(ARCH025) Introduction to Archaeological Techniques: Excavation and Environment

Archaeological Dig


Course start date: Monday 26th September 2022
Course end date: Friday 2nd December 2022
Early Bird Price £135:

Tutor: Dr Tina Tuohy
Course Code: ARCH025
Level: Non-accredited, non-credit bearing
Assessments/Exams: None. Throughout the course you will be given ideas and questions to respond to in the online discussion area. Participation in online discussion is encouraged, but not compulsory.
Duration: 10 weeks
Estimated Student Study Time: 2 – 5 hours per week are recommended, but time spent is flexible and at your discretion.
Fee: £150.00
Pre-Requisite Course(s): None
Delivery: Online Distance Learning
Late Entrants: If this course is not full by the start date then late entrants will be accepted for up to two weeks after the start of the course. As a late entrant you can choose to catch up on the material you have missed or you can skip the missed weeks and concentrate on the material at the point where you join the course, but unfortunately we cannot offer fee reductions or course extensions for late entrants.
Recommended Reading**: A list of suggested books and websites is provided within the course
Required Reading**: None

**Please note: All courses are subject to sufficient numbers of students registering before they are confirmed as running. Therefore, after booking your place you are advised not to purchase any texts until you have received confirmation that the course is running.

This course was previously taught by Dr Tina Tuohy when it was offered by the University of Exeter*. If you studied it with the University of Exeter* you might not wish to study it again with Learn for Pleasure as although we have revised and updated our courses where necessary, it will likely be substantively the same.


Material remains represent the starting point for all archaeological investigation. They include anything created by human activity in the past, such as objects or artefacts, structures, modified landscapes and works of art. The range of techniques to investigate these – adapted from other disciplines and developed by archaeologists – is fascinatingly varied.

This course provides an introduction to the study of archaeology using the description of archaeological techniques in common practice today. We will begin by looking at how sites are formed and how this is important to excavation techniques, before moving on to study:

  • field surveys
  • aerial photography
  • the use of maps and documents
  • geophysical surveying, including magnetometry and resistivity
  • and of course more traditional techniques, such as excavation.

We will also study environmental archaeology in some depth, including the principles and techniques involved in methods such as palynology (pollen analysis), as well as looking at some detailed case studies.

Syllabus Plan

Week 1: What is Archaeology?
Week 2: Site Formation Processes and Stratigraphy
Week 3: Field Survey
Week 4: Aerial Photography
Week 5: Geophysical Survey
Week 6: Maps and Documents
Week 7: Excavation
Week 8: Environmental Archaeology: Principles
Week 9: Environmental Archaeology: Plants and Animals
Week 10: Environmental Archaeology: Palynology (Pollen Analysis)

Course Content in Depth

Week One: What is Archaeology?

We’ll begin by looking at definitions of the following terms when used in this field of study, so that you can be clear about exactly what they mean in this context:

  • archaeology
  • prehistory
  • history
  • method
  • technique
  • theory

This week’s work will also explain:

  • the nature of archaeology and the range of activities covered by its study
  • why archaeology is not normally thought of as a science
  • the process by which archaeological theories are devised and the importance of continuously striving to create new archaeological theories
  • the limitations of the archaeological record

Week Two: Site Formation

This Unit will:

  • Describe why an understanding of site formation processes is important in archaeology.
  • List and describe the processes of ‘accumulation’ and ‘erosion’.
  • Define the principle of stratigraphy and explain its significance in archaeology.
  • Draw schematic examples of both vertical and horizontal stratigraphy.
  • Recognise and decipher archaeological field ‘context’ record sheets.
  • List the processes by which stratigraphic context can be disturbed.
  • Describe what information can be gained from the discovery of ‘finds’ in context.
  • Describe what information can be gained from the ‘association’ of finds.

Week Three: Field Survey

This Unit will:

  • Describe the history and nature of the NMR.
  • List the information available from SMRs.
  • Design, in theory, their own fieldwalking exercise.
  • Choose the most appropriate method to illustrate the density of artefact scatters.
  • List the possible information to be gained from measuring and recording sites.
  • Describe the basic principles of measurement.
  • Recognise and depict ‘slope’ features using hachures.
  • Recognise and describe the function of the Total Station, the Electronic Distance Meter and the Theodolite.

