Although historically developed from very similar backgrounds, current archaeological excavation methods in the UK and Denmark show characteristic differences. These differences relate not only to field recording, but to the ideal of archaeological documentation itself. Arguably, each side has limited understanding of the other methodology, but more interesting is how the differing excavation methods have adapted to and implemented digital documentation technologies.
Going back to the very beginning of field archaeology, the 19th century represented a starting point, characterised by an emphasis on acquiring and collecting artefacts and finds, arguably often achieved through an unsystematic and cursory approach. By the late 19th century, more consistent methods slowly emerged, driving field archaeology towards a more empirical-inductive methodology and focusing on the balance of archaeology between observation and interpretation (Marsden 1983; Darvill 2015). The introduction of archaeological positivism, in its quantification of all observed facts, meant a need for structuring investigation methods and recording systems, eventually leading to a situation where spatial recording was considered a basic, fundamental observation from which all objects derive meaning. The context of the artefact became important.
In the UK, one of the first to realise the importance of the archaeological spatial context was ethnologist and archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), who in his efforts to explore social evolution introduced methods for the documentation of long-term development and activity sequences (Bowden 1991). Effectively, this meant the introduction of plans and section drawings, allowing for the accurate recording of spatial distribution of features and artefacts. Contributions by Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) regarding relative chronologies and Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976) followed. Wheeler is perhaps most famous for the Wheeler Box-Grid trench system, where an excavation is divided into squares separated by baulks and sections, but he was also one of the first to systematically record stratigraphy in the UK as well as overseas in Egypt, India and Pakistan (Lucas 2001). The introduction of these tools meant that the required elements to do simple spatial recording were present, and the same basic principles of spatial and stratigraphical recording is still widely in use today.
Within the same timeframe, continental European methods saw a similar development. Archaeology in Scandinavia in the early years also focused almost exclusively on the artefact. However, emphasis on the development of typologies, starting with Christian Jügensen Thomsen's (1788-1865) division of prehistory into Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages and Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae's (1821-1885) observations regarding stratigraphy may be some of the most well-known Danish contributions (Gräslund 1987). The early to mid-20th century also witnessed developments in field methodology. The aftermath of the Second World War meant opportunities to examine many of the medieval market towns all over Northern Europe. Such urban excavations adopted the UK system of stratigraphical recording, owing to their often very deep and complex sequencing of building traces.
During the 1930s-1950s Gudmund Hatt (1884-1960) and Carl Johan Becker (1915-2001) were among the first to use large-scale open-area excavations to aid in the identification of prehistoric building structures, focusing on the exposure of large areas, where little more than postholes were preserved – which, unfortunately, is the case for most excavations in Scandinavia (Hatt 1928; 1938; Becker 1948; Larsson 2015). The abundance of settlements, especially of the Iron Age, exhibiting only modest stratigraphical information subsequently led to the adoption of the so-called German approach, where archaeological features are spatially documented through horizontal and vertical sections or 'schnitt'; a method that today is by far the most common approach to rural excavation in Denmark and Southern Scandinavia. In the same period, Harald Andersen (1917-2005) and Mogens Ørsnes (1925-1994) in particular developed methodologies related to the excavation of the stratified, vast wetland Iron Age weapon deposits, but with much greater emphasis on structures of features rather than 'just' stratigraphy of contexts (Andersen 1956; Ørsnes 1963; Becker 1966). Ørsnes later became editor and contributor to the Danish Field Archaeology Manual (Schou Jørgensen et al. 1980).
The 'continental methods' for open-area excavations were exported back to the UK, and widely applied throughout the 20th century, for example by Hurst (1927-2003) at the excavations of the medieval village of Wharram Percy between 1950 and 1990 (Beresford and Hurst 1990), and the deeply stratified sites of Winchester by Biddle and Wroxeter by Barker (Barker 1980; Biddle 1990; Barker et al. 1997; Collis 2011; Everill and White 2011). The same methods are recurring themes throughout the general methodological development in the UK, as depicted by authors such as Richard Atkinson (1946), John Coles (1972), