Excavation and Preservation

Chang-Ho Ji  & Robert D Bates. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Excavation and survey are central topics in archaeology, and they constitute the main if not the only way in which the discipline of archaeology collects new data (Roskams, 2001). Our objectives in this chapter are to explore the development of modern archaeological fieldwork and to project a picture of the discipline’s future. To this end, this chapter is structured in the following manner. First, we review the historical development of archaeological excavation and survey. Subsequently, we explain the organization of typical excavation and survey projects and their activities in the field. Third, we focus on specifying core claims and criticisms pertaining to processual archaeology and its response to the challenges. Fourth, we suggest an integrated paradigm approach to excavation and survey for future fieldwork, incorporating the identified fundamentals and merits of both processual and post-processual archaeology. Finally, we close by discussing central issues on conservation and preservation and developing an agenda for future discussion.

Development of Archaeological Theory and Method

Archaeology has a rather short history as an academic discipline. This also holds true for excavation and survey. During the 17th and 18th centuries, public interest in ancient ruins and history first began to evolve, and the 19th century saw an upsurge in explorations of ancient ruins. However, it was near the end of this century that true scientific excavation methodology was adopted (Renfrew & Bahn, 2008).

Several archaeologists have contributed to the early development of scientific fieldwork. Augustus Pitt-Rivers introduced a scientific, precise recording system into the discipline through his excavation of Cranborne Chase in southern England. He was concerned with not only discovering spectacular treasures, but also recovering “everything,” recording and describing all items, no matter how ordinary they were. One of Pitt-Rivers’s contemporaries was William Petrie, who devised his own method of sequence dating in order to accurately date multiperiod settlements in Egypt and Palestine. The most influential of the early excavation methodologists, however, was Mortimer Wheeler, who brought a strict grid-square system into the archaeological discipline through his famed excavations in England and India. Later, Kathleen Kenyon brought Wheeler’s method to the Middle East and made it the standard tool of modern scientific excavation projects (Joukowsky, 1980). However, in recent years many European excavators have shifted toward the total-excavation techniques of Philip Barker (1996) involving the exposure of large areas of a site and giving careful attention to site drawing and preservation.

About the same time that Wheeler was developing his grid-square system to study Old World history, Alfred Maudslay, Max Uhie, and Alfred Kidder were putting the New World on the archaeological map with their excavations in Peru, Mexico, and the southwest of the United States (Renfrew & Bahn, 2008). In addition, Kidder developed a regional approach to the study of archaeological sites. He recognized the vital link between a particular archaeological site and its surrounding areas, and suggested the employment of reconnaissance methods as a way to create a more detailed regional survey to explore cogent relationships. Several other methodological and theoretical developments also contributed to the birth of scientific field archaeology including underwater archaeology (George Bass), prehistoric archaeology (Gordon Childe), preservation and conservation of cultural heritage, collection and classification of anthropological data (Franz Boas), historical critical archaeology (Martin Hall and Stephen W. Silliman), urban archaeology (Sheppard Frere), ecological archaeology (Julian Steward and Grahame Clark), invention of radiocarbon dating (Willard Libby), and computerized recording systems.

Development is a building process. A discipline grows larger as the radius of significant theoretical and methodological perspectives expands and as the achievements of earlier periods are integrated into those of the next era of development. Likewise, in field archaeology, the 1960s was marked by induction of the “new” archaeology (hereafter processual archaeology) into the discipline under the leadership of Binford (1972) and Clarke (1968). According to O’Brien, Lyman, and Schiffer (2005), any discussion pertaining to modern excavations and surveys must address the issues raised by processual archaeology.

In the past, traditional field archaeology was largely concerned with how to explain the past and how people had lived; processual field archaeology attempted to explain the past based on an explicit theoretical framework, as well as to make valid generalizations based on sampling data. Processual archaeology advocated deductive field reasoning in that researchers began with advancing a hypothesis, collected data to test it, and reflected on whether or not the theory was confirmed by the outcome of the study. In contrast, traditional field archaeology was typical of an inductive approach in that archaeologists became involved in “piecing together the past” based on observation of a limited number of related events or archaeological sites and data. The research methodology of processual field archaeology usually employed quantitative data collection and centered on answering specific research questions, rather than attempting to address general issues with verbal and narrative data.

