Rantin' and Rovin'

The What, Why, and How of Archaeological Survey

I’m starting a new segment that I’m hoping will detail some of the things archaeologists do and why we do them.  Well, that and show off some of my pictures from various digs.  The goal is to spread the word on the kind of work we do and what exactly happens at an archaeological site.

If you’re interested: One thing many people don’t realize is that anyone can be an archaeologist.  Anyone can go on a dig, and anyone can find things in the ground.  All you have to do is go online, find out where a dig is happening, and ask them if they take volunteers (most places will).

Back to the archaeological process.  Let’s say we’ve done a lot of research and are an expert in Neolithic Scotland.  That’s impressive, but we still have to find a site before we can start digging.

As archaeologists, we don’t just dig willy nilly; we need to be reasonably certain we’ve found a site (and an important one at that) before we get out the shovels.  The first step is to search through the records to see what work other archaeologists have already found in the area.  If someone has already excavated, then we may be able to use their data instead.  Someone might have already scouted the area for sites and left a record of them.  Doing a record search can save us a lot of time, depending on the area.

If no one has done anything, then the next step is to survey the area ourselves, either on the ground or from above.

View towards Dunning, Scotland from Scores burn, 2010

View towards Dunning, Scotland from Scores burn, 2010


Ground Survey or Walking Survey is done in large groups over a set area.  Usually, archaeologists find or create numerous maps of the area and lay a grid over it.  They then systematically walk each square of the grid (or a subset of the squares).  Individuals walk 10-20 meters apart (depending on the project and area) and use compasses to ensure they stay on a straight path through the grid.

My fellow archaeologists on a survey mission, 2010

My fellow archaeologists on a survey mission, 2010.


Each individual has a number of markers with them, usually colored flags, which they stick in the ground anywhere they feel might be a site.  Once the grid is covered, the group goes back through to each flag and discusses the possibility of it being a site.  They examine it from various angles, look for differences between it and the surrounding landscape, and generally look for anything that seems out of place.

Cattle enclosure at Baadhead, 2010.

Cattle enclosure at Baadhead, 2010.


For example, if you’re walking along a grassy field and you suddenly find the above little bump, you know that that is probably made by humans at some point in the past.  If you’re an expert in Neolithic Scotland, you would know that is evidence of a fence or enclosure for animals.

Below is also an example of a site, as you can see by the outcropping of stones and the angular, flat way the stone has been cut.  The dark patches of grass also indicate potential human activity, as do the patches of shorter grass.

Scores Burn Quarry, 2010.

Scores Burn Quarry, 2010.


It is not uncommon to find archaeological sites, and there are many sites (both famous and not) that weren’t found by archaeologists at all, but by hikers, construction workers, farmers, and deep-sea divers (to name a few).

Once you find a site, you need to take GPS coordinates in order to document the site and to inform others of where it is.  Back in the lab, you then plug the GPS coordinates into a map you’ve created of the area, give the site a name, and register it on an index.  You can check out some of these by going here and scrolling down a bit (thank you, SERF!).

Aerial Survey occurs entirely from the air (as you may have guessed), either through satellite imagery or aerial photography.  There are also new technologies using laser imaging that have proven very useful in certain areas, especially jungles and other areas with lots of cover.

Aerial photography is simply photographs of the area taken form the air, either by balloon, airplane, satellite, or flying camera.  Photographs can either be oblique (taken at an angle) or vertical (taken looking straight down).  Oblique photographs are better for gaining perspective and context of a site, while vertical photographs are better for making maps and plans.  Many aerial photographs are oblique, which most satellite imagery is vertical.  You can see a good example of aerial photography here, using the Flying Scotscam to document excavations at the Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot Project (SERF) in 2010.

Archaeologists might also use satellite imagery, and many archaeologists have used Google Earth or the terrain view of Google Maps to find sites.  All you need to do for a good example is go to Google Maps and type in “Pyramids at Giza”.  You can also type in “Nazca Lines”, “Stonehenge”, or any other sites you might be able to think of.

Once you find a site, you find it’s GPS coordinates, plug those into a map, and register the site on an index.

And there you go, that’s how you go about finding and documenting a site.

*For those interested in participating in an excavation, check out our Field Opportunities page!*


2 thoughts on “The What, Why, and How of Archaeological Survey

  1. Pingback: Archaeology 101: Assessing the Site | Rantin' and Rovin'

  2. Pingback: Can Drones Be Put to Good Use? | Rantin' and Rovin'

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