History of Archaeological Excavation

Usually, excavation is the first thing that comes to mind when we think about archaeology. That is because archaeological excavation is the systematic method of unearthing material remains from the past to study the human past. Therefore, it is important to study the history of archaeological excavation. That will help us understand the archaeological excavation better. And also, it will widen our understanding of the question, What is archaeology?

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So, what is the history of archaeological excavation? How has archaeological excavation evolved? What about the evolution or development of archaeological excavation? Was archaeological excavation developed and introduced at some point in time? When did the excavation become part of archaeology? Did archaeology come first, or did excavation come first? What and when is the origin of archaeological excavation? This article aims to find all the answers to those questions.

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 flourished 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 we already know.

Before we move into the history of excavation in archaeology, there are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Excavations that occurred in the past are not mostly archaeological excavations from the point of view we have today.

2. 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.

3. Excavations that took place in the past were for the purpose of looking into the past; we consider them early forms of archaeological excavation.

Considering those three facts, we can summarise the history of archaeological excavation as follows:

  1. Archaeological excavation in the background era of archaeology
  2. Archaeological excavation in the renaissance era
  3. Archaeological excavation in the 18th century AD
  4. Archaeological excavation in the 19th century AD
  5. Archaeological excavation in and after the 20th century AD

We can go through these headings and look into the history of archaeological excavation. Studying the chronological incidents related to archaeological excavation and the characteristics of the excavation in each period, such as its purpose, techniques, results, and post-excavation activities, may broaden our understanding of the topic.

History of Archaeological Excavation in the Background Era of Archaeology

The background era of archaeology marked the curiosity of the past and material remains left from the past. Also, there was a folklore culture that included legends, myths, and horror stories that were creatively crafted around material remains left from the past.

The excavation during this phase of archaeology’s history includes a few characteristics and events.

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The Nature of the Excavations in the Background Era of Archaeology

When it comes to the nature of the archaeological excavation during the background era of archaeology, it is clear that the main features of this era affected the excavation.

Elites in the human population who had the power to engage in expeditions showed interest in digging into the past during this era. They engaged in discovering or rediscovering those cities, people, creatures, or anything that was described in those legends and folk tales related to the material remains left from the past. Curiosity being the driving force for them, they explore and excavate the earth for material remains that amuse them.

Meanwhile, the writers who had interests in old material, including the smallest coins and the largest buildings, influenced the excavations. They kept records of those material remains, and they preserved those records. By doing that, they passed on the enthusiasm for the past from generations to generations, multiplying it. Later on, during the Renaissance era, this practise of engaging with old physical remains turned out to be antiquarianism. It is clear that the enthusiasm for both writings from the past and other material remains left from the past drove the excavation mindset during this era.

This way, in the field and off the field, there was a beneficial environment for archaeological excavation to begin during this era. The important fact is that what people had during this era was only an early form of archaeological excavation.

Noteworthy Events Related to Excavations in the Background Era of Archaeology

There have been several events or incidents in relation to archaeological excavation during this era. Two of them are noteworthy as they are important in the history of archaeological excavation. As mentioned above, these excavations lacked some characteristics of an archaeological excavation. But they had some main characteristics that made us consider them the earliest known evidence for archaeological excavation.

1. Pharaoh’s Excavation and Reconstruction of Sphinx in the 2nd Millenia BCE

According to the archaeological evidence, the first excavation in history happened during the New Kingdom era in Egypt (ca. 1660–1070 BCE). The Pharaoh, who ruled at that time, excavated and reconstructed the sphinx, which was originally built during the old kingdom (ca. 2575–2134 BCE).

There, the sphinx represented the material remains that were left from the past. Then, his excavation of it represented the archaeological excavation as he excavated and reconstructed the monument, as we do today. Not always do we do reconstruction, but we excavate things and do our involvement, such as reconstruction, renovation, preservation, or conservation, in order to ensure the longevity of the material heritage. Hence, what Pharaoh has done indicates the basics of archaeology we practise today. However, it marked the first excavation, according to the archaeological evidence.

2. Nabonidus Excavation and Interpretation of Monuments in the 6th Century BCE

Since there are no written records for the excavation of Sphinx we discussed above, we find the first ever recorded excavation to be Nabonidus’ excavation.

