, and farming terraces. These discoveries showcase the advanced architectural and engineering skills of the Incas. By studying artefacts and structures, experts have gained insights into the socio-economic organisation of Incan civilization.

3. Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army in China has significant historical importance. The discovery of these figures was in 1974 and they belonged to Emperor Qin Shi Huang. This burial site contains a large group of life-sized clay soldiers and horses. These are careful creations from the third century BC and are believed to have been created to protect the emperor’s tomb. Through the excavation, we’ve learned a lot about the military strength and artistic skills of the Qin Dynasty. The detailed sculptures give us a glimpse into how people in ancient China thought about life and death and how they buried their dead. This also shows that the emperor wanted the world to remember him for a very long time.

These case studies underscore the transformative power of archaeological excavations in reconstructing the history of past civilizations.


Archaeological excavation is the process of unearthing material remains to study the human past in archaeology. It is different from regular excavations, and it has a unique set of methods and principles.

Archaeological excavation has the same history as archaeology itself, and it has developed gradually over time.

As excavation causes irreversible destruction to the archaeological deposits by its nature, it is destructive. There are methods and principles in archaeology for conducting an excavation while minimising the destruction it causes and maximising the results it provides.

Since archaeology is a vast field of study that has uniquely different archaeological sites, archaeological excavation also relies on different types or sets of methods, such as the grid method, open method, trench method, and quadrant method, to direct the excavation on the site. Then there are another two different methods for the removal of soil or debris from excavation pits, such as the planum method and the context method.

Through history, there have been hundreds of history-changing excavations, including those in Pompeii, Peru, China, the Indus Valley, Iraq, etc. Archaeological excavation also has its limitations, challenges, and advancements. Yet, it stands as much as possible, day by day, as the most scientific way of retrieving data from the past. Indeed, archaeological excavation is a doorway to the past.

Read the full article: History of Archaeological Excavation

New to archaeology? Looking for a simple but factual explanation of archaeology? Read this article.

Looking for a source to gain a complete understanding on archaeological exploration? Read this article: Archaeological Exploration

Curious about the difference between exploration and excavation in archaeology? Read this article: Archaeological Exploration vs Archaeological Excavation


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