Archaeological excavation – destructive?


“Every archaeological site is itself a document. It can be read by a skilled excavator, but it is destroyed by the very process which enables us to read it. Unlike the study of an ancient document, the study of a site by excavation is an unrepeatable experiment: (Barker 1993:13). Using archaeological examples and case studies, discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with this statement and evaluate the relative value of non – destructive methods in archaeological investigation. 

Excavation came from the Latin word excavare: ex- ‘out’ and cavare ‘make or become hollow. According to Oxford Dictionary (2011), excavation is the act of excavating, which digs, extracts, or removes materials from the ground/earth in order to find remains. Excavation is the main tool of the archaeologist into discovering the past. Without it, only a portion of the human past will be recovered and studied (Champion 1980: 43). According to Barker (1993:13-14) It is “almost the only source of information…[that] provides evidence where the documents are silent or missing…it is only a method of producing evidence about the past, a means to an end [however] it is always destructive… [Furthermore] only excavation can uncover a sequence of structures, recover stratified and secure dating evidence”. Excavation tries to “identify, define, uncover, date, and – by understanding transformation processes – interpret each archaeological context on a site” (Drewett 1999:107). It attempts to “record precisely what’s in the ground…where it is in both horizontal and vertical space…[and] reconstruct what happened on the site…” (King 2005: 71-72). Depending on the scale of discovery and destruction it results to, different people have their perspectives on ‘excavation’. Relatively, such perspectives are tied up with the purpose and aim of excavation. There are loads of excavation objectives but they mostly fall on either one of the three main categories: (1) Salvage and Rescue archaeology to which sites are being excavated to save the information that will no longer be available in the long term. Such sites are those that are vulnerable to natural erosion, development of new road systems, construction of houses, buildings, dams and etc. (Champion 1980: 43; King 2005:33, 61; Walker 2001; Renfrew and Banh 2008:75; Drewett 1999:107). (2) Excavating to expand the knowledge of the past – Research intensives (King 2005:28-29). And lastly, (3) for conservation purposes of cultural and heritage sites by differing organizations (King 2005: 87; Renfrew and Banh 2008:75).

Excavation, according to Barker (1986:71) extracts everything that is known leaving little original evidence of the site. He argues further that the soil containing the material remains plays a major part in human development (Barker 1993:14) making the study of landscape a recent and growing sub discipline (Renfrew and Banh 2008:77). Furthermore, in recent years archaeologists are now taking into consideration how ‘off-site’ or ‘non-site’ areas may have also affected human development, especially where people are leading a mobile life and “have left only a sparse archaeological record” (Renfrew and Banh 2008:77), which needed to be documented and carefully analyzed rather than excluding it from the main excavation site. These sites are “very faint scatters of artifacts that might not qualify as ‘sites’ but…nevertheless represent significant human activity” (Renfrew and Banh 2008:77). There are a number of writers and scholars who refer to excavation being ‘destructive’ but never give an exact example or case study of such sites since the discovery and information being rescued outweighs the destruction that excavation holds. This is also probably because the excavation process itself, being a demolishing process, i.e. digging out soil for certain amount of depth in grid squares, is self explainable (Barker 1986:73- 99). “Whether on a small or massive scale, [it] involves the destruction of the primary evidence, which can never be recovered nor repeated since no two sites are identical” (Champion 1980:43). In response to this, if excavation is never held with reference to the three main purposes of excavation above, then human knowledge of the past will never be accounted and be enumerated to our archives. King (2005:60-61) states that sites are ‘non-renewable resources’ because they never grow back. The most intriguing words from him are that “we may be the last archaeologists to have a shot at the site before it’s totally destroyed”. He, Champion, and Barker could all mean that they probably want archaeologists to recognize that excavation is itself disrupting the actual resting place of antiquities and when excavating, they need to maximize their time to attain the greatest information they can in order to outweigh the destruction it brings.

