How do you excavate an archaeological site?

Published: Wednesday 30th August 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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We’ve teamed up with Hull Museums to discover how to excavate archaeological objects without damaging the surrounding site.

When you dig up an area to gather interesting artefacts, you’re effectively destroying the site. Sure, archaeological finds are a key way that we learn about our past, but it’s also important to preserve the landscapes they are found in. This is so that we can discover more about the objects and place them in context.

It’s vital that archaeologists record data and features of each layer of the site, because as soon as they move onto the next section, the previous layer will be destroyed.

Analysing the soil in which objects are found can give us so much information. For example, if something was made from wood or an organic material, it will decompose and leave remnants behind.

Skilled experts can identify these changes in the soil, and this tells us even more about how people lived and what tools they used. It could be down to a different texture or even colour of the terrain. Meanwhile, if a wall was made from stone, it will become part of the landscape.

Nowadays, we can record all of this information by drawing up a scale site plan. This means that future researchers can study the map, interpret it in their own way and add to the existing knowledge. As technology advances and new discoveries are made, we can create a clearer picture of our past as humans.

One of Hull Museums’ main benefactors, John Mortimer, mainly drew up maps and recorded any evidence he found by hand. This was most likely because photography in the Victorian era was in its infancy and cameras were cumbersome and expensive.

Another intriguing method Mortimer used was plaster of Paris. He poured it into the ground and let it set, which then preserved the original shapes. This worked well for postholes, which map out houses and structures. Any information about how people used to build can give us a greater insight into how they constructed their buildings and ultimately how they lived, worked and played.

Discovering these Victorian archaeological methods also gives modern day museums some knowledge on how our likeminded predecessors worked to preserve the past. Looking back on how we used to do things can offer inspiration as well as serve as a cautionary tale.

Mortimer was a very influential figure and made a significant impact on what we see on display today. His life, work and legacy can be explored through the Mortimer 100 project at Hull Museums.

You can view several archaeological finds at the Hull and East Riding Museum. It’s open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 11am-4:30pm. 

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Published: Wednesday 30th August 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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