Nabonidus was the last king of Babylon during 555–539 BCE, and he excavated and unearthed the stone foundation of a building. That building was dedicated to Naram-Sin, who was a royal in the Akkadian order that ruled the region centuries ago. Not stopping at the excavation of the monuments, Nabonidus even gave a date for the unearthed monument. Though the dates were inaccurate by 1500 years, the idea of discovering the past by excavating, revealing material data, and explaining the data retrieved was there for the first time.

These events represent the basic characteristics of archaeology in history. And also, we can see that the development of the excavation and the development of the field of study, archaeology, have happened altogether during this stage.

History of Archaeological Excavation in the Renaissance Era

As you already know, the Renaissance era is when archaeology first emerged under that specific name as a discipline. But it did not emerge right at the beginning of the Renaissance era. During the first two centuries of the Renaissance, archaeological interests rose in antiquarianism. And, related to antiquarianism, excavations happened.

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In fact, these early forms of archaeological excavation that took place in this era were not archaeological excavations from today’s point of view. But this era marked the first time in history that excavation became a general practise for obtaining material remains from the past. The Renaissance versions of antiquarianism and dilettantism were the deciding factors behind excavation during this era.

The Nature of Archaeological Excavation in the Renaissance Era

There are several factors that we can observe in the history of archaeological excavation in the Renaissance era.

1. Excavation became the method of obtaining material remains

During the Renaissance era, excavation became the method of obtaining material remains. Compared to this era, the excavation was not as popular in earlier periods. Before the Renaissance era, antiquarianism focused more on ancient manuscripts. But in the Renaissance era, the focus on other material remains grew. In fact, the antiquities were considered art, and there was a trend towards collecting antiquities as art. This led to excavation, and it vastly spread.

2. Excavations conducted by elites

The practise of collecting antiquities as art became a trend among the elites. Some of them were just enthusiasts who considered antiques art and a sign of wealth but did not have any expertise. They were called dilettantes in antiquary, and they collected antiquities by looting, ransacking, and excavation.

3. Dilettantism led to destructive excavations.

As mentioned above, antiquarianism and dilettantism led to extensive excavations during this era. Recovering collectable antiquities on the surface was insufficient. Hence, digging up the ground to unearth material remains became a trend. Since the goal was only to collect antiquities as much as possible, the excavations were rough and destructive.

4. There were not any excavation methods or experts

During this era, there were no methods or standards for digging up antiquities. Also, there were not any experts there to conduct excavations. The experts who were there were also only experts in digging up things, not in archaeological excavation. This led to the destruction of the excavation.

Later on in the Renaissance era, antiquarian societies rose. Those societies revived the study of the past through antiquities and focused on introducing standards for excavations.

Noteworthy Events Related to Excavations in Archaeology in the Renaissance Era

During the Renaissance Era, there were several important incidents related to archaeological excavations. Some of them were not exactly excavations but played major roles in shaping the archaeological excavations in later times.

1. Discovery of Pompeii

Pompeii was one of the Roman cities that died instantly and was well preserved due to the eruption of the Visuvius volcano in 79 AD.

The architect Domenico Fontana, who was constructing an underground channel to divert the river Sarno, initially discovered Pompeii in 1599. He discovered several paintings, inscriptions, and architectural ruins during the excavations for construction. Here, it is noteworthy that the digging he did was not an archaeological excavation. It was only an excavation done for construction purposes. However, this discovery of past material remains beneath the ground is important in the history of archaeological excavation.

2. Excavation of Gray’s Inn Lane Hand Axe by John Conyers

In 1673, John Conyers excavated and recovered Grey’s Inn Lane Hand Axe in London. That stone artefact was the first palaeolithic artefact to be identified as having human origins.

This excavation is significant in prehistoric archaeology in many ways. John Conyers was a pioneering archaeologist at the time archaeology rose as a specific discipline. That means an expert in archaeology conducted this excavation.

Also, the archaeologist recovered material remains left from the past that belong to the lower Palaeolithic age. It revealed that humans lived a longer time on earth than ascribed in religious texts. Along with this flint stone tool, there were elephant bone remains. Initially, this artefact was not recognised as human-made, but later it was. And this artefact was dated back to 350,000 years.

3. Discovery of the First Fossilised Bone

In 1676, Robert Plot discovered a fossilised bone of a dinosaur in a limestone quarry at Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, in England. Though archaeology is not about dinosaurs, this discovery is significant as it is one of the earliest discoveries of fossils. Fossil studies are important to prehistoric archaeology in two main ways. The first is that we find fossilised human skeletal remains that are obviously important in archaeology. The second is that the fossils of animal and plant life reveal prehistoric environments, climates, etc. Those aspects are significant in revealing prehistory.