One important outcome of the processual archaeology movement was the growth of field projects that included well-defined research objectives and sophisticated regional surveys. That is to say that regional surveys had come of age as an important part of archaeological research under the auspices of processual archaeology. Researchers for the first time began to systematically conduct intensive field surveys and selective soundings coupled with sophisticated statistical sampling strategies and improved conservation methods. The influence of the movement was also reflected in the development of world archaeology. A case in point was the field research dealing with the origins of human species and activities, such as Braidwood’s fieldwork in the Middle East for the origins of agriculture and Louis Leakey’s efforts in Africa to understand the early phases of human history.

Applications: Elements of Excavation and Survey

The overall method of excavations used by modern archaeological projects is still closely allied with the original template developed by Wheeler and Kenyon. Even so, the readers must be aware of the fact that there are many variations to this standard and oft-practiced methodology depending on research aims, field conditions, and technical and ideological factors (see Barker, 1996; Roskams, 2001).

Modern excavation teams are composed of a variety of personnel. In general, project directors are responsible for managing an excavation. They develop research goals by studying relevant documents, old maps and drawings, and previous work on the site. Project directors also conduct pre-excavation surveys of the site by examining aerial photographs, studying geophysical surveys, and walking the site. Once the excavation begins, they supervise the excavation in the field, oversee the budget, and guide the publication of the excavation results.

Field supervisors are trained archaeologists who work under the project director. They are responsible for a single area or field of excavation. Their responsibilities are broad and include devising fieldwork strategies for their squares; establishing a coherent stratigraphic picture of the finds from the field; organizing square supervisors and workers into an effective work force; supervising excavations; coordinating balk drawing and field photography; collaborating with the project directors, architects, and other specialists in the field; and keeping the records of the excavation results and findings. They are assisted by square supervisors who excavate and record the singlesquare data and organize the work of volunteers and paid workers in the square. In charge of initial extracting and recording of raw data, the square supervisor’s work is vital to the success of excavation.

The proper scientific methods for conducting an archaeological excavation and recording archaeological data are found in excavation handbooks and field manuals (e.g., Barker, 1996; Blakely & Toombs, 1982; Collis, 2001; Herr & Christopherson, 1998; Joukowsky, 1980; Kipfer, 2007; Roskams, 2001). These field manuals and handbooks allow project directors to choose a recording method that best represents the archaeological goals of the project. Before an excavation can begin, a surveyor must establish the location of each square according to the general grid pattern of the site. Then, supervisors and volunteers prepare the squares prior to the actual excavation by removing debris from the square, setting up a benchmark for taking levels, and reviewing the final records of the previous seasons if a formerly excavated square is reopened. When the excavation does begin, volunteers and workers use a variety of tools such as hand picks, trowels, hoes, dustpans, brushes, ladders, and sieves according to the methodologies outlined in the handbook.

To maintain control within an excavation, archaeologists using the Wheeler method establish balks between squares. A balk is a cross section of the excavated areas within a square. In order for the balks to be useful, they must be trimmed regularly. A hand trowel or pick is used to create a vertical surface that reveals the various soil layers, architectural features, or intrusive elements. Usually, the square supervisor will label the various features in a balk with locus tags. Then the various layer and other features are drawn on a cross-section map called a balk drawing. At the end of the season, these cross sections are photographed to keep a permanent record of their location.

Archaeological discoveries, no matter how small, must be handled with great care in order not to lose any data. Pottery pails must be labeled appropriately in order to process them while avoiding pottery contamination. Pottery sherds need to be washed of soil debris so they can be analyzed. Floral, faunal, and bone samples must be placed in paper bags to prevent the introduction of mold spores. Radiocarbon samples are usually placed in aluminum foil to prevent contamination, while the contents of jars and bowl are processed through flotation to separate soil granuals from seeds or other organic material.

