From the first-hand experience of the archaeologists, they agree that many people only regard archaeology a process of digging the dirt. But “real archaeology” is more than excavation, according to the archaeologists.
So the story goes when an archaeologists talking with a stranger about his job “I am working as an archaeologist”. Then “what is the best thing you’ve excavated?” asked the stranger.
And then he enthusiastically told about the fantastic ink that he happened to find in the library books or the old work site that he came across in a bush. And their eyes glazed over.
What they wanted to hear is about the skeletons, shiny jewelry, or the remains of a ship. These are the common things we might catch sight on the media misleading us that archaeology is about excavation of great things.
No one can deny that spade is important in archaeology. But the archaeologists also have to utilize many ways to get in touch with what happened in the past.
In a hole in the ground there exists something worth preserving
Indeed, a tidy hole in the ground is worth no attention from the public. People often want to observe the result after the excavation. However, what they are yet to know is that excavation is the last resort. It means when there is nothing more the archaeologists can do to learn about the site, they excavate.
In the site of research, the archaeologists are likely to carry out the excavation with no or less level of streams of evidence.
If the excavation is not taken into consideration carefully, the whole project will be doomed. This means they might disturb the site re-positioning the artifacts. Accordingly, many archaeologists prefer the availability of the archives and the remaining landscapes rather than the process where spade meets dirt.
Burden of work before digging
If the excavation were a tip of an iceberg, the amount of work before the dig would be the rest of the iceberg. Indeed, the archaeologists have to take up a huge amount of work, for example studying the site or collecting and researching the materials.
The archaeology of Australia’s convict system (1788-1868) is a golden example for this. Historical archaeologists had to study a vast amount of documentary materials prior to any archaeological evidence start.
In Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office, official correspondence records in the investigated period cover up to a 35-meter book shelf. The information of the convict past was written down in these materials. From them, the archaeologists asked and answered how the life of the convict was or how they interacted with each other.
And with the hi-tech LIDAR, the archaeologists managed to scan and learn the geographical evidence without completely digging it up. LIDAR helped to map a large area with very detail. The aid of LIDAR also helped the Scandinavian archaeologists to map the Viking Fort Ring without digging the site up.
Overall, the process of archaeology is not merely to dig up the whole ground to find what remained under the land. The real archaeology demands a huge amount of work before the spade meets the dirt. And for the archaeologists, they would prefer to leave the landscape the way they used to be. Excavation is the last resort in archaeology.