4. Excavation at Borger, Netherlands

In 1685, Titia Brongersma, a poetress, excavated rock boulders in Borgor, in the Netherlands, and revealed Dolmen-type burials. These burial structures belong to the megalithic age in human history. People at the time believed that these megalithic structures were erected by giants who lived on Earth. However, this excavation was a significant event that happened during the Renaissance era. The excavator was not an archaeologist, nor was her excavation, but excavating material remains that were left from the past was evident.

5. Excavation at Stonehenge

The first recorded excavations at Stonehenge happened in the early 17th century. Dr. William Harvey and Gilbert North conducted the stonehenge. Soon after, Inigo Jones and the Duke of Buckingham did the same. In 1666, antiquarian John Aubrey, who composed Monumenta Britannica, could see the sunken hollow of the refilled dug pit of the Duke of Buckingham.

History of Archaeological Excavation in the 18th Century

The 18th century marked a significant turning point in the history of archaeological excavation. As the last century of the Renaissance or the dawn after the Renaissance, the 1700s witnessed several important changes in archaeology.

Mainly, archaeology began to incline towards a more explorative field of study than ever before. The Renaissance revived the scope of studying the past through antiquities, and archaeology was right on track by the 18th century. The goal of the field of interest was established to be the study of the past. Finding the answers to the undying questions related to the existing monuments inherent in the past spread stronger. In that case, excavation became the method of looking into the past and into the material remains left from the past.

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The Nature of Archaeological Excavation in the 18th century

Archaeological excavation during the 18th century had its own characteristics.

1. Experts engaged with excavations

During the 18th century, there was a tendency for experts in the field to conduct excavations. Antiquarians, or pioneering archaeologists, began to supervise excavations. This differs from what we saw in the Renaissance era with dilettantism in excavations. Instead of ordering people to dig up the artefacts, the experts in the field of studying the past through material remains personally participated and supervised the digs. Although the methods of excavation were not fully formed, the presence of experts on the field was an important feature.

2. Excavations were conducted to find answers, not to find antiquities

One of the most important characteristics of archaeological excavations during the 18th century is that the excavations began to be conducted to find answers. The community had questions about the existing material remains that were left from the past. To find answers to those questions, experts chose excavation. Or the experts adopted excavation from the antiquity looters. However, the goal of the excavation changed to finding answers about the past instead of finding antiquities. In other words, this era’s excavations showed the earliest practical examples of research-driven excavations. But, earlier, excavations were solely for extracting antiquities.

3. Excavation began to have steps in it

Before the 18th century, archaeological excavation was more likely to be a single task. It was just about digging up the earth and collecting whatever was found. During the 18th century, it became a process with steps. Experts in the field have chosen the sites or places to excavate before jumping into the digging. Then they excavated and recorded what they found. They analysed and interpreted what they recovered. In some cases, they published the results or findings from the excavations. By following these steps, they found the answers to their questions. The second excavation in Herculaneum provides a better example of this.

4. Post-excavation tasks emerged

As the excavation became a process, it contained post-excavation tasks. Most importantly, the analysis or interpretation of the data recovered was evident in most of the excavations that happened in the 18th century. Some excavations, like Thomas Jefferson’s Mound excavation, had analysis, interpretation, and even publication steps along with the excavation. So, this era marks the beginning of the archaeological excavation process, making it different from the pre-existing crude dig for antiquities.

5. Excavation remained destructive

Although certain aspects, such as the focus of the excavation, changed, the excavation remained a destructive act without proper methods compared with later periods. However, it was somewhat less destructive than it was during the Renaissance era, under dilettantes of antiquary.

Some of these characteristics that appeared to be trends during the 18th century in archaeological excavation evolved further in later periods, making archaeology and excavation a more systematic study. Meanwhile, other characteristics, such as the destructive nature of excavation, gradually decreased during the following centuries.

Noteworthy Events Related to Excavations in Archaeology in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, few significant excavations in history took place. These excavations were not only significant in the history of excavation but also in the history of archaeology, as these excavations changed the course of archaeology. In simple words, these excavations had a huge impact on shaping archaeology into what it is today.