Week Four: Aerial Photography

This Unit will:

  • Outline the history of the use of aerial photography in archaeology.
  • Explain the difference between vertical and oblique photography.
  • Recognise, list and describe the main type of mark detectable through aerial photography.
  • Describe how trends in modern imaging differ from traditional photography.
  • Indicate how remote imaging will develop in the future.
  • Outline the limitations to archaeological interpretation via aerial photographs.
  • List the reasons why aerial photography has lauded as one of the most important advances in archaeological survey.

Week Five: Geophysical Survey

This Unit will:

  • Explain why it is important to recognise and survey sites before/instead of excavation.
  • Define the ‘Evaluation Process’.
  • List government, commercial and academic agencies currently undertaking geophysical survey work.
  • List and describe the principles involved in the most commonly used scientific, geophysical survey techniques.
  • Compare the uses and limitations of the above techniques.
  • Provide a description of other, less hi-tech, means of estimating underground features.
  • Compare their uses and limitations.

Week Six: Maps and Documents

This Unit will:

  • List at least four ways in which a modern ordnance survey map may be used to identify previously unrecognised archaeological sites.
  • Describe the limitations of older maps in archaeological research.
  • List those older maps which do have value to the archaeologist and explain way.
  • Outline why it is important to understand the nature of documentary sources when using them for archaeological interpretation.
  • Identify the main national Archive Registers and outline how to access them.
  • List and describe at least five common documents used by archaeologists and describe the uses and limitations.
  • Recognise placenames or placename components that may indicate sites of archaeological interest.
  • Identify at least four other potential documents sources apart from maps and documents.
  • Explain why it is important to always combine documentary research with fieldwork.

Week Seven: Excavation

This Unit will:

  • Outline the actions required during the project design of an excavation.
  • Describe how the stratigraphy of a site dictates in what order the different contexts will be excavated.
  • Explain why area excavation is considered the ideal on most sites and give examples of the type of site where this may not be the case.
  • List the most common features encountered when excavating structures.
  • Describe the ways in which wet-site excavation may differ from dry sites.
  • Explain why the careful and thorough recording of context is so important.
  • List the categories of information on each context which will need to be described and recorded.
  • Recognise an on-site context record sheet and understand how and when it is completed.
  • Prepare a Harris Matrix from a given section.
  • Explain why the publication of excavation reports is so important

Week Eight: Environmental Archaeology: Principles

This Unit will:

  • Describe of what is meant by ‘multi-vocal’ landscapes as introduced by Bender 1992.
  • Describe what is meant by ‘taskscapes’ as introduced by Ingold 1993.
  • Explain why it is necessary to collect as many categories of environmental evidence as possible when considering past ecosystems.
  • Outline how approaches to interpreting environmental evidence have changed over the last 10 -15 years.
  • Define the term ‘taphonomy’ and explain why it is important in terms of the archaeological record.
  • Estimate the potential complexity of taphonomic factors in different archaeological contexts.
  • List and define the four categories of human environment as introduced by Evans & O’Connor, 1999.
  • Explain how these categories may affect decisions regarding the research area for an environmental archaeology project.

Week Nine: Environmental Archaeology: Plants and Animals

This Unit will:

  • List the ways in which plant remains may be preserved.
  • Describe the process of ‘flotation’.
  • Compare the preservation potential of different plant types.
  • List the categories of evidence revealed from the study of animal bones.
  • Explain why nails from archaeological context are useful to the archaeologist.
  • Explain why, in terms of preservation potential, it is preferable to have more than one category of environmental evidence.

Week Ten: Environmental Archaeology: Pollen

This Unit will:

  • Describe what pollen grains are and what they are composed of.
  • List 3 reasons why they are particularly useful to the archaeologist.
  • Compare the advantages and limitations of different sampling methods.
  • Recognise a standard pollen identification ‘key’.
  • List the distinguishing morphological features of pollen grains.
  • Recognise and distinguish between 3 or 4 common pollen grain types.
  • Describe the ‘Elm Decline’.
  • Read a pollen diagram.
  • List the limiting factors in inferring human activity from the pollen record.

Learning Outcomes

By the completion of this course, students should be able to:

  • describe, providing definitions of terms, a series archaeological methods and techniques.
  • compare the uses and limitations of one technique over another in different circumstances.
  • match the appropriate technique to a relevant archaeological issue, question or material type.
  • list which government, commercial or academic agencies provide technical services in archaeology.