Archaeology is the study of people from the past by looking at the things they leave behind. This can be either artefacts or building remains. It differs from history in that it doesn’t rely on what people have written down and, because of that, it is usually more accurate (very difficult to argue against the results of an archaeological investigation). And, of course, it is the only information we have for the prehistoric period.
We meet on the second Tuesday of the month in Upholland Methodist Church (WN8 0NR) at 2 pm.
Leader Bill Aldridge
Just a little bit about myself - currently I’m the secretary of the Wigan Archaeological Society. I’m not an archaeologist; I was a design engineer by profession but studied archaeology for many years in the evenings and weekends (culminating in a 3 year extramural course and Manchester University).
Wigan Archaeological Society (www.wiganarchsoc.co.uk)
The Wigan Society was formed in 1982 and, although reforming a couple of times, is still going strong with over 40 members. They meet once a month in Wigan for talks and, in the summer, trips out. Over the years they have carried out many fieldwork projects and research studies.
U3A Archaeology group first meeting presentation
The group’s first presentation was about archaeology itself - what it actually is and what techniques are used in its study. As this was our first meeting, we also had a discussion at the end about our expectations for this new group.
The Archaeological Process
Archaeology is not just about digging holes in the ground (although for many, this is the best part) - it involves a whole process:-
- Site Survey
- Analysis & Interpretation
The archaeological process always starts with research:-
- retrieving archives
- checking data bases such as the Historic Environment Record
- reading up on previous work
- map reading.
- Aerial photography
- Field Walking
The next step is looking for archaeological features in the landscape. Aerial photography has been very useful in identifying telltale features such as crop or parch marks. This has been particularly successful in recent years with our dry summers, revealing many sites up and down the country. Also something call LIDar which uses laser light to bring out hidden features in the landscape. Archaeologists also go out in the field and search for evidence on the ground using various non-invasive techniques which we call geophysics. These include. resistivity, magnetometry and ground penetrating radar surveys - or maybe sometimes just walking the field picking up pottery.
- Metal Detectorists
Just a quick word about metal detecting - from an archaeologist’s point of view, this is just another prospecting tool. However metal detectorist themselves are treated with some caution by archaeological community. Carried out responsibly, it provides a useful resource - but detectorist are generally considered to be treasure hunters, more interested in what they find than what they find out. All too often we hear of cases of nighthawking where sites are plundered of their metal objects with no records kept.
- Portable Antique Scheme
In the mid 90s the Treasure Act was updated extending the range of what is considered to be treasure. The Portable Antique Scheme was also introduced which has been very successful in encouraging finds to be reported. If any object is deemed to be treasure the finder gets to share the full market value with the landowner.
- Site Surveys
Once an archaeological site has been identified, it sometimes just requires a site survey. This is achieved using recording equipment such as a plane table, dumpy level or theodolite.
Building surveys are also quite common. Recording historic graffiti inside churches and old buildings is something that can easily be done by local volunteer groups - particularly during the winter months when the digging season has finished.
Once targets have been selected for excavation, a Project Plan is put together and permission sought from the landowner. You may have to carry out some fundraising if you need special equipment or intend using a mechanical excavator. If a site is scheduled for development, then these days, the developer is obliged to pay for everything.
- National Planning Policy Framework
Since the mid 90’s, when the Planning Policy Guidelines were introduced, archaeological conditions get attached to any development in a sensitive area. This was the case in Wigan in 2005 when the Grand Arcade was built and the huge Roman Bathhouse was discovered. It was subsequently excavated and recorded. (but unfortunately the developer, Modus Wigan, went bankrupt before the final report could be published).
What archaeologists are looking for in an excavation is dating evidence. This is obtained from pottery, coins or other objects that can be analysed. Archaeological context is key as, in the absence of actual dating evidence, the age of a stratified layer can be obtained using relative dating - i.e. if something lies under something else, it is likely to be older.
The next step is probably the most important i.e. recording what has been find (archaeology without recording is vandalism). This is traditionally done with a scaled drawing. Modern techniques use computer aided design (CAD) gives more flexibility and more options when it comes to presentation. But more often these days, archaeologists are relying more and more on photography alone. In fact advanced photographic techniques, such as photogrammetry, are producing 3D models which when linked with laser scanning techniques are very accurate.
- Analysis and Interpretation
This phase is generally referred to as Post Excavation. Analysis may include a number of techniques such as:-
- Environmental sampling,
- Carbon 14 dating,
- Tree Ring Dating (dendrochronology)
- Archaeomagnetic dating
There are many others, all quite expensive. Typology, however, which is used for dating pottery nd coins, is far more accessible to amateur groups.
Once this analysis is complete, interpretation can begin
The last step is spreading the word which includes report writing, publishing (either an article, a book or on line) and presenting the results to the academic world and to the wider public in general.
This is just an overview of the archaeological process which, as you can see, covers a whole range of skills and disciplines - not necessarily exclusive to archaeology.
- Researching Archives - Drawing
- Map Reading - CAD
- Field Walking - Digging
- Photography - Report Writing
- Surveying - Presenting
The Wigan Archaeological Society are a well established amateur group who have been involved in most of these activities over the years. It is not expected that the U3A group will be as involved as the Wigan group. However if U3A members did want to get more involved, the Society are always ready to welcome to anybody who wants to volunteer.