Each discovery—from the smallest grains of sand to the architecture within a square—must be recorded accurately. The basic unit of an excavation is a locus, which represents an area being investigated within a square. Locus numbers are assigned to each area and generally recorded on individual locus sheets; these may represent soil, architectural features, or installations. In order to identify pits, burials, foundation trenches, surfaces, and other features, careful excavation is necessary. When archaeological data are collected correctly, new discoveries can be synthesized into existing historical evidence for the evolution of adequate site history and general sociohistorical theories of the site and its vicinity.

Apart from excavations, another important technique for understanding how an ancient settlement originated and thrived is the regional survey (Banning, 2002). Surveys are used as either ad hoc or pre-excavation preparation activities. Two of the most common survey methods are salvage surveys and reconnaissance surveys. A salvage survey looks for and documents as many ancient sites as possible before they are destroyed by modern and natural events and developments. A reconnaissance survey is usually employed when a field archaeologist intends to locate potential excavation sites or to acquire a broad picture of settlement history in relation to the site under consideration for excavation. Following the birth of processual archaeology, archaeologists extended this line of work to develop more extensive and intensive regional surveys. They now can acquire large-scale perspectives on changes in settlement, occupation, and land use through time.

A survey team is regularly made up of four to eight persons, including a field director, an artist, a photographer, and volunteers, although its size and personnel may vary depending on the survey goal and resources of the project. Ideally, the purpose of a survey strategy is to undertake an intensive survey of all parts of the research area in a systematic manner. For example, from 1996 to 2000, Ji (2007) undertook an intensive systematic survey of the entire area of the Dhiban Plateau in Jordan, an area approximately 250 sq. km. The survey area was divided into about 250 parcels of 1 km × 1 km using a 1:50,000 scale Universal Transverse Mercator map. Each square was then assigned a sequence number. To increase the precision in locating the selected parcels, a Global Positioning System (GPS) device was used and each 1 × 1 sq. km was then surveyed in a systematic way, employing a series of 200 m spaced traverses; that is, each square was divided into five 0.2 × 1.0 km sectors through which the survey team walked or drove systematically. In this way, no part of the area was either under- or overrepresented in the survey. When a survey square contained previously known or conspicuous archaeological ruins, these sites were examined first and then their vicinity explored. At each site, a major effort was given to the collection of pottery sherds and artifacts on the surface. The survey team recorded and took photos of each archaeological feature in the site, while artists made field sketches of the site and any significant features. In addition, off-site features (e.g., rock-cut installations, cisterns, tombs, quarries, terraces, water channels, caves) were located and documented. Surface soil was also collected at some selected sites for geological and landscape studies.

In addition to the survey techniques used on the Dhiban Plateau, the non-site or off-site survey is also used to survey large areas. Thomas (1975) conducted the first non-site survey in the Reese River Valley of central Nevada. Here, Thomas collected artifacts across 140 spatial units (each 500 × 500 m in size), instead of surveying sites, to study how hunter-gatherers dovetailed their economic activities into the environment in the Great Basin area. Similar to Thomas’s study was Foley’s research (1981) in Kenya, where he studied the relationship between an off-site artifact distribution and the formation of central sites in the area. These surveys heralded the advance of landscape archaeology (see subsequent section), an approach that considers the distribution of material remains such as potsherds, fishing holes, stone tools, hunting grounds, seasonal shelters, and pathways as an investigation in their own right, with their own ends (Tilley, 1994).

A more recent example of non-site survey is Christopherson’s random-square survey (Herr & Christopherson, 1998) in the Madaba Plains in Jordan. Here, the surveyor first divided his project area into about 2,000 survey plots, each measuring 200 × 200 m, and then randomly selected 100 out of these squares, roughly 5% of the total area of the region. Christopherson then used a GPS device to locate the random squares. Christopherson’s project shows how Thomas’s and Foley’s early efforts led to the current evolution of a survey method fully grounded in the analysis of spatial units such as random quadrates (see Banning, 2002).

