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Digging Up Old Dirt and Bones

Aug 17, 2007
Excavation is the best-known and most commonly used technique within the science of archaeology. In it's simplest form it is the excavation and recording of archaeological remains on a given site. This is when scientists and archeologists go out to an area and dig around, hoping to find things of historical meaning and influence. Individual excavations are sometimes referred to as "digs" by those who participate, this being an over-literal description of the process. An excavation concerns itself with a specific archaeological site or connected series of sites, and may be carried on over a number of years.

In this article, we are going to go over the basics of an excavation and dig site: What kind of excavation takes place, how it is recorded, and common mistakes that can occur during the excavation experience.

There are two basic types of modern archaeological excavation:

* Research excavation - when time and resources are available to excavate the site fully and at a leisurely pace. These are now almost exclusively the preserve of academics or private societies who can muster enough volunteer labour and funds. The size of the excavation can also be decided by the director as it goes on.

* Development-led excavation - undertaken by professional archaeologists when the site is threatened by building development. Normally funded by the developer meaning that time is more of a factor as well as it being focused only on areas to be affected by building. The workforce is generally more skilled however and pre-development excavations also provide a comprehensive record of the areas investigated. Rescue archaeology is sometimes thought of as a separate type of excavation but in practice tends to be a similar form of development-led practice. Various new forms of excavation terminology have appeared in recent years. Some of these new forms have been criticized within the profession as jargon created to cover up for falling standards of practice.

There is also one other form of excavation, known as 'rescue excavation.' Rescue archaeology is often times referred to as preventive or salvage archeology. It is archaeological survey and excavation carried out in areas threatened by construction or other development. Examples would be in the building of a dam to flood an area that might be of interest to archeologists or even before the beginning of a war, when the ground and earth would be destroyed by bombs and thousands of people. Traditionally, archeology and excavations take months, if not years to complete. Rescue archeology, however, must be completed at an amazing rates of speed.

Rescue archeology may also include preservation of any finds, or protective measures taken to preserve an un-excavated site beneath a building. Urban areas with many overlaid years of habitation are often candidates for rescue archeology.

Rescue archeology does not take place in every country. In fact, it is largely restricted to North and South America, and the United Kingdom. Many other European countries practice no rescue archeology. The Middle East does have many projects that are termed 'salvage' archeology, because they are picking up the pieces after something, like war, has occurred, instead of trying to handle it before hand.
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