What We Talk About When We Talk About Digging

Dear readers, I’m back! After four weeks digging under the harsh Peruvian sun, living off the sweat of my brows, seldom showering, seldom even changing my clothes.

But what does it actually mean when archaeologists say they’ve been “digging”? A lot of my friends and relatives find it difficult to imagine what I do whenever I am away on an excavation. Surely I’m not just digging big holes? But then the whole point of archaeologists is to find stuff, right? and you find stuff by digging?

I thought it could be a good idea to use this post to say what digging is actually like–which I guess would also be useful for anyone who is considering the possibility of trying archaeology out at university, or maybe just volunteer at an excavation for a lark. Needless to say, this is also a bit of a departure from the stuff I usually talk about.


I’ve just spen about 24 hours trying to describe, in as engaging a way as I could, what digging was like in Peru, but now I’ve come across the fieldwork report I wrote less than a year ago about by work in a Bronze Age site in Hungary, which I think does a better job at describing life at an excavation. So I will start with excerpts from that, then add a few paragraphs at the end to clarify things left unsaid or unexplained in the report, because they seemed unimportant at the time or because I only understood or experienced them while in Peru. I will replace the name of the Hungarian site with an “x”, because I dimly remember people whispering that it was severely prohibited to discuss the site without the supervisors’ knowledge, or something like that.

Without further ado:

“Excavations take place in a 20 m by 20 m trench, which is itself divided into a 2 m by 2 m grid system. This year’s excavation was performed by a revolving cast of more than thirty academics, students and volunteers, and, generally speaking, each of these was assigned a 2×2 square to dig, and a new one after that, and a new one after that, and so on. In practice, however, this was only the case for the street area: because the house was not built by people working on the basis of a 2×2 grid system, excavators there often ended up ignoring the grid, and worked on much smaller areas, including special features such as walls and pits.

The trench in Hungary.

The trench in Hungary. All photos mine, except when otherwise stated.

However, whether one was digging in the house or in the streets, the procedure was more or less the same. Usually, one had to remove soil until the start of the underlying layer. Any finds unearthed were put into bags based on their type (eg daub, bone, charcoal, shell, pottery). Whenever a “special” find was excavated, it was put in a separate bag. Special finds usually included worked materials, such as bone and bronze ornaments. Because some things might escape the troweller’s gaze, whenever 10 L of loose soils had been removed, the bucket in which they had been placed was taken to be […]sieved. The only exception to this rule was the second bucket, whose contents were poured in a large plastic bag for soil analyses. […]

All of these actions were recorded in an apposite sheet [NB this sort of sheet is usually known as “context sheet”]. Specifically, the sheet recorded the feature or square’s identification number, starting and finishing dates, the name of the recorder, the volume of soil removed, the number of bags for each find type, the total station number, volume and description of soil samples, the total station number and description of each special find, a narrative description of the excavation process, and, on the back, a drawing of one’s feature or square [NB a total station is a machine that allows you to record each bit of your excavation in relation to a fixed point, although I’d be grateful if more experienced or tech-savvy archaeologists out there will correct me or provide a better definition]. Everything excavated on the site had its own total station number, and indeed there were two people who had the exclusive task of assigning new numbers and keeping track of the old ones. Moreover, all features, squares, post holes and stake-holes had their own identification number.

This just to give you an idea of what a context sheet may look like, and also to solicit laughter.

This just to give you an idea of what a context sheet may look like, and also to solicit laughter.


For most of my time on the site, my role was to excavate the house’s walls on the northern and western side. This mainly involved removing the yellow clay that made up these walls. In doing so, I found a lot of daub, pottery and bone, as well as the occasional seashell, which, as the site supervisor told me, was typical of the time, though no one knows precisely why. […] intact seashells were the only special finds I came across while excavating walls, though later on in the month someone unearthed an entire nest’s worth of mouse remains in another wall, suggesting that Bronze Age Hungarians dealt with similar home-infestations as people today. Besides working on the house, I was also assigned two squares in the street, which yielded nothing of note besides a bone piercing ornament—which struck me as oddly personal and immediate, considering it would have once gone through someone’s earlobe, nose, or belly-button.