Beyond Processual Archaeology

The concept and movement of processual archaeology grew in popularity in the early 1970s, but soon it came under attack from multiple quarters. Some structuralist scholars argue that ideas and symbolic concepts of past societies are critical in understanding their actions and determining which cultural elements of their civilization survive and thrive (Arnold, 1983; Glassie, 1975). Along with this, some argue that archaeologists should study the structure of ideas in the minds of the ancients who made pottery and artifacts. Recurrent patterns on the material cultures are reflective of human and social thoughts behind the design elements. Hodder and Hutson (2004), on the other hand, viewed all data and knowledge as subjective and thus any attempt to find objective knowledge as illusive (see also Shanks & Tilley, 1987). Here, there is no such thing as objective hypothesis testing. Archaeology, in this perspective, is intrinsically linked with history, and field research needs to be primarily designed for historical inquiries rather than to promote a general sociological and cultural theory for different societies. On the other hand, neo-Marxist archaeologists emphasized the ideology of the elites and their desire to control the society as significant in shaping changes and developments of the society (Leone, 1984). This view emphasized ideology as a powerful force within ancient societies. Accordingly, archaeologists should give relevant attention to the weight of ideology not only in the process of data interpretation, but also at the stages of research design and actual fieldwork.

Processualist archaeologists responded to this wave of criticism by creating a new approach to landscape studies (Roskams, 2001). Formerly, a landscape was nothing more than a physical environment where archaeologists carried out reconnaissance in search of ancient evidence of archaeological sites. It is now perceived as a cultural construct that warrants a careful analysis in relation to an excavation site. The emergence of contextual data collection is also notable, demanding that archaeologists provide detailed, contextualized information in relation to their finds to promote fuller social explanation of the archaeological data.

Postprocessualist challenges, however, were most evident in the area of interpretation and theory evaluation as it ushered in a cognitive-processual approach to archaeological data (Renfrew & Bahn, 2008). This new interpretive framework is different in several ways from the functional approach of conventional processual archaeology. The new processual archaeology now recognizes both ideology and internal conflict as important forces within past societies. Similarly, material culture is defined as having had an integral place within the construction of the early societies, helping later generations understand the cognitive and symbolic aspects of those societies. The new framework also gives increased attention to the historical approach of traditional archaeology, seeking to explain the ideological and socioeconomic evolution of early societies in their context of cyclical change and underlying long-term trends. Cognitive processualist excavators and surveyors continue to reject the extreme relativism of postprocessualist archaeology and Hodder’s critical theory, but acknowledge the linkage between fact and theory as more ambivalent and complex than previously presumed in the 1960s and 1970s.

To Renfrew and Bahn (2008), cognitive processualists currently focus their research agenda in two main directions: (1) inspecting the bearing of symbols in social changes and transformation structure and (2) examining the conventional areas of research interest such as agriculture development and state formation. For example, the work of Flannery and Marcus (1983) in the Oaxaca Valley, Mexico, examined the evidence for religion and social division in addition to traditional issues such as diet, state formation, environment, and technology. Their ethnographic research shows some gender division of work areas in the household. The excavations also yielded evidence for ritual activities at the community and household levels. People were buried according to certain religious beliefs; variations in grave size and quality pointed to the presence of distinctive class division among those who were buried in the valley. The structure of social transformation is another current focus in that some processualists actively incorporate various new concepts such as positive feedback, punctual equilibrium, catastrophe, and self-organizations. The incorporation of these new concepts is designed to generate more effective and complete formal models of social change and cultural transformation. Within these models, human ideas and symbolic elements of human society bear prominent roles.

Future Directions of Archaeological Fieldwork

All archaeological inquisitions ultimately involve a decision to describe something from the past—to ask questions and seek answers about earlier societies, requiring that data of some kind be collected, that the data be analyzed in some way, and that the researchers come to some conclusion or interpretation. However, fieldwork is not necessarily a uniform application of the scientific method. Depending on research paradigm, substantive variances can exist between the types of questions, the form of data collection and analysis, and the meaningful conclusions that field archaeologists can draw with validity.

