Archaeology 101: Survey

Rounding of the last Archaeology 101 of the season is the often overlooked archaeological practice of survey. This is an area that has come to the fore in recent years. Often been preferred to excavation, as it is less destructive and a quicker way of attaining the information required.

Survey can explore many areas of archaeological interest, such as standing buildings and landscape topography.  We can also use geophysical survey to try to discover features under the ground without having to dig them. Geophysics uses instruments to measure things like resistance in the ground and its magnetic property in order to build pictures of potential human activity. This can speed up the process of excavation as archaeologists can target areas with much more precision. It can even work as a substitute where the information is very clear or time and money is limited. At Bamburgh we used geophysical survey to explore the inner ward and the inside of the chapel.

Resistivity survey underway. This is not a Bamburgh shot for reference. I had to filch it from one of my own projects.

We also use survey everyday to record the surface of the trench, as new features are uncovered and excavated. Every time we draw a plan or section we make a record of the surface level using an instrument called a dumpy level. This instrument provides us with a level height which we can measure against a known point on the site called a TBM. There is a bit of maths involved but once this has been worked out we have comparative levels for all our features on site. This practice adds a 3D element to our recording.

One of the previous Trench 3 supervisors, Toad Roberts, teaching levelling to students

We also use a total station to log all our small finds. This instrument provides three bits of information at once: the easting and northing co-ordinates so we can locate them on the ground and the height (just like the dumpy level). This same information can be achieved by using a dumpy level to take the heights, and laying measuring tapes out to gain the co-ordinates but this is a much more lengthily process and less accurate. All the information we gain from small finds is later added to the digitized plans so we can build a 3D image of their location. As you can imagine this is lengthily process on a site like Bamburgh Castle where small finds come thick and fast. You can also use the total station to draw large areas such as plans of sites etc.

Small finds being recorded using a total station 

Director, Graeme Young, recording the castle using a total station

With the processes discussed in the Archaeology 101 thread archaeologists are able to build up a record of any site. This record can be preserved for posterity and understood by any who choose to research the archaeology. Without the recording process and the preservation and documenting of the finds retrieved, archaeology becomes nothing more than old fashioned treasure hunting. Here at Bamburgh we are providing an archaeological record that can be used by anyone and recording our own actions and thoughts through the video archive compiled every year by the media department, in the hope that future generations will benefit from our work.


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