What is archaeology about and what’s its purpose?

Archaeology is about people, not dinosaurs as people often think (that’s called Paleontology)! We look for clues about past lives and the things that surrounded people in their everyday lives and ‘special’ activities. This can range from simply looking at what people ate, to what they ate off as well as making educated guesses about tantalizing questions regarding ‘ritual’ activities (think Stonehenge!).

Kits Koty, Kent

Kits Koty, Kent

Do you require special permission to carry out your work?

Yes. The County Archaeology Team, based at County Hall, oversees all activities, from local archaeology groups to metal detectorists and developers. They have defined special areas of archaeological interest that are available online on maps called ‘Archaeological Notification Areas’. If development is planned within one of these special zones, they are notified and an archaeologist is usually required to monitor the development to record any features or interesting finds which may be unearthed as a result of the development. If they consider the development needs monitoring, they will request a planning condition to be placed on any permitted projects which request archaeological monitoring. Development cannot usually take place until a commercial archaeologist is formerly appointed, who will then produce a method statement for the work which has to be approved by the planning team and County Archaeology Team.

Does work on listed buildings often require an archaeologist?

Not always but more often than not. Once again, the County Archaeology Team and/or local authority Conservation Officer will be consulted on the need for an archaeological record to be made of any historic buildings prior to development work beginning. It depends on the level of work being undertaken, the age and significance of the building and whether it lies in a Conservation Area. Other factors might also come into play, such as the potential for below-ground features to be exposed, such as earlier buildings or demolished historic extension etc. Historic buildings are usually considered to be of interest for any structure that pre-dates 1948. If a robust Heritage Statement has been produced at the pre-application stage, it may negate the need for a full historic building survey.

What happens to items found on an archaeological dig?

These belong to the owner and are usually returned unless they are not wanted or if the museum requests retention for the archive. This can be achieved only with the owner’s permission and if significant items are found, a fee may be negotiated but often we find that owners are proud to have their objects on display at the local museum for everyone to enjoy. The other alternative is to offer the item for long-term loan. If the items are not wanted, any interesting artifacts will be used in educational collections for teaching but may be disposed of if of no significant age or use.

How can items be preserved?

Preservation can be very costly so an artifact has to be fairly significant to be conserved. Usually, ceramic, stone, glass does not need special attention, but metal objects will need careful cleaning and preservation by a trained conservator. Organic items such as wood, textiles, and leather can take years to conserve, with the organic compounds replaced over time with inorganic compounds that are not impacted by oxygen or moisture. Initially, waterlogged organic artifacts will need to be kept submerged in water to preserve the anaerobic conditions to prevent oxygen from rotting the objects.

What sort of items are found well-preserved and others not?

Ceramic artifacts such as bowls, plates, building materials are often found very well preserved, along with stone objects such as floor mosaics and prehistoric flint tools. Anything that has usually been subjected to high heat (stone) or fired in a kiln is well preserved.

How can you establish the date of an item?

Dating of organic deposits can be done by Radiocarbon testing by laboratories; dendrochronology can be used to date wooden items by counting back the tree rings and other methods can be used to date heating episodes, such as firepits etc. Soils can even be dated by thermoluminescence dating. However, these are very costly and by far the cheapest way to date an object is by association with other known examples. Case studies and familiarity with other sites across counties and other countries have led to significant databases of knowledge. For example, if a skeleton has been C14 dated by analysing the bones, any grave goods with it are usually contemporary. Those artifacts can then be compared with other examples elsewhere without having to necessarily have a body to date. The results of most significant excavations are published, with artifact types illustrated and dated. This is called ‘Typology’ and is commonly used for reference to compare artifacts of similar types recovered by excavation.

Article and photos kindly supplied by Archaeology Services Lewes

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