There are lots of challenges in archaeology. You can spend days on end stood in a muddy field, trowel in hand, jeans wet, knees bruised, with nothing to show for it than a few pottery shards and some flint. If you’re lucky, some of the earth will be darker than the rest. If you’re very lucky, you’ll unearth a pot of gold, but that doesn’t happen all that often.
There’s one challenge that outweighs them all though. How do you make sense of what you’ve dug up.
Archaeology is the study of what’s left behind, what’s been dropped, discarded, burnt, buried, forgotten or somehow moved out of use. It’s not a narrative, it’s a scatter of memories. It’s like buying a photo album at a jumble sale; you can tell roughly whether it was filmed in England or the Arctic, you can tell roughly when the photos were taken, from the sepia of the forties to the hot pants of the eighties, but you can’t really tell anything about the stories behind the photos.
Maybe you can tell who is a bride or groom, maybe you can guess who is father and son, but you’ll never know what they said to each other, who cheated on whom, who died, who lived, who loved. An archaeological site is like this, you can see the evidence, but you have to make up the story.
Not everything survives. A wooded post, planted in the ground will rot, but the hole that it was in will remain. It may be filled in, but the earth will have a different colour and texture. You can tell that there was a wooden post by finding the post hole. Find enough post holes and you can tell that there was a house. Find enough houses and you can tell that there was a village. Find a village and it’s a fair bet that there was a church to the west of it. Find a village and you know there will be a blacksmiths, so search the centre of the buildings to see which floor has stains and aggregates, burn marks or encrusted iron that indicates a forge.
Archaeology is a mixture of associations, speculation, assumption, guesswork and evidence. When you try to interpret an archaeological site, these things present specific challenges. The only thing you can be sure of is the evidence. Everything else is, to some degree, speculation. For example, even if you find a street, you’re not viewing one street; it’s not like walking down your own street. What you’re seeing is an aggregation of all the ‘streets’ that existed on that site. All at once. All from a few fragments, post holes and masonry fragments. Archaeology is stratigraphy, one thing on top of another. It’s like excavating a lasagne, with the things underneath being the oldest and the things on top youngest (so the cheese is always the last, youngest layer).
For those of us used to seeing streets all in one go, this is challenging. If you are trying to teach a group of children about a site, it’s highly challenging to work through these concepts. I’ve used a few tea towels and some artefacts before, with each tea towel representing ground level, with various artefacts sat on each one, which we excavate through.
The challenge is visualisation. We have to teach people to visualise from the evidence, to understand what’s fact and what’s speculation. We have to learn to ‘read’ archaeological sites, a skill that takes time, and the story is never complete. At best, it’s a fragment, a memory, a story part told.