The Ups and Downs of Keyhole Archaeology

By Brigid Gallagher 09/09/2011

Wouldn’t it be great if every project, every experiment and every meeting we had was fantastic, ground breaking, memorable, MONUMENTAL.

The reality… this is not reality!

For every fantastic, great, ground breaking (no pun intended), memorable, monumental, incredible, earth shattering (no pun intended again) archaeological site in the world…there is probably 10 if not 100 small, ordinary, even boring and unmemorable sites.

Honestly, I cannot remember the finer points of every site, every cultural or time period, or project I have worked on. 

It is not that some projects are more important than other’s, it’s just that some stand out. 

Myself, I am a visual thinker.  I visualise moments (situations, jokes, physical actions), geographical features or a scene (groups of people, clothing, atmosphere, text) to feed the memory and trigger other thoughts. Often this peripheral information my brain contains activates with clarity and definition the ‘real’ or necessary knowledge I require to perform each project…and later recall it.

I am not a psycho-analyst, nor do I understand the way individual brains function or process information, but it is fascinating how and why we remember certain things, and discard or temporarily put on hold others.

The Site

On the face of it, tonight’s Time Team episode titled ‘Called to the Bar: Lincoln’s Inn, London’, should have had all the necessary elements to make it personally memorable:

  1. In the centre of London, which is always exciting to excavate
  2. Gorgeous buildings, there is nothing quite like being literally surrounded by beautiful architecture with centuries of history, knowing that the like of the Tudor Kings and Queens of England are likely to have been here
  3. The site is monumental as part of the oldest and most distinguished law societies in the world, you can literally smell the importance and austerity
  4. The largest public space in London next door (Lincoln Inn’s Field), supposedly overlying the eastern boundary of the middle saxon settlement Lundenwic (c. 6th century, meaning London trading town), a public place of execution by the Tudors, and used as an evacuation point after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The site appears to have it all.  However with all good things…there can be draw backs. 

The Reality

This site is an example of limitation placed on urban archaeological excavation areas due to either surrounding development and associated services, or the protection of other features in the surrounding environment.  And this is probably why this site has become in my mind just one of the many I have been part of.  It happens often.

The reality of the excavation was that small areas only could be excavated (thanks to a sprawling historic London plane tree with a network of roots and building locations), noise levels needed to be kept to a minimum due to the very important work going around the excavations, and when trenches were opened outside the Court in the Field, everyone was widely separated, which always leads to less bonhomie than other less spacious sites….though there must be some!

 Another reason for its lack of detailed memory in my mind, and a general problem encountered in many urban excavations with a long history, is that each subsequent period or episode of building or rebuilding can either damage or remove evidence of previous settlement or building evidence.  Meaning, your chances of finding that memorable find or structure is statistically lowered.

When you have small trenches in urban areas that have been successively built on over say 600 years, and in recent years (relatively) have been equally disturbed by the laying of underground services and utilities, you basically have a 3-d jumble of a jigsaw to untangle….that is to identify and interprete.   

The benefit of a large trench or excavation area to view the different levels of strata that result from various phases of settlement, occupation, development and redevelopment (ie damage, destruction and modification) is that you have a greater chance to identify key cultural or historical layers from which you can relatively date features, either before (below) or after (above) it.

Looking back in time through small trenches is a bit like looking through a key hole.  You only get part of the picture, without the context to give the picture meaning or sense. 


This is why absolute dating methods are so important…in this case dating by known artefact types.  The discovery of artefacts of known dates means that you can establish an ‘end date’ (terminus post quem) for any particular strata or occupation layer.

In this case dateable artefacts recovered from the trenches were identified as:

  1. 1 fragment of late prehistoric pottery suggesting that prehistoric activity is likely in the wider area around Lincoln’s Inn
  2. 2 fragments of disturbed Romano-British pottery suggesting Roman activity in the general area — not surprising given the proximity of Londinium
  3. No saxon pottery was found
  4. Medieval pottery found with a stone window mullion has been interpreted as par t of the early medieval hall associated with the earliest law court buildings, from c. 1422
  5. The majority of pottery found was post medieval green glazed fineware known as ‘Tudor Green’, dating from the 13th to 16th centuries with slightly various fabric and glaze technologies.  It has been interpreted by Wessex Archaeology, who completed the post excavation archaeological report, that these represent the rubbish discarded during this period of use of the law courts, and would have continued into the 18th century.

So although this site will never be held up as a ‘I can’t believe I was there, that was amazing, we added so much new information to our understanding about the past’…we were very lucky to have the opportunity to investigate a site with such a prestigious and continuous history…and is a great example of so many urban or limited excavation sites that archaeologists work on all over the world including here in NZ.

Why we need these sites…

They may be small, they may not have the whistles and bells of an Egyptian Pyramid, but they are hard work, they are a testament to the skill and intricacies of field archaeologists who can untangle a jumble of strata, damage, redevelopment and contexts…plus they fill in the blanks on the historical map and just may in the future lead to the next big find!   

If a fantastic, great, ground breaking (no pun intended), memorable, monumental, incredible, earth shattering (no pun intended again) archaeological site was investigated every day..what would we look forward to!  Even Indy needs some down time…it just doesn’t make it to film.