The Process

Archaeology is both labor-intensive and irreversible—most work is done by hand and once an area is excavated it cannot be re-dug later on. An archaeological dig must be efficient and meaningful. So archaeologists take steps to make the most of every dig by planning ahead. The first step is to ask questions like: Where to dig? Why? Will digging here produce important information?

Before work begins on the ground, archaeologists like to know what they can expect to find. Other nearby sites can give a good idea about what kinds of people lived in that area, how long ago, and what kinds of settings they preferred (Near rivers? Near roads? On certain types of soil?). For sites that date to the period of written history (after the late 1500s in Virginia), archaeologists also look at old documents and maps. Other important sources include books and maps about soil characteristics and local geology.

Another vital step before digging is the “research design.” One dig cannot answer every question, so this design lists the most important questions. It also outlines the best ways to organize the work in the field (and later the laboratory) to answer those questions. Once all this preliminary work is done, the archaeologists are ready to load up their equipment and head into the field!