A question then arises as to how many paradigms currently exist in the discipline of archaeological fieldwork. Renfrew and Bahn (2008) advanced four major models: (1) structuralism, (2) critical theory, (3) neo-Marxism, and (4) cognitive-processual archaeology. Others see at least several methods of carrying out fieldwork including functionalism, Marxism, feminism, phenomenology, evolutionism, historicism, and cultural-historicism (Johnson, 1999; Trigger, 2006).

Most archaeologists, however, would agree on the salience of two broad research paradigms behind archaeological fieldwork: inductive and deductive (Roskams, 2001). The inductive paradigm proceeds from particular facts or empirical data to a general conclusion; the deductive paradigm involves essentially the reverse process—setting a hypothesis and then testing this assumption with data in order to arrive at a conclusion. The 20th century began with the rule of an inductive approach to archaeological fieldwork and ended with the ascendancy of a deductive approach. This change unfolded during the first half of the century but became dramatically embodied with the movement of processual archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s. The development of this phenomenon, however, was not a case of a deductive approach replacing an inductive approach. An inductive approach to fieldwork is still very much prevalent and it has strong support from many quarters of traditional and postprocessual archaeological communities.

Whether archaeological excavations and surveys can be “purely” deductive/processual or “purely” inductive/ traditional/postprocessual, and as such be guided by one of two opposing approaches, remains uncertain, however. For example, archaeologists with a specific research agenda on the development of Iron Age religious rituals may uncover a variety of architectures and artifacts related to periods other than the Iron Age. In this case, the excavators have moral and academic obligations to gather all the data, albeit unrelated to their research focus, in a systematic manner and eventually describe and explain what has happened across all the periods in their field reports. This example illustrates how one field project can consist of deductive/ processual and inductive/traditional components, although in this case the emphasis of the fieldwork may remain weighed toward one end of the continuum if the excavators continue to center their excavation efforts and resources on the collection of Iron Age cultic data.

In addition, archaeologists should be aware of the danger of the domination of one single paradigmatic view. Research projects that grow out of only one specific perspective tend to illustrate some part of the fieldwork while ignoring the rest. Indeed, what would occur if advocates of deductive processual archaeology paid more attention to the broad range of historical issues and questions that traditional field archaeologists have generated for them? And what if inductive historiographic archaeologists spent more time exploring the range of socioeconomic phenomena that processual archaeology has sought to define and test?

The discipline of archaeological fieldwork may need to move beyond inductive/traditional versus deductive/ processual archaeology arguments because both research paradigms are useful and important. In this context, it is encouraging to note that a mixed-paradigm approach to social science has recently gained favor as an alternative to the exclusive reliance on either a deductive or an inductive framework (Creswell, 2003; Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). For archaeology, a case in point is cognitive-processual archaeology, which seeks to incorporate the research questions of traditional and postprocessual archaeologists about ideology, internal conflicts, historical events, and chronology without giving up their positivist views on theory and data. By doing that, cognitive processualists attempt to bridge the schism between traditional and processual archaeology, as well as to eschew the incompatibility distinctions of those who assert fundamental discrepancies between inductive and deductive research.

In the 21st century, however, archaeologists may need to go further by adopting a more integrated paradigm. This approach is more appropriate for field archaeologists whose primary goal is not to search for a simple corroboration of processual, traditional, Marxist, or historiographic archaeology but rather to expand their understanding. In other words, the aim of integrated research is not to supplant either the inductive/traditional or deductive/processual archaeology paradigm, but rather to draw from their strengths and minimize the frailties of single-paradigm field studies. Its logic of inquiry requires the skillful use of both induction and deduction in order to uncover and rely on the best of a set of explanations for understanding one’s results (de Waal, 2001). To this end, excavators and surveyors must collect multiple forms of data using divergent strategies and methods in such a way that historical and socioeconomic questions are both best and most fully answered through different data sets.