1. First Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum

Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre started excavating at the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 18th century. In 1738, he excavated Herculaneum, and in 1748, he excavated Pompeii. At that time, the exact locations of Pompeii and Herculaneum were unsure. Hence, the inscriptions found in the excavations in both cities confirmed their locations. That was an instance of using excavation and its data to verify information.

After Alcubierre, War Engineer Karl Weber conducted systematic studies, including excavations from 1750 to 1764, under Don Carlos, king of Naples. The purpose of these excavations that took place during the 18th century in Pompeii was not academic. The looting and ransacking weren’t fully stopped. But, however, these excavations showed the world that excavations can reveal not only antiquities but also past human lives. Also, the excavations from 1755 on focused on recording every object and their found locations. By doing so, they attempted to understand the events that took place in the city and analyse the culture of the past humans who lived there.

These excavations revealed skeleton remains that indicate the natural postures, daily lives, and panic moments of an entire human population. And these excavations revealed material remains such as cloths, wooden structures, and even food that archaeologists can only find on rare occasions. These results give a positive impression about archaeological excavation.

The excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum marked the beginning of the systematic excavation process. The excavation began with steps like site selection, planning, execution, and recording under experts. And the discoveries from these excavations provoked a positive impression towards archaeological excavation in search of the past.

4. Thomas Jefferson’s Excavation in Virginia

One of the most important events in the history of archaeological excavations was Thomas Jefferson‘s mound excavation. In 1784, he excavated one of the hundreds of mounds in Shenadoah Valley in West Virginia. This was important as the research team considered the stratigraphy of the excavation pit. They recovered numerous human skeletons, including infants, children, and adults. Based on the material remains unearthed and the observations made of native people doing rituals at these mounds, researchers concluded the mounds are burial mounds that belonged to native Red Indians. And they published the entire report of this excavation.

So, this was the first excavation that was conducted following the steps of observation, problem formation, planning, execution, data retrieval, data analysis (problem solving), conclusion, and publication.

3. Excavations at Stonehenge

In 1798, William Cunnington investigated the pit beneath a recently fallen trilithon at Stonehenge. Then, in the next century, Richard Colt Hoare and Cunnington conducted further excavations.

This way, the excavations that happened during the 18th century were indeed turning points for archaeology and its excavation.

History of Archaeological Excavation in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, archaeological excavation evolved further into a systematic act of study. This era marked the golden era of the history of archaeological excavation. With the development that occurred in almost every field of interest during the late Renaissance era, the 19th century witnessed the most dramatic evolution in archaeology. Every change and advancement that occurred related to archaeology shaped the excavation. And also, there were numerous uniquely important excavations and discoveries made during this time.

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The Nature of Excavation in Archaeology During the 19th Century

As mentioned above, the archaeological excavation during this era changed drastically. Even though there is a large quantity of details related to this, here only a few are mentioned.

1. Experts introduced Methods for excavation

By the 1800s, several notable figures were pioneering archaeological studies. They introduced new methods for archaeological excavation. At the time, they introduced them practically in the excavations they conducted and provided comprehensive case studies to the academic world.

2. Other sciences had impact on excavation

As you already know, almost every field of interest became a field of study during the Renaissance. Among them, the study of the earth rose as geology. Geologists introduced new theories in geology, such as stratification. These theories, or knowledge from other sciences, expanded the scope of archaeological excavation. Knowing how soil layers deposit on top of each other provided insights into how archaeological material data are deposited chronologically.

Meanwhile, as a result of the Renaissance, the natural and social sciences emerged and spread. The influence of the emerging natural sciences had a huge impact on archaeological excavation. Especially, scientific disciplines such as geology had a major impact on archaeology. The superimposition theory in geology indicated the time of the layers of a natural soil deposition and began to be used in archaeological excavation to determine the age of the soil layers and the antiques within the layers.

3. Excavation Became A Problem-Oriented Research Method

Earlier, excavations were mere diggings for unearthing antiquities. Then, after the Renaissance, the study of the past through material remains became a thing. With this background, the excavations began to be conducted in search of answers to questions that were related to the past. Sometimes, the excavations were conducted to understand the material remains or specific features visible on the ground. Both ways, it was about looking into the past. Thomas Jefferson’s excavations took the initiative for these problem-oriented excavations in the 18th century. By the 19th century, archaeologists had widely used excavation as a method of finding the answers to those questions about the past.

