Public presentation and archaeological experience

Like many other archaeologists, I visit publicly accessible sites whenever the opportunity arises, but some five or six years after I attended my first excavation I had an unnerving experience. I was visiting Vindolanda, a fort on Hadrian’s wall in Northumberland, made famous by the discovery of a series of Roman letters, written on wooden tablets, and preserved in a waterlogged ditch. I had visited the site as a child and now returned as an adult archaeologist to see the new discoveries. Although the exhibition of the waterlogged finds in the museum was fascinating, I was shocked when I walked around the fort. Although the site remained as well-presented as ever, I found it dead and soulless. As I child I had loved exploring the excavated fort structures, as an adult, I felt only emptiness!

View of the Roman fort at Vindolanda showing conserved walls, surrounded by gravel.
 Headquarters building (Principia) at Vindolanda Roman Fort as laid out for public display (Photograph Phil Champion  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Over time I have become used to experiencing varying degrees of this feeling when visiting publicly accessible sites. I have also begun to understand why these sites feel so desolate to me. It’s not due to any lack or failure on the part of the site management teams, who shouldn’t be criticised for their often exemplary conservation and display of cultural heritage assets. Rather it reflects the transient nature of archaeology and the destructive realities of excavation. By necessity, the public presentation of sites often excludes the very deposits which comprise the bulk of the archaeological record, rendering them sterile to archaeological eyes.

Into the matrix

In order to explain why publicly accessible sites can feel so ‘dead’ to an archaeologist, we need to recognise the importance of the archaeological matrix. The matrix is archaeological jargon for the earth that was excavated from around the structures you see on display at sites like Vindolanda. Before excavation, the spaces within and between the structures (walls, staircases, wells, drains, floors, silos and kilns) were filled with soil deposits of different colours and textures (see below, the image of Plaosnik Monastery under excavation). These deposits are removed during excavation, but as they represent events during the history of the site, each deposit must be carefully recorded, with appropriate samples taken as necessary. There are various different methods of excavation, but whichever is used, the aim is to identify, obtain and record as much information about that deposit (or context in the archaeological jargon) as possible. Each context is recorded visually (with measured plans and sections, sketch drawings and photographs) and verbally (on a context record form). These records include any artefacts or samples taken from the deposit and there is additional documentation for special features, such as walls and burials. The records are all cross-referenced by unique identification numbers for the site, context, drawings, photographs, samples and finds, so that they can be associated with each other during post-excavation analysis and by any future researcher working with the site archive. To the archaeologist then, a site includes a large number of soil deposits of varying types, colours and textures. The walls, hearths, drains, kilns and other structures that are conserved and presented to the public are only a small proportion of all the archaeological contexts.

View of an archaeological site showing coloured soil deposits between stone walls.
 Plaosnik Monastery under excavation in 2008. Note the varied colours of the soil deposits between the walls. (Photograph by Colin W. 18 October 2008 CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

On many sites (such as the excavation of a medieval village in the image below), structures are entirely absent and the archaeology consists entirely of deposits (fills or layers in the archaeological jargon), filling various types of features (ditches, pits, post-holes etc) cut into the ground by past people. Sites without structures are almost never conserved for long-term display because an archaeological site comprising a series of excavated pits, ditches and post-holes is neither interesting nor durable. The public rarely visit such sites and if they are publicised in the press, various plans, reconstructions and digital models are used to inform the public about their original appearance or layout.

View of an archaeological site showing yellow natural with brown archaeological features cut into it. Some of the features are part excavated or under excavation.
Archaeology without structures: A medieval village under excavation (Photography Evelyn Simak  The site of a medieval village – partially unearthed  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Living archaeology

When viewed with archaeological eyes, archaeological deposits are not only important, but they are also strangely vibrant. This is partly because they have meaning for the trained archaeologist, partly because of the various colours and textures within them, and partly because they are so transient. Archaeologists spend most of their fieldwork excavating and recording archaeological deposits. We become skilled in identifying different deposits and understanding which types of past activity produced them. Such features have intrinsic meaning for us, and we feel their importance. Archaeological soil deposits also have a visual beauty and vibrancy. Some sites are particularly colourful, with deep red burnt clay features, black charcoal features, yellow sand and greenish cess deposits (as in the image of Plaosnik Monastery above). Chalk landscapes produce a fascinating monochrome, with dark soils filling pits, ditches and post-holes cut into a white chalk background. Even the dullest soil colours take on a new significance when viewed by the archaeologist seeking subtle changes in colour or texture.

