Widecombe History Group Talk on Field Archaeology


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Lynn Walmsley introduced her talk by explaining the various points that need exploring when looking at Field Archaeology. Local history and knowledge is often a good starting place. Researching documents and maps relevant to the area is the first step towards any archaeological exploration. Geophysics, field walking, documents, building records, maps, site viewing from the ground and from the air, can all produce valuable information, and with environmental and experimental archaeology, all these branches are interdependent upon each other and must be viewed in conjunction with each other to get as full a picture as possible in preparing a project. All these need careful study long before any idea of excavation is carried out or even thought of! It is not only the site of interest but the whole surrounding area that needs examining, the site is only part of the whole study area. Documents for instance at The Devon Record Office, where so much information is stored is a very good place to start. Sometimes maps and even plans can be unearthed and they can produce valuable details. A plan is like looking down from above at the layout of the field or building, where a section is a diagram of a cutting through the site or building. Excavation these days is often the last resort, as excavation often means destruction. Once a site has been excavated everything there will be disturbed, removed from its original position and the proximity of one thing to another will be altered. This is why when excavation takes place it has to be done slowly and meticulously with a small trowel and a toothbrush and not a mechanical digger. That way every minute grain, stone, coin or artifact is registered on a strictly scaled drawing to pinpoint the exact place it was found and its position in relation to every other thing unearthed, accurately mapped. Even when recorded correctly, neither the site or individual finds can ever be returned to its original place or condition, accurate and measured drawing is therefore the number one consideration and priority once excavation commences. Photographs and drawings of the site before any work is started are vital and plans need constant drawing and redrawing as the project continues, and when any digging is done drawings and photographs of the section, (the layers of soil or material being dug through), must be meticulously recorded. In 1984 when we experienced a very dry summer over 500 fresh sites of archaeological interest were discovered by crop marks that showed up particularly from the air. All this is known as ‘non destructive archaeology’. Field walking, when careful observation of undulations in the field can be noted is an important step. In winter when there is a fine dusting of snow these undulations can become quite obvious. The variations in the development of crops, (the length or height of crops can define areas of different depths of soil and/or the presence of stones or bedrock), all these are used as pinpointers by archaeologists. When a field has been cultivated or ploughed a different type of field walking takes place, observing the stones or artifacts that are on the surface. The presence can often be found of broken clay pipes that were used for drainage, as well as a different type of clay pipe used for smoking tobacco, pieces of implements, from modern day plough shares to ancient flint knives, scrappers, and arrow-heads, and sometimes a large quantity of small flint flakes, where perhaps thousands of years ago someone sat knapping at a flint core to make tools and maybe a core itself. All this would have been brought to the surface by cultivation which has taken place over many hundreds of years. Any stone that seems to be unusual to the area where it is found may have a geological as well as archaeological interest. Why is it there, from where has it come? All these finds need noting, not just the field in which they where found but their position in that field. When excavation does take place it should be on as small a scale as possible to avoid unnecessary damage. An expensive type of examination can be made by geophysics or the use of a magnetometer, these can be hired or rented and can produce a computer print out, however these methods need expert operation and interpretation. The basis of any archaeological exploration means the building up of a folio, with as much information as one can gather, long before the commencement of an actual dig, even if it is intended to be a very small exploratory dig. Some pieces of pottery when found can be studied to define the shape and size of the original pot or container and also the period from which it came. There is another means of sampling the site and that is by using a borer. The correct type of borer is essential as the sample drawn up from such an exercise needs to be carefully laid out as a solid core and measurements to taken to defierial are removed or cut through, the details of the strata are exposed, the recording process must continue unabated, and there are times when notes from past archaeologists and explorers who have been at the site before, sometimes a hundred years or more ago, need consulting, their findings help in the research even if their early excavations have destroyed some evidence that could have been of use to the research being carried out today. This emphasises the importance of making strict notes of progress and finds discovered and restricting the damage done today so as to conserve as much as possible for future research when perhaps the scientific equipment available will be superior to what we have now at our disposal.

A survey carried our by theodolites and measuring, is ideal and comparatively inexpensive, where modern technology can be very expensive.

Sometimes industrial work can inadvertently produce a mass of discoveries and things of interest. Trench digging by the service industries, water, electricity and telephone communication companies for example. Most firms immediately call in an archaeologists when they see anything unusual when pipe or cable laying.

Just looking at the landscape can reveal interesting historical evidence, strip fields systems for example. Aerial photographs show crop marks and their relevant position to other sites of interest. Stone walls under the soil can show up in dry periods because the crop growth is more stunted. Where trenches have filled in over the years the depth of soil tends to be deeper and therefore has more moisture and the vegetation is stronger. Soil marks where hedges have been removed or where recent disturbance such as pipe laying has taken place can also be noted from the air.

Some aerial photographs help in determining the extent of early boundaries of villages and communities. Archaeology is also part of recording comparatively modern buildings and structures, basically anything from our past is of archaeological interest, it is not always ruins, it can include old buildings of interest that are still being used or even lived in at present. Renovation of old properties can also involve archaeology in the sense that a before and after photograph and plan should be recorded for posterity. Just sampling any area can produce interesting information such as seeds and pollen that has been deposited hundreds of years ago, even under lakes and ditches. Anything organic can be dated now by ‘radio carbon dating’, and from this, the type of food that was consumed can be researched. Soil samples can also produce evidence of climate and the environment at various periods of our history.

Archaeological excavation and investigation must work hand in hand, so as to retrieve as much information as possible with the minimum of disturbance and destruction.

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