4. Excavations Became Systematic

During the 19th century, archaeological excavations became systematic. Pioneering archaeologists introduced methods into archaeology. And the expansion of knowledge due to the development of other sciences increased the quality of holy work. And also, most of the excavations began to be problem-oriented studies. In other words, archaeologists conducted excavations in order to find answers to questions. With this background, the excavations needed to be adequate for the fulfilment of the tasks.

5. Engagement of Experts Became a Neccessity

Since archaeology had been around for a century, there were a lot of experts in the field. Unlike before, excavations were conducted under their supervision. So, the specialised knowledge was there all the time with archaeological excavations during this time. Pit Reverse and Flinders Petrie are two pioneering archaeologists who emphasised the need for expertise in excavation. The contribution of these two, along with Mortimer Wheeler, will be discussed later.

6. The focus of the excavation shifted from antiquities

Earlier, the focus of excavation was on antiquities. Therefore, excavators dug up the antiquities without caring about the extracted soil, the context, or the surroundings of the antiquities. But starting in the 19th century, archaeologists started to focus on the overall excavation instead of what they would find. This resulted in them extracting more information from the excavation. In simple words, archaeologists started to study the surroundings or contexts of material remains they found in excavations.

Noteworthy Events Related to Archaeological Excavation During the 19th Century

There were several important events during the 19th century related to archaeological excavation. As we discussed in the history of archaeology in the 19th century, this era marked the methodological advancement and refinements in archaeology. That means this was the era of archaeological excavation. Therefore, numerous archaeological excavations took place. Archaeologists tested, refined, and newly introduced theories and methods based on those excavations. However, here are some of the major events related to archaeological excavation during this era:

1. Contribution of Pit Reverse and Flinders Petrie

Pitt Rivers, Flinders Petrie, and Mortimer Wheeler were the pioneers who contributed to the development of archaeological excavation from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Mortimer Wheeler lived in the 20th century but continued the development streak of excavation that began with Pit Reverse during the 19th century.

Pitt Rivers was an archaeologist who innovated some of the important methodologies in archaeology. His innovative contribution to the archaeological excavation can be summarised as follows:

  • excavated according to a plan with a scale
  • practised the first ever extensive use of maps in excavations
  • introduced plans, section drawings, maps and models into excavations
  • introduced the excavation report, including the details of the entire study and established the necessity of excavation report
  • applied every theories and method above into practise by himself in the excavation of Cranborne Chase in South England prehistoric sites in 1887–1898.

Flinders Petrie was a British Egyptologist and a pioneer of systematic methodology in archaeology. His contribution to the archaeological excavation can be summarised as follows:

2. First Ever Systematic Archaeological Excavations At Pompeii by Guiseppe Fiorelli

Giuseppe Fiorelli began the first ever systematic archaeological excavations at Pompeii in the 19th century. He invented and practiced scientific techniques to study and present the site systematically. In the past, excavations at Pompeii did not stop at the street-level depth of the city. But Fiorelli decided to excavate from the top of the structures to the street level. That way, his excavations became less destructive and more informative, as they revealed the ancient city of Pompeii as it was.

The most important contribution of Fiorelli is his method of preserving human and animal figures found in the excavations. As you may already know, the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption happened within seconds; poisonous gases, lava, and volcanic ash flooded the city, killing its inhabitants instantly. So, the human and animal figures were frozen in hot volcanic ash and other deposits. With time, those bodies decayed over time, leaving air pockets as a replacement for the space that bodies took. Fiorelli filled those air pockets with plaster of Paris and then chipped off the surrounding lava rock deposits. That way, he managed to bring a dead city back in front of eyes.

This way, Fiorelli expanded our understanding of archaeology as well as archaeological excavations. And also, his methods contributed to the development of excavation methods. Furthermore, he published many books, including details of his Pompeii excavations, completing the scientific study of archaeological excavation.

3. Excavation of Hissarlik of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann

Hissarlik excavations gained the first ever popularity as stratigraphic excavations. This excavation marked a significant turning point in the history of archaeological excavation in both positive and negative ways.

Heinrich SchliemannFrank CalvertWilhelm Dörpfeld, and Carl Blegen conducted these excavations in the 1870s. They recognised nine cities that rose from prehistoric times to the Hellenistic period. In simple words, as they excavated, considering the stratigraphy, they were able to discover nine successful cities that were built on each other from prehistoric time to Hellenistic time. This gained public attention for the importance of stratigraphic excavations to reveal the past.

On the negative side, scholars like Kenneth W. Harl stated that these excavators did what Greeks couldn’t do to troy. That means these excavations were crude and rough, therefore highly destructive.

