Importance of Ground Survey and Its Methods in Archaeology

Simply put, the ground survey in archaeology is important because it is one of the ways that we can discover inland archaeological sites and their archaeological records without being destructive. There are many questions asked about this topic, such as: What is the importance of ground surveys in archaeology? What is the importance of surface surveying in archaeology? What is the importance of subsurface surveys in archaeology? What is the importance of geophysical surveys in archaeology? What is the importance of geochemical surveys in archaeology? This article is to discover the answers to all of those questions.

First, we need to understand What is the importance of archaeological exploration, survey, or reconnaissance? To do that, we can recall our memories from the main article about the archaeological survey. Then we can specifically look at the importance of ground surveys in archaeology. Since we already have a considerable and general understanding of the subject, we can first look at the significance of the three methods of ground survey individually.

First, we look for the reasons for each method to be significant. Then we look for common reasons for all the methods of ground survey to be important. However, the common reasons for all types of archaeological exploration to be important will not be included here. Therefore, you may find those in the main article about archaeological surveys.

Importance of Surface Survey in Archaeology

The importance of surface survey in archaeology lies in the following reasons:

1. One of the Most Non-Intrusive Methods

Surface surveying is one of the most non-destructive and non-intrusive methods of gathering data about the past. Archaeologists can identify potential archaeological features such as burials, walls, and structures only by visually inspecting the exposed landscape and ground.

Unlike geophysical survey techniques such as electrical resistivity tests and borehole sampling, this surface survey does not interfere with the site physically. Only intervention occurs when archaeologists discover an endangered artefact on the surface. Unless that happens, archaeologists only leave foot prints and take records in the surface survey. Because of this, archaeologists can conduct surface surveys over and over again in a field, and the site will still be preserved for future studies. So, this highlights the importance of surface survey in archaeology.

2. The method with the fewest technological requirements

Surface survey does not require highly sophisticated instruments and equipment. Once the site is cleared and the grid system is set, archaeologists can easily conduct the visual inspection using their naked eye. And they can keep records using a pen and a notebook, or with a camera, or on a ready-made map. Regardless of the use of simple technological tools, the surface survey is adequate to fulfil its goals. This characteristic emphasises the importance of surface survey in archaeology.

3. The Most Cost-Effective Method

Surface surveys facilitate the most cost-effective confirmation of the site’s suitability for excavation. Though there are limitations, such as the applicability of this method in certain conditions, such as thick vegetation, this method provides us with a cheap way of knowing if a site is worthy of excavation. Therefore, this method facilitates cost-effective excavations by saving time and resources, highlighting the importance of surface survey in archaeology.

These are the unique reasons for surface survey in archaeology to be important and contribute to the overall importance of ground survey in archaeology. To understand the importance of subsurface surveys in archaeology, one must read the following sections on the importance of geophysical surveys and geochemical surveys:

Importance of Geophysical Survey in Archaeology

The importance of geophysical survey in archaeology lies in the following reasons:

1. Able to Explore the Subsurface

As a subsurface survey method, geophysical survey in archaeology is able to explore what’s underneath. Techniques such as ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity, and magnetism provide an unseen image of the underground. This is the first and most obvious reason for the importance of geophysical survey in archaeology.

2. Non-Destructive and Minimally Intrusive

Geophysical surveying is non-destructive and minimally intrusive. Techniques such as electrical resistivity and borehole sampling insert rods into the ground, which may cause damage to artefacts underneath or disrupt the natural stratification. Therefore, those techniques are not entirely non-intrusive. But all other techniques in geophysical survey, such as magnetism, GPR, and LiDAR, are non-intrusive, and all of the intrusive and non-intrusive geophysical methods are non-destructive. This shows the importance of geophysical survey in archaeology.

3. Facilitates Reassurance of the Reliability of Results

Since the geophysical survey has several techniques, archaeologists can apply two or more techniques to survey the same site in an exploration project. That will provide reliable verification of the results. For instance, a resistivity test can detect structures underground, and GPR can also detect structures underground. So, archaeologists never lack ways to confirm and reassure the accuracy of the results that geophysical surveys provide. And that is one of many reasons for the importance of geophysical survey in archaeology.

4. Applicable for Sites Where Surface Surveys Cannot Be Conducted

Geophysical survey as a method of subsurface survey can be applicable in areas where surface survey cannot be applied. And techniques such as LiDAR can detect the surface features of a site with thick vegetation cover. Also, in areas with no surface signs, geophysical surveys can detect hidden archaeological records and, most importantly, their nature. That means the geophysical survey can provide 2D and 3D images of features underneath. And this is the only way to detect the nature of the physical features if there are physical features underneath. As a subsurface survey, this is an obvious yet undeniable reason for the importance of geophysical survey.

5. Provides Images of the Unseen Underground

Geophysical surveys can provide us with images of the underground as it naturally is. This is something we cannot expect, even from an excavation. But technological applications such as LiDAR, GPR, and magnetometry can accurately create 2D and 3D underground models. No other ground-survey method can provide us with such information. This emphasises the importance of geophysical surveys, unlike any other reason.