In an integrated fieldwork model, researchers first need to decide whether to give the inductive/traditional and deductive/processual archaeology components equal eminence or to give one paradigm the dominant position (see Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004, pp. 19-20). A second dimension to consider is time ordering of the inductive/ traditional and deductive/processual phases within or across research, with the phases operating in a simultaneous or consecutive manner. Another dimension to cogitate is where integration would take place: at the stage of research question, data collection, analysis, or interpretation.

Due to these multiple assorted dimensions, the potential number of manners in which archaeological research can integrate inductive/traditional and deductive/processual methods is immense. For example, a variety of research paradigm models can evolve depending on how inductive/traditional and deductive/processual paradigms are arranged along the research procedure of research objective, data collection, and data analysis. Figure 10.1 presents six integrated designs, which may be called across-research-process-paradigm designs. For another example, once a researcher employs an integrated paradigm approach, he or she should make two principal decisions: whether or not to operate chiefly within one paradigm and whether to blend the two paradigms simultaneously or sequentially. Figure 10.2 illustrates nine of many possible designs that can be constructed based on these decisions. We can easily come up with more creative and more sophisticated fieldwork designs than those illustrated in Figures 10.1 and 10.2. For instance, archaeologists may choose to increase the number of repetitions between deductive and inductive data collection and analysis or formulate a fieldwork design that combines both integrated paradigm design features in Figures 10.1 and 10.2. A key point is that the potential for variation is limitless. A variety of integrated methods, research designs are feasible; excavators and surveyors can be innovative, rather than constrained by one dominant orientation once integrated methods research is employed. In integrated methods research, excavators and surveyors should be able to generate designs that more adequately and efficiently address their research questions than the routine conventional fieldwork where one operates completely within either an inductive/traditional or deductive/processual paradigm orientation.

Excavation and Preservation

Figure 10.1 Integrated Research-Sequence Paradigm Designs Adapted from Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004)

Revolutionizing the archaeological community to ensure that the research designs of all field projects are predominantly integrated-paradigm oriented is an ambitious goal. Yet, the discipline as a whole is apparently transitioning from a strictly hypothetico-deductive method of processual archaeology to a future of an elastic field archaeology that is more inclusive, synthetic, and diverse in scope. For fieldwork paradigms, as stated above, it could mean the integration of inductive/traditional and deductive/ processual excavations and surveys. In regard to field technique, it also could lead to incorporating various new technologies into excavations and field surveys (Roskams, 2001). Many important advances have indeed been made in relation to information technology, ranging from (but by no means limited to) geographical information systems to statistical software programs, geophysical engineering, and aerial and satellite photography. If excavations and surveys are to be truly cutting-edge, then archaeologists must incorporate these techniques and use them for data collection and presentation. There is little doubt that information technology will have a major impact on archaeological fieldwork in the coming decades.

Excavation and Preservation

Figure 10.2 A Factorial Model of Integrated Research Designs With Research Emphasis Decision and Time Order Decision Adapted from Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004).

Finally, there are potential problems that field archaeologists should avoid; each is a trap that relates to the complexity and technical bases of fieldwork itself. First, archaeologists should avert the “a priori purposeful” trap because fieldwork is not a latent activity and because the process of excavation and survey demands that archaeologists let research goals and designs evolve with them. Good field research needs working goals, hypotheses, and designs that are not static. Second, excavators and surveyors should be careful not to engage in the “evaluative” trap by interfering with the normative dispute over the inductive/ traditional and deductive/processual paradigms and because both processual archaeology and postprocessual archaeology are consequences of rather similar vigorous scientific processes. The archaeological fieldwork paradigm is, therefore, “both” or “relative” rather than “good” or “bad.” Finally, field archaeologists should avoid the “verification” trap. The goal of archaeology is not merely to “interpret the past but to change the manner in which the past is interpreted in service of social reconstruction in the present” (Shanks & Tilley, 1987, p. 195). It is fundamentally “a political practice” under the influence of dominant political and ideological forces (Palus, Leone, & Cochran, 2006, p. 86). Archaeologists must be aware of the political conditions and the wider ideological battle over power and their influence on archaeological scholarship. Scientific fieldwork may yield knowledge about the nature of an ancient community, but it cannot comment on what are “true or false” political, ideological, or religious claims.