As you may have already figured, since archaeology has evolved as a scientific discipline, any negative practice eventually gets criticised, and way better refinements replace those practices. Therefore, this event holds significance in the history of archaeological excavation.

As you can see, the events that took place in the 19th century led archaeological excavations to develop further as a scientific and systematic method of study.

History of Archaeological Excavation in and after the 20th Century

Archaeological excavations in the 20th century marked several phases. As we discussed under the history of archaeology and under processual archaeology, archaeological theory was slowly changing up until 1960. But after 1960, archaeology had its theoretical reforms, and those focused on archaeological excavations. Therefore, archaeological excavation during this era underwent many important changes that are unique to each other. Here, only the main points will be discussed.

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The Nature of Archaeological Excavation in and after the 20th Century

During the 20th century, archaeological excavation showed new characteristics as well as continued some of the features it showed during the 19th century. Here are 10 major noteworthy characteristics of archaeological excavation during the 20th century.

1. Continuation of Inventing, Testing, and Reforming Methods for Excavations

As discussed in the last section, archaeologists invented new techniques for excavation and tested them in their field work. And they also reformed existing methods. For instance, Mortimer Wheeler invented the grid excavation method and tested it in his excavation at Verulamium and Maiden Castle. Then Kathleen Kenyon refined that same method in her excavation at Jericho.

Read more about grid method excavation in archaeology>>

2. Excavation Became More Systematic

As a further development of 19th-century excavation, archaeologists introduced new methods and principles in the 20th century. After pioneers like William Flinders Petrie, 20th-century archaeologists like Mortimer Wheeler took the wheel. They made excavation more systematic, including the steps and developing each step. They developed the planning step of excavation with techniques such as setting a grid. Then they recorded the excavation with mapping, section drawing, and photography. Their focus on precise measurements and recordings made it more systematic.

3. Technology was Implemented Extensively

As a result of warfare and the development of science, humans had sophisticated technology at the time.

Before the 20th century, archaeological excavation was a task that required a lot of manual labour. But with the extensive use of technology after the 20th century, archaeologists could complete certain tasks involved with excavations way easier.

For instance, earlier recording was a painstaking task. But with photography, 3D scanning, and 2D–3D mapping technologies, recording excavations became much easier and more precise. Precision in recording as well as precision in planning and execution of the excavation gained some advancements. Also, archaeological exploration got upgraded with aerial photography, radar, sonar, and electromagnetic technologies, allowing archaeologists to easily select sites to excavate. All of these resulted in the effectiveness of excavations.

4. Recording Methods Developed Further

One of the major changes that happened in archaeological excavation during the 20th century was the development of its recording. As mentioned above, with the development of technology, archaeologists had the perfect background to imply technology in their work. But there seems to be another important reason for that to happen. That is the contribution of military officers. With the British having colonies all around the world, individuals with military training and knowledge had access to conduct archaeological studies. They brought their knowledge of mapping, planning, section drawing, measuring, and recording skills into archaeology and utilised them in excavations. On the other hand, the technology they needed was also available. And also, unlike others, these archaeologists kept some value in recording as a personal choice. This way, recording in archaeological excavation developed further throughout the 20th century.

5. The Development of Other Sciences Affected Excavations

The development of other sciences affected archaeological excavations more than ever in the 20th century. As mentioned above, knowledge gained through disciplines was not only for those disciplines. The development of geological studies and the development of chemistry provide prime examples of this. Since the stratification of depositions was well established in geology, archaeologists considered it when excavating and used it to get relative dates for the material remains found within layers. Therefore, archaeologists introduced careful excavation layer by layer to ensure the recognition of different layers in a deposit. And also, it made them carefully record everything from beginning to end.

Then, with Willard Libby‘s discovery of the carbon-14 isotope, archaeology received a new dating method. With C14, anything organic can be tested for dates. So, in order to get accurate dates for the layers in which organic materials such as charcoal are found, excavation needed to be more precise and careful. You may wonder if this is a valid point. But, when compared with the earlier excavations when archaeologists did not consider stratigraphy while excavating, these factors making them consider stratigraphy are a significant turning point in the history of archaeological excavation. And that is because of the impact of other sciences.