6. Provides Comprehensive Insight Through Data Integration

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) serve as a powerful tool for managing and analysing geospatial data. By integrating survey findings with GIS technology, archaeologists gain a comprehensive view of the site’s spatial relationships. This synergy enhances the interpretation and visualisation of archaeological features. For instance, in a large archaeological landscape, GIS allows researchers to overlay survey results with historical maps, providing a layered view of how the site has evolved over time. This is one of the modern and recently developed reasons for geophysical survey to hold such significance in archaeology.

7. Provides chronological data on site formation

Geophysical survey methods, especially techniques such as borehole sampling, provide us with chronological data on the site. Hence, archaeologists can understand the site formation timeframe with scientific evidence as if they conducted an excavation, but without an excavation.

This way, these seven reasons that make the geophysical survey important contribute to the importance of ground surveys in archaeology.

Importance of Geochemical Survey

The importance of geochemical survey in archaeology lies in the following reasons:

1. Able to Detect Archaeological Sites Even in the Absence of Physical or Historical Records

As discussed earlier, the geochemical method can detect archaeological sites even when the sites hold no physical remnants or written clues. Hence, in terms of archaeological survey, geochemical survey is the last resort. When every other method fails to detect anything, a geochemical survey can detect the archaeological sites scientifically. So, it is fine to say that this method is the most sophisticated method of obtaining data for archaeology.

2. Provides guidance for other survey methods

As geochemical surveys can be applied effectively at sites that hold no physical remnants, this can be used as a guiding survey method for determining what geophysical survey method to apply. For instance, if the geochemical test results show higher phosphate content in an area of the site, archaeologists can look for the buried wall of a cesspit. Or if a site is detected as an ancient farming field according to a geochemical survey, archaeologists can predict in which direction to the farm the settlements have been. This way, the geochemical method provides guidance for other survey methods.

3. Able to Reveal the Human Past Alone

As we discussed, the geochemical survey is applicable and effective at sites that have no physical remnants or historical records. But, in such conditions, this method can also provide us with insights into past human activities. We can detect and study ancient farmlands, cesspits, wastepits, garbagepits, cattlehouses, and overall land use patterns using this method. Therefore, this method is capable of reviving past human culture, behaviour, and cognition through microscopic-level material.

This characteristic of geochemical survey is the main reason for the importance of geochemical survey in archaeology, as well as the overall importance of ground survey in archaeology. Nonetheless, this characteristic of geophysical survey is the reason for archaeological survey or reconnaissance to hold unbeated importance in archaeology.

4. Non-Destructive and Minimally Intrusive

Geochemical surveys are also non-destructive. And it is minimally intrusive. It is not entirely non-intrusive as it takes samples from the site, which can distress the stratification of the layers. However, it is still non-destructive.

This way, the above four reasons that make the geochemical survey important contribute to the importance of ground surveys in archaeology.

Overall Importance of Ground Survey in Archaeology

Above, we discussed the unique reasons why each ground survey method in archaeology is important. Here we will look into why they are important as an entity.

1. Each method can be combined

Each method in the ground survey is complementary to the others. While the surface survey and the geophysical survey can provide data about the physical remnants of the site, the geochemical survey provides chemically identifiable data about the site. The geophysical survey shows us the architectural patterns of the past, while the geochemical survey shows us the non-architectural patterns of the past.

A combination of both can show us a more complete picture of the past. We can see what tools the past humans used, what structures they built, what animals they hunted, and what pants they ate by using geophysical surveys and surface surveys. By using the geochemical survey, we can see how much area they cultivated, how they dispose of waste, where they dispose of waste, how concerned they were about hygiene, etc. Therefore, ground surveys are important as they complement other methods.

2. Since humans are land animals, a ground survey is necessary to recover the trail humans left behind.

Ground surveying is important because humans are inland creatures. So, in order to understand the human past, the most compelling place to look is the land. So, as the type of archaeological survey that is conducted inland, ground survey has inherent significance.

The other reasons for ground survey, including all three methods, to be important are: being non-destructive compared to the excavation; being able to uncover the past without damaging the sites and archaeological records; being complementary to archaeological excavations, etc. All of those reasons are discussed in the main article of the archaeological survey.


As a type of archaeological exploration, survey, or reconnaissance, ground survey or ground reconnaissance in archaeology holds undeniable importance. Since a human being is a creature who lives in the inland areas (on the ground), it is obvious that most of the remains or evidence of past human beings lies within the inland areas of the planet Earth. Therefore, as this is the type of survey that directly deals with inland areas, the importance of ground surveys is obvious. Then, when we take the methods of ground survey, such as surface survey and subsurface survey, or surface survey, geophysical survey, and geochemical survey, each of those methods contributes uniquely as well as commonly to the importance of ground survey in archaeology.

In other words, ground surveillance is a way of recognising and revealing archaeological sites without causing destruction or even revealing the past that any other method cannot. Therefore, it is important as much as any other step in the archaeological process.