Once an integrated model has been selected and the artifacts have been excavated, archaeologists face the problem of how to prevent the artifacts from further deterioration while they are being studied. When artifacts are in situ, they chemically interact with the environment around them. In dryer climates like Egypt and Chile, some artifacts are less likely to be affected by their surroundings. In moist climates like northern England or the Amazon, deterioration can accelerate through contact with bacteria, insects, animals, salts, or minerals, depending on the type of artifacts. Even the most stable artifacts, such as highly fired ceramics or stone bowls, can develop stains and calcification that make them difficult to analyze. Once artifacts are removed from their in situ environment, they begin to interact with their new environment in ways that may be harmful to the artifacts. Removing some types of artifacts, then, can cause permanent damage (Cornyn, 1990).

Artifact conservation is a relatively new phenomenon; its basic purpose is to stabilize artifacts without a negative effect on the archaeological evidence (Banning, 2000, p. 126; Pye, 2001, pp. 9-10). Some archaeologists use an aggressive approach that attempts to remove all corrosion, especially from metal or glass objects that might continue to deteriorate with oxidation. Unfortunately, this approach may render the artifacts useless for certain types of archaeological analyses such as noninvasive spectrography, archaeometry, metallurgic testing, or UV and ultraviolet examination. It may also prevent the application of future technologies for the study of the artifact. Therefore, most archaeologists prefer a less invasive approach that interferes as little as possible with the archaeological evidence preserved on the artifact. Archaeologists should always attempt to create an environment that will not accelerate deterioration.

There are several principles that should be considered when dealing with artifacts. First, wherever possible, archaeologists should consult a conservator throughout the process of conservation. Conservators are professionals who are trained in the art of preserving artifacts and can help create guidelines for their collection, handling, cleaning, repair, and storage. Many specialize in specific material such as bronze, glass, or textiles and should be consulted before entertaining the use of any invasive conservation methods on these materials. Second, most artifacts are fragile; before beginning conservation a plan should be outlined identifying any problems with the artifacts, the objectives for dealing with those problems, the types of conservation techniques that are available, and any risks to the artifacts. It may be that some artifacts have more immediate needs and will benefit from conservation, while others may not need immediate attention or may not benefit at all from conservation (Banning, 2000, pp. 126-127).

Third, all conservation projects should include accurate and well-maintained records. A system for assessing and recording information about each artifact and exactly what conservation methods will be used should be in place prior to conservation. Labels should be securely attached, reliable, and stable. A database or other computer program can be used to record artifacts’ information and should be backed up regularly to ensure long-term preservation. Fourth, any conservation project should be a collaborative effort. Archaeologists, curators, and other specialists may have very different criteria for determining if an artifact should receive special conservation methods. An archaeologist might treat an object because it contributes to an understanding of the stratigraphic sequence within an excavation, a curator might see an artifact for its value as a display piece, and a specialist might need to preserve organic residue for further testing. All interested parties should work together to stabilize an artifact without negatively impacting its archaeological contribution (Pye, 2001, pp. 34-35).

While protecting artifacts from further decay is an important consideration, there may be ethical issues to consider before undertaking a conservation project. Most excavated artifacts belong to the host country. Although archaeologists may take them from that country to be studied outside of the region, they are expected to return the artifacts in a timely manner as specified in the permit. Even artifacts excavated by nationals may be claimed by indigenous peoples if they were found on native lands or have ritual significance. Such groups may have a stake in whether or not a conservation project is undertaken, and archaeologists and curators may need to consider whether conservation is worth the expense if in the end the artifact is returned to the host community. In any event, culturally sensitive artifacts and human remains need to be treated with respect. It is no longer acceptable to display burial artifacts or the bones of someone’s ancestors without permission from or consideration of the interests of indigenous peoples. Wherever possible, excavated sacred remains need to be repatriated—museums and universities with bone collections likely collected in the 19th century should create appropriate protocols for the return of these artifacts to their respective cultures. Archaeologists should always seek to respect the laws of the host countries as outlined in the permits and any international laws and conventions that may apply.