View of an archaeological site on chalk. The brown archaeological features show up very clearly on the white chalk soil.
Archaeological features in white chalk natural (Photo courtesy of Clare King)

Despite their significance for the archaeologist, the vibrant colours of archaeological deposits do not last long! Once the archaeology has been exposed it rapidly dries out, dulling the colours. This is why on many sites, pre-excavation plans of all the visible deposits are created as soon as possible after the archaeological layers are exposed. Some excavators water the ground with killer sprays or watering cans to bring out the colour before recording or photography. Careful records are also made of the soil colour using the Munsell colour system, which allows a deposit to be categorized by a precise colour, hue and chroma and ensures subtle differences in deposits can be accurately recorded. All these methods allow archaeologists to record the archaeological deposit as accurately as possible, but they do not assist in conveying its true appearance, vibrancy or importance if the site is opened to the public. Even with photographs of sites under excavation, it is all too easy for visitors to miss the significance of the soil between the structures.

View of excavations of a Roman wall in London.
Roman wall under excavation in London in 2007, the right angle of the wall has been removed where the boards are shown, leaving the remains of the wall in section beside the yellow hoe. The archaeologist is recording the deposits. Even in this low-light the vivid colours of the deposits are visible (Author Photograph)

Archaeology as destruction

It is an archaeological cliche that ‘archaeology is destruction’ and, while built structures are often more durable and easier to preserve, excavation is particularly destructive to archaeological deposits. By definition, a deposit that is excavated has been removed! The soil matrix has been recorded, extracted, sifted, sampled and dumped and the artefacts have been identified and removed for processing and recording. This is why archaeological recording is so crucial. If a deposit is excavated but not recorded, all the information about the context has been lost; its appearance, texture, physical extent, and relationship with other deposits are irretrievable. Artefacts cannot be related to their original deposit or other artefacts from the same context. This is why nighthawking (illegal metal detecting on protected archaeological sites), looting of antiquities for sale on the black market, and excavation without record are unethical. They destroy archaeological deposits without recording, depriving artefacts of their contexts and society of the scientific information that could be obtained from proper archaeological excavation and recording.

It is of course impossible to present the excavated (and thereby removed) deposits to the public alongside the structures they contained. Some publicly accessible sites have been fully excavated, down to the geological deposits (the natural in archaeological jargon). The structures which will be displayed were removed during excavation and are then reconstructed in their original positions using the archaeological records as a guide. Various efforts may be made to show the original deposits under excavation or display the information they produced, but these contexts are inevitably absent from view and therefore from the physical embodied experience of visiting the site.

View of a villa at Herculaneum showing a courtyard with partially preserved white marble tiles on red modern base.
Large villa at Herculaneum in 2012, showing features in use at the time of the eruption in 79 AD. The surviving ancient paving of the courtyard has been lifted and relaid. It is surrounded by a modern, protective (red) surface. (Author Photograph)

Other publicly accessible sites are not fully excavated down to the natural. Instead, excavation ends when a suitable level is reached and the exposed structures and underlying deposits are conserved in their original position (or in situ as the archaeological jargon has it). Pompeii and Herculaneum (image above) are classic examples of this approach. Because their destruction and burial comprise a single event, large-scale excavation stopped at the floor and street levels associated with the final phase of occupation (i.e. the floors and streets that were in use when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD), even though there are many earlier phases buried beneath these floors (Fulford and Wallace-Hadrill 1995, 77). These earlier phases are only accessible by relatively limited sondages, small trenches, carefully located to minise any impact on the structures of the final phase (more information about these sondages can be found in various blogs and recent excavation reports). At Pompeii, Herculaneum and any other site where structures are preserved without fully excavating the deposits beneath them, the conservation and presentation of the structures in position arrests the controlled destruction of excavation. Most of the archaeological remains beneath the conserved structures remain unexcavated. This is a perfectly valid and necessary archaeological approach, but one that excludes certain archaeological deposits from visitor view, whether those deposits were entirely removed by excavation or survive protected beneath the conserved structures.