And also, the development of archaeology as well as other disciplines caused subdisciplines in archaeology to emerge. Prehistoric archaeology deals with highly sensitive data. Under these circumstances, discoveries such as fossils, human skeletal remains, stone tools, and marine artefacts left archaeologists with no choice but to develop separate specialised fields for each. Therefore, subfields such as prehistoric archaeology, fossil studies, and underwater archaeology emerged.

6. Newly Emerging Subdisciplines Affected Excavations

As archaeology developed further as a discipline, it began to develop subdisciplines. Prehistoric archaeology, underwater archaeology, and rescue archaeology are some of the major disciplines that emerged during this era. These sub-disciplines had their own special areas and characteristics. Therefore, each of them required a sophisticated process of study. That means the excavation within these subdisciplines needed to be uniquely suited for them.

For instance, the subdiscipline of rescue archaeology involves identifying archaeological heritage and preserving it on-site or off-site. With off-site preservation, archaeologists excavate the entire archaeological remains, move them somewhere else, and establish them there. This process requires precise planning, recording, excavation, and reassembly. Therefore, this discipline demanded more accurate and quick ways of speeding up the excavation process.

Then, when it comes to prehistoric archaeology, it requires the most complex and surgical excavations in archaeology. The layers that reveal the thousands of years of prehistoric times are usually thinner than the layers that represent historic times. And also, distinguishing between layers is a must. Furthermore, any missing layer can result in providing false dates. And these layers may contain some material remains that are highly fragile when opened up to the air. With all of these concerns, it is obvious that excavations at prehistoric sites are not a simple task. It requires the excavation to be as precise as possible.

Then, when it comes to underwater archaeology, which emerged in the 1940s, the excavation needed to be a whole different process as it had to be underwater. This way, archaeological excavation during the 20th century evolved and became complex as a result of the subdisciplines of archaeology.

7. Excavation Started to Differ According to Purpose

Earlier, the purpose of the excavation was to unearth antiquities. Then, studying the antiquities became a purpose. During this era, another few purposes came into play. Rescue archaeology came with the purpose of unearthing everything and establishing it in some way, or unearthing everything and collecting as much data as possible before inevitable destruction. Meanwhile, accidentally, farmers and mining workers found archaeological material. In order to ensure the preservation of these material remains, accidental archaeology emerged. Then, as was obvious, the purpose of studying the historical material remains there. Thus, archaeological excavations started to have different purposes.

8. More Focus on the Context in Excavations

Earlier, the focus of the excavation was on material remains that were being found. Then, with the development of archaeological excavation, the surroundings of the material remains or the context gained focus over time. Systematic excavations during the 19th century showed some level of attentation to the context, as the precise recording required attention to the surroundings of material remains.

During the 20th century, with the development of other disciplines and subdisciplines within archaeology, the focus of excavation evolved further. Archaeologists discovered that material remains are not only artefacts but also features such as burn marks on the floors.

And also, with processual archaeology and post-processual archaeology, archaeologists started to study more than the past of material remains. Instead, they started to study the cultural evolution of humans in the past. Therefore, they started to study the material remains, both individually and as part of an assembly. They studied the connections between discovered artefacts and other material remains. For instance, in prehistoric archaeology, researchers often studied the relationship between stone tools and skeletal remains found alongside them.

This way, as the discipline evolved further, the excavation evolved accordingly. As a result, archaeologists paid the same attention to the context of material remains as they paid for material remains in excavations.

9. Skilled Labour Became a Neccessity

During the 20th century, skilled labour in excavation became a necessity. As we discussed earlier, the emergence of subfields in archaeology, such as prehistoric archaeology, had a major impact on the overall archaeological excavation process. The fossil studies came into the equation with a new set of scientific methods. Therefore, the excavation process became more complex than it was before.

At the beginning of the history of archaeological excavation, unskilled labourers were allowed to do the digging in an excavation while supervision was given by specialists. But, with the beginning of prehistoric archaeology and the collaborative approach of the natural sciences, the excavation needed to be a highly sophisticated process. Hence, the expertise was much needed, not only for supervision but also for the digging. Therefore, trained excavators who have enough knowledge and experience in archaeology and excavation methodologies carried out the digging, while skilled labourers provided support only in appropriate amounts.

10. Quality over Quantity in Excavation

As you are already aware, during the 20th century, archaeology itself developed further theoretically. Archaeologists refined the purpose of archaeology and the entire definition of archaeology. Scholars began to consider the quality of archaeological studies more important than the quantity of archaeological studies. And the focus of archaeological studies changed from gathering material remains and recording them to interpreting the material remains found. With interpretation becoming the main objective of archaeological studies, archaeologists developed theories and methods to obtain more information from limited material remains. This led the archaeological community to extend the quality of excavations rather than the number of excavations conducted.