This bone piercing would have once fitted through someone's nose, earlobe, or belly-button.

This bone piercing would have once fitted through someone’s nose, earlobe, or belly-button.

Though I found almost nothing of note, excavating walls was nonetheless a curiously engrossing endeavour. I had been told to save things to think about while digging in the inevitable case I grew bored, but this was almost never necessary, as the trowel’s movement before my eyes led me to a sort of peaceful trance that none of my previous attempts at meditation had achieved. Moreover, exacavating walls offered an interesting perspective on house design and construction in the Bronze Age. For example, one wall had clearly been the object of some sort of repair or re-configuration process, as shown by certain stake-holes and traces of older parts of the wall that had been re-built. This realisation, that what I was excavating had once been the object of routine DIY for humans that, from many points of view, were not that different from me, gave me a dizzying sense of the millennia that separated me from them, and of the fact that we weren’t simply playing around in the dirt, but unearthing traces of actual lives lived. And it is precisely because these lives were so ordinary (repairing walls isn’t a particularly interesting activity per se) that my job seemed so extraordinary. It is difficult not to describe this sensation without sounding like I took a hit from some sort of phenomenology-crackpipe, but it was extremely powerful, and it made my fieldwork experience all the richer [NB phenomenology is a branch of archaeology which, roughly speaking, is concerned with investigating sites through our own personal and physical experiences of it].

Still, it is undeniable that my features and squares were relatively lacklustre. I made up for this by asking people what they were excavating themselves, which gave me a greater sense of the collaborative nature of the excavation, and helped me piece together an idea of how the ancient inhabitants of x lived. This resulted in a mental mosaic made up of the following tassels: they ate peas and crabapples; they had varmint problems; they made and used leather bags; they put seashells in their walls; they kept a large quantity of dead animals in their backyard, apparently unconcerned with the resulting smell or the hygiene risks involved; they periodically burned and re-built their family homes; the adorned themselves with bone and bronze; they traded pots with other groups; they weaved.

There used to be a tent here. Man, and the portaloos were tipped over by the storm as well--it was grim.

There used to be a tent here. Man, and the portaloos were tipped over by the storm as well–it was grim.

Overall, the excavation was very well-organized, as one would expect from something that has been going on for fourteen years. This made up for the fact that each individual excavator had their own particular way of approaching their task—their own idea of what counts as worthy of being placed in a bag (I collected all the daub I found, but many considered it worthless), when to stop filling a bucket (10 L, in theory, but many would stop before that, lest the bucket got too heavy to carry to the sieve), what kind of bone could be considered a special find (the site leader told me that anything intact should be, but the man in charge of the total station almost always refused to give me numbers for any bones I found), and so on. Presumably, this is a problem at most excavations. Indeed, there were only two major faults in how the site worked that I noticed and that I think could be corrected. […] The other fault is the lack of a contingency plan in the event of a storm. The tents were all the equipment used at the site was stored were blown away by extremely strong winds on two occasions, and this resulted in a lot of time wasted trying to put everything back together. Perhaps it would be difficult to take measures against tents blowing away, but at least special finds should not be stored there overnight: as far as I am aware, a bronze ornament was lost because of this.”

Though very similar on a fundamental level, every excavation is different. In Peru, I did dig a big hole: it was deeper than I am tall by the end, and I needed a ladder to get in and out of it safely and without destroying its edges. I used a small trowel when I had to be careful not to destroy anything, a handshovel when less caution was required, and a shovel when there was very little need to be cautious. Also, in Peru, the context sheet was much more elaborate. Also, taking photos and drawing was a much more important part of the day-to-day experience–drawings, in particular, we used when photos were bad (which they frequently were, due to the sunlight being so bright and the shade so dark in comparison), or when we wished to convey particular aspects of our trenches that would not be obvious in the photos (for example, particular measurements). Also, I sieved my own soil.

