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What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is basically the excavation and study of the material remains of human activity in the past. From this it is then possible to find out how people lived. What they did in their daily lives and how societies worked. Archaeological evidence is what is known as primary evidence, which can be found above ground eg: standing buildings; below ground eg: dug sites; and underwater eg: shipwrecks. Secondary evidence is essentially documents, the distinction being that the documents may contain bias as they are not raw evidence but have been effectively filtered through the writer. The two areas can overlap, for example in the case of Roman inscriptions on triumphal arches, dedications and grave stones, as well as Egyptian hieroglyphs on monuments.

Roman Archaeology

There are many types of archaeology, all of them use the same methodological and practical approaches, but the different types often have a specific focus of attention. In the case of Roman Archaeology, this has been seen as part of a wider Classical Archaeology. Roman Archaeology, in its simplest form, is the study of archaeological remains of the Roman period, wherever they may be encountered. There are several reasons why it can be seen as a different type of archaeology:-

  • It is the first era when there is a truly global aspect to an empire and the scale of its influence across politics, culture and economics is vast.
  • There is a vast wealth of accompanying documentation, including public and private works.
  • The Western civilization is almost entirely a product of the centuries of Roman activity.
  • Development of Archaeology

    The archaeology of the 17th and 18th centuries does not resemble what modern day archaeology is. An interest in evidence for the past began when large numbers of people began travelling abroad on what was known as the Grand Tour to places such as Athens in Greece and Rome in Italy. People dug up artefacts but gave no thought to what they meant, the artefacts often ended up in museums, the Elgin Marbles are an example of this.

    In the 19th century the way the past was seen began to change. General Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) was a military man with an enthusiastic interest in the past. He was one of the earliest people to carry out systematic excavations and recorded what he found. Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) began understanding that changes in artifacts were visible over time and also represented different cultures. The development of archaeological skills and methods continued through people like Sir Mortimer Wheeler and todays methods are very rigorous and can provide more detailed information, through the larger number of techniques available. In this way a more balanced view of the past can be built up. Time Team show us archaeology on the television and they use the same techniques that we do, but often our work takes much longer than '3 days' !

    Protection for Archaeology - Why We Dig

    In 1990, in UK, the then Department of the Environment introduced Planning Policy Guidance Note 16. This concerns all archaeological sites and monuments. PPG16 aims to ensure the protection, preservation and conservation of the archaeological heritage. As a result of this, areas 'where there is known or possible archaeology' now have to be checked and if remains are found then depending on their importance they are either left in situ or, in many cases, excavated.

    Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAMs) are another form of protecting sites. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, dates to 1979 includes over 31 400 sites in over 200 types of monument. If a site is or becomes scheduled then it is illegal to damage the site either by carrying out maintenance without permission or deliberately. It is also illegal to use a metal detector on such sites. Scheduled Ancient Monuments are administered by English Heritage (EH) and are specific to Britain.

    Archaeology may also be reflected by a site or area being a World Heritage Site. The World Heritage Convention, adopted by UNESCO decided to designate outstanding sites as World Heritage Sites in 1972. In Britain in 2003 there were 21 sites in Britain and include the Historic City of Durham; Tower of London; Liverpool's Historic Docks and Stonehenge.

    The county or city archaeologists look at the proposals for new buildings and determine if there is likely to be any remains that will be present. They then tell the developers if archaeology must be done and then we are called in to do the actual work.

    We can find ourselves digging anywhere from:- remote hill sides, fields, villages, town centers, to inside buildings; from 10cm down to 5m down, in good weather or bad.

    Do Archaeologists Just Dig?

    No. Often before any excavation takes place we have been to a record office to look at original documents such as maps to see what was there before. If we find something significant then sometimes a site is left alone. There are also techniques such as geophysics which allow us to gain information about what may lie below the ground level and help us see walls and ditches.

    We also make records of standing buildings either before they are knocked down or as part of a restoration project. We can be asked to record and interpret a complete landscape with no excavation required.

    What Happens on an Excavation?

    Digging a site means the removal of layers of soil and the digging of features, such as walls, pits or ditches. We are trying to find out what was there, the type of people who lived on or used the site and when the activities were taking place in the past.

    The layers and features are given CONTEXT numbers which represent an event in the past; for example the original digging of the pit, perhaps for rubbish. We always start at the top of a site which is the most modern and work our way down. That way we can see back through time.

    We use all sorts of tools on a site including big mechanical diggers to remove heavy modern debris, or take off turf. Then we often use shovels and picks with flat edges (known as mattocks) and at the end of this we then use trowels to carefully clean what we have revealed. The soil is taken away in either buckets or wheelbarrows.

    Recording the Results

    Archaeologists have to make a record of what we find and what we think went on at the site because by digging the site we are destroying the remains.

    In this way the results are preserved for the future, even though the actual site may now be under a road or building.

    Drawing : we draw the site, to scale, on plans which are then horizontal representations of the site. By drawing it to scale it means that the results are accurate and can be re-created. As technology is advancing we now record both manually on special waterproof paper and when necessary using an Electronic Distance Measurer (EDM) which displays the information on a computer. Drawing manually means using tape measures and planning frames to do the work to scale. We also so draw sections through the site which show us vertical slices so we can see back through time.

    Photography : all work is photographed, again for future reference and to show other people what we found. We use three different types of camera;- black and white, colour slide and digital. Each have a different advantage. In all photographs we place stripped poles. These are actually scale poles with the colours being either 0.2m, 0.5m or 1m divisions. This helps when looking at the photographs to tell how big the remains were. After the excavation work is done we may also take photographs of individual objects for display and to make the record complete.