As discussed under the above 10 points, archaeological excavation during the 20th century broadened its boundaries into a complex scientific method.

Noteworthy Events in the History of Archaeological Excavations in and after the 20th Century

There were numerous important events in the history of archaeological excavation during the 20th century. Since archaeology was well established in the scholarly world and continued to provide the thrilling experience of diving into the past, it gained popularity.

And also, colonialism and nationalism provided motifs for conducting archaeological studies. Additionally, the theoretical development in archaeology required a place for the theories to be tested. And, as mentioned above, with the expanding knowledge of humankind, new doors in archaeology were opened.

However, here is only a fragment of the significant events related to archaeological excavations during the 20th century. It is important to know that this does not provide a list of significant excavations in the 20th century.

1. Mortimer Wheeler’s Contribution to Archaeological Excavation

Mortimer Wheeler was a British archaeologist and an officer in the British Army. He continued what Pit Reverse and Flinders Petrie started in the 19th century. His contribution to the archaeological excavation can be summarised as follows:

He invented the grid method excavation and applied it in his excavations at Verulamium in 1930-1936. Also, he excavated in Arikamedu in India and Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa in Pakistan.

2. Kathleen Kenyon’s Excavations in Jericho

Kathleen Kenjon‘s Jericho excavation in 1952–58 marked a significant event in this century. Jericho was a site in Christian texts. The excavations revealed that the site had had agricultural occupations since about 7000 BC. She discovered evidence of domestic architecture from the 7th millennium BC. She took plaster models of human sculptures she found, leaving the mark of her meticlulous excavation methods. Then, in 1961–67, she conducted excavations in Jerusalam. Later, she published the details of her excavations. She implied the grid method in her excavations at Jericho and refined the method further. Therefore, the grid method of excavation is also called the Wheeler-Kenyon method.

3. Ian Hodder’s Çatalhöyük Excavation

The Pioneer of Post-Processual Archaeology, Ian Hodder, conducted excavation at the Catalhoyuk neolithic site in Turkey from 1993 to 2018. This excavation is one of the most significant excavations in archaeology. It was the first real-world excavation under the theory of post-processual archaeology.

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Until post-processual archaeology rose, archaeologists interpreted data from excavations objectively. That means only one explanation was given for the material recovered. But with the opposition, interpretative archaeology under Ian Hodder excavators had the chance to develop individual interpretations for the material data.

And also, the focus of post-processual archaeology was to obtain a deeper understanding of past human societies. Gender, ethnicity, human agency, symbolism, and many other complex aspects of human societies became the focus of archaeological studies. In order to extract data for these socio-cultural aspects, excavations needed to be more advanced. Therefore, Hodder used more digital methods than ever before. And these methodologies were adaptive to the site. Earlier, the methods were more universal without considering the fact that not every site is similar.

Further, the recording was intergraded with computerised technologies. That means the recording of this excavation was more sophisticated and unique than common practice. This information is enough to understand how important this excavation is in the history of archaeological excavations.

These significant events, along with other events such as theoretical turning points and excavations and discoveries, shaped the archaeological excavation in the 20th century.


As seen above, the history of archaeological excavation represents a gradual development. There has been a long formation period for the discipline itself, along with its excavation. It appears that archaeology and excavation were combined from the beginning.

In the first era of archaeology, excavation was just digging the earth in search of material remains left from the past. There was no recording, no principles, just digging. Then, in the Renaissance era, it got hyped. Dilettantism took over antiquary, and excavations spread. Later in the Renaissance, with the emergence of archaeology, the beginning of systematic archaeological excavation happened.

Then, in the 18th century, the importance of excavation in archaeological studies left a mark. Then, in the 19th century, archaeological excavation gained significance as a scientific and systematic method of obtaining material data. During this era, methods were introduced, theories were tested, and excavation was refined.

Then, in the 20th century, the development of the theoretical side of archaeology had an impact on excavation. New theoretical needs reshaped the excavation as needed. The excavation became a surgical procedure in archaeology.

As of today, archaeological excavation remains the heart of archaeology. And it evolves further every day with new discoveries, theories, and methods. Archaeological excavation evolved from a simple and destructive dig to a careful, systematic, and surgical procedure.

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