On the other side of the argument, some hold the idea that excavation is not a destructive process. So far, there is not a single scholarly book which states that excavation is not destructive, they all however refer to non-destructive methods that may limit the need for excavation (this would be evaluated later). For instance, ground survey and with the help of technologies are able to outline the geological and geographical format of the landscape which enables archaeologists to have an idea of the site. Egyptologist Mark Lehner used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the Giza Plateau which exposed the “vast urban centre attached to the pyramids, sometimes known as ‘The Lost City of the Pyramid Builders’” (Renfrew and Binh 2008:92). The technology was also used to integrate all the information they have including “thousands of digital photographs, notebooks, forms and artifacts into a single organized data [that enabled them to] map patterns of architecture, burials, artifacts and other materials” (Renfrew and Binh 2008:92). The discovery of so called ‘Japanese Atlantis’ at Yonaguni proved to have shed a light into the archaeological evidences of ‘pyramids’ and somehow brought legendary stories, which have been passed down from generations in Ryukyu Islands, back to life (Journeyman Pictures 2008). Scholars stated that history and archaeological books needed to be rewritten again (Zombiehellmonkey 2010). Masaaki Kimura, a marine geologist from University of Ryukyu believes that a 5,000 year old city lies below the surface of the water “based on dates of stalactites found inside underwater caves…ruins of a castle, a triumphal arch, five temples [and] one large stadium” (Ryall 2007). In this case, the knowledge attained from excavating the ruins at Yonaguni is immensely valuable that the little details of destruction that excavation brings did not even matter. Even though that excavation in Yonaguni was done underwater, the processes are alike but the scale of destruction may differ. For instance, “shifting vast quantities of sediment [and] removing bulky objects” from the ocean floor to the surface may entail that some materials may be lost (Renfrew and Banh 2008:109). Excavation is not the only means of bringing destruction to sites, other factors such as natural soil erosion or even tourism could cause even more damage. The differences between them are that one is beneficial for knowledge and research while the other is economically tied up. For instance, the ruins of Angkor Watt was kept stable and firm due to the water reservoirs it is built onto but recent years, illegal pumping of water by hotels and other developments drains the life out of the irreplaceable site, evidence of collapses in some parts of the temples are already revealing. Though tourism is an economic advantage for Cambodia, it is on the other hand, continuously destroying her heritage sites. (AljezeeraEnglish 2010).

Moving on, there are other methods in which the use of excavation may be limited whilst obtaining some sort of information. Such are called ‘non-destructive’ or ‘pre excavation’ techniques. Questions arises to what extent are they different, Green (2002:50) argues that non-destructive methods are pre-excavation techniques and therefore are one and same. Furthermore, Roskam (2001:48) states that such techniques, whether you term them as either so, is used “to give knowledge of sites prior to full excavation”. One such feature is Reconnaissance survey: aerial and ground (Renfrew and Banh 2008: 74, 79, 95, 99).  It has “developed from being … a preliminary stage…to a more or less independent…inquiry, an area of research in its own right which can produce information quite different from …digging.” (Renfrew and Banh 2008:77). Aerial reconnaissance or so famously termed ‘aerial photography’ consists of different sub strategies that assist in locating and acquiring information from sites (Greene 2002:62). For example, the use of oblique and vertical photographs has its own drawbacks and advantages that consequently affect the way interpreters and archaeologists decipher sites (Renfrew and Banh 2008: 83). Other techniques used are analyzing crop marks, soil marks and earth works in the landscape because they reveal where materials have been buried. For instance, cropmarks can clearly exhibit where the archaeological remains are since “buried features either enhance or reduce the growth of plants.” (Greene 2002:63 – 64; Roskams 2001:44) This abnormality is used to assess the sites in order to gain information or to help prepare for excavations. In recent decades, technological advancement also proved to be a useful and valuable tool. These are, for instance, infrared and radar photography, satellite images, digital terrain modeling, computer enhancement and etc. (Renfrew and Banh 2008:86), which critically reveal landscape and geological features and also enhance the sharpness and contrasts of photos. Aerial photography has it’s own pros and cons. The advantages of it is that identification of archaeological sites became easier and time efficient rather than analyzing ancient documents and maps to locate sites. For example, Father Antoine Poidebard in Syria had “discovered many new forts and roads [showing] that underwater sites could be detected from the air, revealing for the first time the ancient harbor beneath the sea at Tyre, Lebanon” (Renfrew and Banh 2008:79). Moreover, “hundreds of sites have been dug [and] has helped decide where… digging would be most productive” (Barker 1986:58) According to Greene (2002:57,62), it “made the greatest single contribution to archaeological fieldwork and recording” and is continuously playing a major role in mapping and documenting sites. However, on the contrary, aerial photographs reveal the potential of a site but sites are far more complex from the look into the air (Barker 1986:58). This means that excavation still needs to be done if considering to do further research. In essence, aerial photography is of a great advantage in terms of locating, mapping, and documenting sites, to an extent, however if considering further research on the particular sites, excavation is still the main method. Likewise, ground reconnaissance is another non-destructive method, which, like aerial reconnaissance, has sub strategies that makes it productive and useful. Its advantages are that it can map the whole landscape of the site using three types of geophysical and geochemical sensing: resistivity, magnetometry, and radar transmission (Greene 2002:73;Roskams 2001:52). When combining aerial and ground reconnaissance into a 3-D model, the results are immensely magnificent and significant; therefore, the use of excavation may be taken into consideration (Roskams 2001:56).

