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Recording Information from Archaeological Sites

Woman in red shirt kneeling next to a wall of dirt

In previous posts, I talked about how archaeological sites form, and what kinds of things you can find in archaeological sites. In today’s blog post, I’d like to continue talking about archaeology and focus on recording information from archaeological sites.

Sometimes, untrained amateur archaeologists just go to a field and start digging. They search for impressive things like cool arrowheads or interesting pottery or human skulls. When they find something neat, they just pull it out of the ground and stick it in their backpack to show all their friends later. Unfortunately, when people do this, all the information about the artifact is lost.

Why is this? Well, artifacts are more than just cool things to look at. They can provide lots of information about the past. Here’s an example. Say you found an obsidian projectile point (“arrowhead”) embedded in a deer skeleton. This suggests that the people in the past were hunting deer. Now, say that you found an obsidian projectile point sitting among a large amount of small broken pieces of obsidian. This could be a place where people in the past sat and created projectile points by flint-knapping. In both situations, the same artifact is found–an obsidian projectile point. But, the information these two artifacts provide is very different. And if all you do is grab the cool artifact and throw it in a bag, you lose the information about the past.

Person flint-knapping an obsidian projectile point

Real archaeologists would never just dig up artifacts and collect them in a bag. They realize that doing archaeology is a destructive process. What does this mean? Well, once you dig up an archaeological site, the site is destroyed. And whatever information you failed to record is lost forever. So, archaeologists keep very careful records about ALL aspects of the excavation. Each archaeological company may have its own method for doing this, but in this post, I’ll give you some general information about how this is done.

There are two basic categories of records that archaeologists keep during an excavation: excavation records and accession records. Excavation records are the records that document the excavation process. Accession records are records that document the things found during the excavation. Let’s take a closer look at each category and some examples.

Excavation Records

So, as I mentioned, excavation records are the records that document the excavation process. One kind of excavation record is a daily log. Daily logs are also called daily journals, field journals, or field notes. Each member of the excavation team records everything that happened each day in their log or journal. This includes information on what they did, who they are working with, what the weather was like, what they found, and any comments or observations they have. This also can include sketches of the part of the site they are working on.

Below is an image of a page from my own field journal when I attended Archaeology Field School while I was earning my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. You can see I have written notes on what we were doing, and I also drew some diagrams. To view more images of archaeology field notes, check out the “Archaeological Notebooks” page on the Notebook Stories website.

Page from my field journal showing text descriptions and diagrams.

Another kind of excavation record is a level record. Archaeologists dig in horizontal units, called levels. For example, a common depth of a level is 10 centimeters. This means that the excavation team digs in 10-centimeter deep horizontal sections. So, there is a level record form for each level that is excavated. In that form, the team records how the level was excavated, what team members excavated it, and what was found in that level.

A third kind of excavation record is a stratigraphic record. There are different layers of dirt in the ground, which are called strata. The study of these strata is called stratigraphy. Below is an example of a stratigraphic profile drawing, showing all the layers of dirt in a made-up archaeological site from a side view. I made the layers in different colors so that you can see them better. So, a stratigraphic record contains information on the stratigraphy of the part of the site being excavated.

stratigraphic profile drawing showing layers of dirt in different colors

Yet another kind of excavation record is a feature record. A feature is a non-portable artifact, like the remains of a house or a stone wall. So, a feature record contains information on how exactly a feature was excavated, what was found, and it also includes ideas about what the feature represents, meaning the initial interpretation.

And, another kind of excavation record is a unit record. An archaeological site is divided up into units, which are usually squares that are 1 meter by 1 meter in size. So there is a unit record for each unit in an archaeological site that contains all the information about that unit.

Accession Records

Now, I’ll talk about accession records, which are records that document the things found during the excavation. The first type of accession record I will talk about is a lot book, which records information about lots. What is a lot? Well, to answer that I have to explain the two options for recording the location of artifacts: the point-plot system and the lot system.

In the point-plot system, the exact horizontal and vertical location of each artifact is recorded individually. This takes a lot of time and work, but for some types of archaeological research, it is the best way to record information. The other option is the lot system, where all the artifacts in a certain area (defined by horizontal and vertical measurements) are put together into one group called a lot. Sometimes there are different lots for each type of artifact found in that area, such as a lot for bone artifacts, a lot for stone artifacts, a lot for ceramic artifacts, etc. So, a lot book records information about each lot, including the lot number, which unit the lot is from, which level the lot is from, which team member collected the artifact, and so on.

Another kind of accession record is a photographic record. This record contains information on each photo taken. This includes the number of the photo, what is in the photo, the unit and level, when the photo was taken, and which team member took the photo. Usually, the photos include a photo board, which is a board with plastic letters that attach to it. The photo board indicates the site’s name, the unit number, level number, and date. Each photo also usually has a plastic arrow that points north, and a metric scale so you can tell the size of things in the photo. In the image below, you can see an example of a scale in an archaeological photo–it is the black and white stick across the bottom of the photo.

Photo of a burial with a measuring stick nearby

Then there are accession catalogs, which contain information on all the artifacts found during excavation. After artifacts are excavated, they are taken to the lab for processing, analysis, and eventually storage. Each artifact is given an accession number, which corresponds to an entry in the accession catalog.

Learn More

So, now you have an overview of how archaeologists go about recording information from archaeological sites. In future posts, I’ll talk more about this topic of record-keeping in more detail.

There are lots of different archaeological record-keeping forms in addition to the ones I described in this post. If you want to view some examples, you can do a Google Image search for “archaeology forms.” You can also check out several different types of forms at the Archaeological Research Services, Ltd. website.

Thanks for reading!