    Written : the CONTEXTS identified on the site need to be explained. So all archaeologists use special sheets which help describe the contexts and explain why we think it is what it is.

    For example if an archaeologist sees a circular feature in the ground it could be anything. Once it has been dug out they may find that the type of finds coming out and the shape and the location on site show it to be a rubbish pit. On the sheet the dimensions will be given, what was found in the feature will be logged, the type of soil it contained, the shape and the fact that the pit was located away from a building, far enough away for rubbish to not smell !

    If a wall had been found then the information on the sheet would obviously be very different.

    While we dig we collect all the artefacts and make plans and take photographs of everything we find to ensure that everyone after us can see what was there.


    When we try and date activities we do so in two main ways:-

  • Relative date : ie; is something earlier or later than something else. Usually the earliest remains are at the bottom of the site with later ones covering them.
  • Absolute date : an actual date in years can be given to features or objects. This means we can tell whether it dates to AD 1850 (150 years ago) or 50 BC, over 2000 years ago. This can be achieved through coinage and dendrochronology (tree rings) for example.

    Dating is usually expressed in the Western world as BC, Before Christ or AD, Anno Domini (Latin for 'in the year of our lord'). However there are other terms used such as BP, meaning Before Present and widely used for dates in the extreme past.


    The periods as defined below are those generally accepted in British Archaeology, and it must be noted that in other regions across the world terminology and dates can never be an exact parallel.

    Period Date Range

    Lower Palaeolithic

    700,000 - 200,000 BP

    Middle Palaeolithic

    200,000-40,000 BP

    Upper Palaeolithic

    40,000 - 10,000 BC


    10,000 - 3,500 BC


    3,500 - 2,000 BC

    Bronze Age

    2,000 - 700 BC

    Iron Age

    700 BC - AD 43



    AD 43 - AD 410

    Early Medieval (Saxons, Vikings)

    AD 410 - AD 1066


    AD 1066 - AD 1540

    Early Post-Medieval

    AD 1540 - AD 1700

    Post-Medieval (agricultural, industrial revolutions)



    AD 1900-present

    Every person has some impact on the material record around them and essentially you are in the process of making history and archaeology now !
  • What do Archaeologists find?


    As Archaeologists we try and work out how things were left behind. Objects can be:-

  • thrown away as rubbish
  • lost or forgotten
  • left behind when people move on
  • buried under debris or demolition
  • deliberately placed

  • What do the finds tell us?

    Pottery 'this is our most essential way of dating a site and seeing changes over time. Pottery is very distinct from different time periods. It can also vary depending on location which means that we can see if people are moving or trading. It also tells us whether people were wealthy or not by the quality of the pots. It can give us an idea of how many people from the amount we find and how long they lived there from the date range, the span of time between the earliest piece and the latest piece. Of course it also informs us about what people were doing;- cooking food; eating and drinking; storing goods; making the pottery itself and so on.

    Clay pipes are also made of pottery and these are effectively cigarette ends of the past. They are very easily datable as the sizes, shapes, and styles change quickly over time. Earlier ones are generally smaller as tobacco was initially expensive to bring over from the Americas. As larger amounts were brought the pipes got bigger.

    Building materials : tiles and bricks are also made of pottery / ceramics. These are a very common building material used to build houses, factories, furnaces, shops, warehouses, underground drains, dock walls and many other types. Again these are quite dateable by their size and the mortar used. Early bricks are less regular as they were hand-made and soft lime rich mortars were used. These days bricks are very regular and are cemented together. Tiles can indicate a roofed building, or in instances of Roman sites can show underfloor heating was present.

    Bones : these can often tell us what people were eating in terms or pork or lamb, or even fish ! The sizes vary a lot so we have to be careful to collect all that we see. Sometimes bones are used to make things from such as handles for knives or combs for hair. Very occasionally we find human bones as skeletons and in these cases we have to be extra careful and let the authorities know.

    Metalwork : items made from iron, copper, bronze, pewter, gold, silver and so on can tell us about peoples personal possessions such as jewelry, hobnailed shoes etc. Metalwork can help us see if there were wooden items such as a building or fence by the presence of nails, or in some cases wheels when the iron rim survives. It can also show if they had weapons or agricultural implements.

    Glass : again the type of glass changes over time and can help dating. It can show whether windows were nearby and therefore a building. Some fragments can reveal glass vessels for storage or drinking out of.

    Leather : these items usually only survive when a site is waterlogged but can be informative. Shoes are often found as well as bags used for carrying things or for containing liquids.

    Stone / flint : stone items can include spindle whorls used in textile manufacture even as far back as the prehistoric period. Sculptures from building may be found, gravestones, playing counters and of course any walls themselves. For much of the prehistoric period flint was also used for tools and weapons and they change dramatically over time and can help date a site (on such sites there is often no pottery).

    Is anything else found?

    Environmental Material

    This is a slightly different category. It involves collecting samples of the actual deposits/soil in order to learn more. Some deposits may contain microscopic remains resulting from organic material or inorganic residues. Samples can recover:- seeds, small bones, charcoal, pollen, insect remains, snails, metal working slag, hammerscale, chemical signatures and other details.

    Each of these can tell us information that we could not have gathered by just looking at the soil. Some deposits can therefore highlight what the vegetation was like, what people might have been eating, whether animals were present, the living conditions, the types of industry / activities being carried out and in the case of burnt material it can be helpful in dating, such as C14, radiocarbon dating.