Efforts to present archaeological deposits within and around the various structures produce further difficulties. Since archaeological sites comprise many phases and layers, choices must be made about which phases should be presented to the public. At Pompeii the choice is fairly easy since the final phase produces a coherent visitor experience and historic excavations rarely extended below. But at other sites, use and abandonment deposits above, and earlier features below a phase, maybe just as archaeologically interesting. Managing the presentation of such deposits can be difficult, as is the protection of exposed floor and courtyard spaces. If located outside, exposed archaeological deposits (and even some floors) are rapidly degraded by the elements and attract disturbance from vegetation growing within them. They also cannot be walked upon, meaning sites like Vindolanda grass or gravel the spaces between exposed walls and structures to allow tourists to wander freely. Indoor presentation (such as the Roman amphitheatre preserved under the Guildhall Library) offers more options, but is much more expensive and mostly used where a site is located beneath existing or proposed new buildings. Presenting exposed archaeological deposits inside can reveal more of the reality of ‘living archaeology’, but fragile deposits dry out and cannot be walked over, excluding the visitor from the closest contact. No current method can permanently preserve the vibrant living archaeological deposits in a visible format for presentation to the public, although developing technology may offer additional opportunities in the future.

The absence of archaeological deposits from the visitor experience is not the fault of cultural heritage managers, conservators, excavators or site managers. It is inherent in the nature of archaeology as a palimpsest of human activity surviving as a series of often fragile deposits that are difficult, if not impossible, to present for long-term public visitation. Out of the perhaps hundreds or thousands of years of occupation preserved in the archaeological record, decisions must be made about which phases to present and which structures to preserve in order to provide a coherent but archaeologically honest visitor experience. Later phases are excavated entirely and removed to expose the chosen phases, their presentation limited to phase plans and reconstructions in the site museum. Earlier phases may not be excavated at all, or only partially, in order to preserve the structures of the chosen phase(s) in situ above them. Archaeological deposits, those most fragile of archaeological contexts, are doubly difficult to present meaningfully in situ, while preserving the site and presenting a coherent visitor experience.

Presenting experience

When visiting Vindolanda as an adult I was unprepared for the differences between my experiences as an excavator of archaeological sites and as a visitor to them. With extensive training in archaeological methods, I should not have been surprised at the absence of the vibrant archaeological deposits that were so familiar to me and other archaeologists. I was well aware that archaeology is destruction, that sites are complex palimpsests of phases and that choices must be made about what should be displayed in situ and what should be preserved as archive. I was also well able to understand the descriptions in the museum and detailed excavation reports. Nevertheless, when experiencing the site I was still struck by the visual absence of the archaeological deposits I expected, and its visceral effect upon me. This is an important reminder that knowledge and experience are very different. A physical experience can have a much more powerful effect than intellectual knowledge. We rely on information boards, apps, museums and guidebooks to inform visitors about the archaeology they cannot see. Yet all my knowledge could not negate my visceral reaction to the experience of a, to me, sterilised archaeology. I wonder how far site visitors are influenced by archaeological information and how far by their own visceral experience? What misconceptions might be fostered by the primacy of the latter?


FULFORD, MICHAEL, ANDREW WALLACE-HADRILL, K. Clark, R. Daniels, J. DeLaine, I. Dormor, R. MacPhail, A. Powell, M. Robinson, and P. Wiltshire. “The House of ‘Amarantus’ at Pompeii (I, 9,11-12): An Interim Report on Survey and Excavations in 1995-96.” Rivista Di Studi Pompeiani 7 (1995): 77–113.


I wish to thank the many folk of the Mentoring Womxn in Archaeology and Heritage Facebook group for their suggestions for images of chalk archaeology.

About hannahpethen

Having completed my PhD in archaeology at the University of Liverpool, I am now a freelance archaeologists working with landscape and topographic survey and satellite imagery. I specialise in GIS, GPS, desk-based assessment and landscape projects and have a particular interest in Egyptian archaeology.
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2 Responses to Public presentation and archaeological experience

  1. Pingback: Missing the matrix: The invisibility of archaeological deposits and public misconceptions of archaeology | Archaeology and Egyptology in the 21st century

  2. Pingback: The afterlife of the Prittlewell Prince | Archaeology and Egyptology in the 21st century

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