Where conservation seeks to stabilize artifacts, archaeological preservation attempts to maintain artifacts in that state indefinitely. Until recently, archaeological preservation was the responsibility of museum curators and specialists. In the past, archaeologists were only interested in what data artifacts could contribute to their understanding of a culture or a civilization. For archaeologists, conservation served the purpose of maintaining an artifact in a state that would allow it to be studied in depth for as long as was necessary. Once the scientific research was completed, artifacts were put into the care of museum curators and archaeologists were no longer involved. Likewise, archaeological sites were turned over to cultural resource managers, indigenous populations, or antiquities authorities to decide whether resources should be allocated for long-term preservation. In recent years, archaeologists have begun to see the value of preserving artifacts not only for their own research or that of future scholars, but also for the contribution to informing and educating the general public (Pearce, 1990, pp. 1-3).

Several factors have contributed to the need for archaeologists to preserve not only artifacts, but also the sites from which they were excavated. Recent destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq and the vandalism of the Iraqi National Museum have served as a wake-up call to those who have a vested interest in archaeological preservation (Emberling & Hanson, 2008). Widespread looting throughout the world has emphasized how fragile archaeological and cultural heritage sites are becoming. With little protection from local authorities, many ancient sites are seriously threatened. Even archaeological sites currently being excavated are at risk of vandalism, forcing archaeologists to re-evaluate their preservation strategies.

Although archaeological and cultural heritage sites are increasingly threatened, archaeology as a discipline has gained widespread popularity. Movies and documentaries have glamorized the role of the archaeologist, and some archaeologists have become pseudo-celebrities, appearing in numerous television shows and documentaries. Television channels such as Discovery, National Geographic, the History Channel, and others have inspired many people to take an interest in archaeology. Many shows have highlighted the threats that historical sites face and brought the need for action into to the public conscience. In addition, historical tourism has also risen in popularity. For more than a century, visitors have flocked to exotic sites such as the Giza Plateau in Egypt, the Acropolis in Athens, and the ancient city of Machu Picchu in Peru. Most of these sites are well guarded and well preserved to prevent looting or destruction from overuse. However, smaller sites (especially those en route to larger sites) are also attracting visitors and becoming tourist destinations. These sites are frequently unguarded and do not have the resources for long-term preservation. Archaeologists and cultural resource managers have found that attracting visitors to an archaeological site, even a small one, can help reduce looting and vandalism. Unfortunately, most small sites do not have the budget for the long-term preservation needed to prepare them for the general public. In order to preserve a historical site, archaeologists must engage the local community in the process. When local communities are involved in the management of a cultural resource, they often recognize the financial value that tourism brings and frequently take pride in hosting an archaeological site in their community (Hodder, 2004, pp. 164-166).


The future of archaeology is intimately related to the cultural heritage sites that archaeologists investigate and that now hang in the balance. On one hand, American audiences continue to be fascinated by what archaeologists do and what they discover. Although the media has portrayed archaeology in a sensationalist manner, it has provided a medium for archaeologists to correct misunderstanding, introduce new discoveries, and inspire a new generation of archaeologists. However, it has also come at a price. The added attention has not gone unnoticed by desperate communities who see cultural remains as a potential resource. In the face of poverty, many communities near cultural heritage sites have turned to looting as a way to survive. Little is being done to combat the destruction of archaeological sites throughout the world, and the appetite for looted antiquities has not abated. One can hardly blame these individuals and communities for taking advantage of this resource. Unfortunately, this destruction is so severe that some sites may never be excavated scientifically again. Indeed, the future and sustainability of any site lies in developing strategies that engage the local communities in the archaeological process. Local communities must become involved in all aspects of the archaeological process—from its planning and excavation to its management and security. These communities need to be encouraged to take ownership and pride in their cultural heritage and its archaeological sites. Only then will archaeology have a future.