In essence, excavation is said to be ‘destructive’ because of its processes as stated by Barker, Champion and King, to an extent that the scale of discovery and knowledge gained from it outweighs the destruction it brings. With reference to examples mentioned, such as the Japanese Atlantis and the lost city of pyramid builders in the Giza Plateau, excavation expands our knowledge of the human past. It is the means to an end when it comes to further research on sites. ‘Non – destructive’ methods are ‘pre-excavation’ techniques because they are used to attain as much information as they can before resolving into excavation. They are pretty useful especially when combining aerial and ground survey techniques together because it may even not need excavation.


Barker, Philip (1986) Understanding Archaeological Excavation. London: B T Batsford Limited

Barker, Philip. (1993) Techniques of Archaeological Excavation (third edition). London: B.T. Batsford

Champion, Sara. (1980) A Dictionary of Terms and Techniques in Archaeology. London: Morisson and Bibb Ltd.

Drewett, Peter (1999) Field Archaeology. An introduction. London: UCL Press

Greene, Kevin (2002) Archaeology: An Introduction (fourth edition). London: Routledge

King, Thomas F. (2005) Doing Archaeology. A Cultural Resource Management Perspective. California: Left Coast Press

Renfrew, Colin & Bahn, Paul (2008) Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (fifth edition). London: Thames and Hudson

Roskams, S. (2001) Excavation. Cambridge: University Press.

AlJazeeraEnglish (5 December 2010) Cambodia’s Angkor Watt on shaky grounds. <> [Accessed 13 April 2011]

Journeyman Pictures (15 January 2008) Japanese Atlantis. <> [Accessed 11 April 2011]

Oxford Dictionaries (2011) Excavate. <> [Accessed 13 April 2011]

Ryall, Julian (2007) Japan’s Ancient Underwater “Pyramid” mystifies scholars. National Geographic News.<>[Accessed 12 April 2011]

Walker, Matthew (2001) Why excavate at all? NewArchaeology. <> [Accessed 11 April 2011]

Zombiehellmonkey (3 March 2010) Japan’s Mysterious Pyramids – History Channel Documentary <> %5BAccessed 11 April 2011]

This essay earned CAS point of 20/20 according to University of Aberdeen’s grading system. What are your thoughts on excavation? Do you agree that it is destructive? Do you agree that excavation is necessary and justifiable if immense information on the site would be recovered and archived for future uses and research?

Let me know what you think in the comment section.

This article in The Post Hole: (edited)