That's me in Peru, sieving my own soil.

That’s me in Peru, sieving my own soil. I’m a big boy now! Photo by A. Williams.

But perhaps the biggest difference between my Hungarian experience and my Peruvian one is the fact that, in the latter, I was involved in “post-ex”, the stuff you do that’s not digging, and doesn’t normally take place on site. This includes: pot washing, pot photographing, and floating. Pot washing consists of dipping every single tiny fragment of pottery that has been unearthed on site in a bucket of water, then brushing the dirt off with a toothbrush, then laying all the fragments, divided by context, out to dry. Once they’re dry, you photograph them–the way we did it in Peru was by taking two separate photos per context: one with all the crummy, mostly useless stuff, and one with all the stuff that could actually give us some interesting information on what the pots actually were like (which, in turn, can tell us about the people who used them, or the areas in which they were found), such as painted fragments, or fragments with bits of handle, or with rims or bases. The other finds need to be photographed as well, but that only happened one afternoon, and I was pot-washing at the time.

As for floating–flotation is slightly on the complicated side for my first post after a month of not writing. Suffice it to say, that it is a method for detecting all the stuff that’s too small to find with a standard sieve–mostly plant remains, such as seeds. Basically, you leave some of your soil unsieved, place it in a bag or two, and then, later on in the day, you use water (delivered through a series of tubes and tubs that can easily be assembled in a DIY kind of way) to separate the really small stuff, which will float, from the slightly heavier stuff, which will sink. Then you wrap each category (light stuff and heavier stuff) in a little bag and hang it to dry.

The croaking ground dove--looks like a bird, sounds like a frog. Known in Spanish as tortolita peruana, or columbina cruziana.

The croaking ground dove–looks like a bird, sounds like a frog. Known in Spanish as tortolita peruana, or columbina cruziana. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Another thing I didn’t mention in the report, but which I experienced both in Hungary and in Peru, was how nice it is to work outdoors, with the sun and the breezes and the blue skies, the dirt on your face and the sand in your shoes. And the wildlife! the tiny live scorpion I found once while sieving (just after I had been told it was fine to use my hands for that task–luckily I had not heeded that tip), the beautiful white egrets that would fly over us, the burrowing owl that may or may not have occupied a hole dug in the very middle of Trench 3, and the whistle-like chirpings coming from small sparrow-type birds that blended so well with the desert environment they were invisible to us, and the dove-like birds that, hidden in the bushes, croaked like frogs.

If there are any archaeologists out there who think I’ve missed out on anything important, or would like to say what digging is like for them, I’d be very happy to hear from you in the comments section below! And, as usual, if anything I’ve said is unclear, I’ll be happy to answer reader’s questions.

  1. What kind of cameras do you use for photographing the digs? Any kind of lighting? If you’re encountering problems with the sunlight and darkness being too many shades apart it might be worth looking into HDR photography if you really want to avoid drawing. It works by taking photographs at multiple exposures, usually a stop or two above and below as well the original standardly exposed image. You then take the detail that’s lost because it’s normally too bright from the underexposed image, and the detail that’s lost because it’s normally too dark from the overexposed image, a process which there’s loads of software to do automagically.

    Wikipedia article explains it pretty well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-dynamic-range_imaging

    (Also, welcome back ;] )

    • Thanks! I wasn’t actually in charge of the dig camera–I can’t remember what type it was or what the settings were–but this will definitely be useful in the future! I should say, though, that drawing isn’t so much a solution to a problem, as a different method of recording data, which has its own unique benefits–most importantly, I think, the fact that when you’re drawing you are more likely to notice certain things, and it’s you, the digger, who’s noticing them, not someone else looking at photos in an office months in the future.

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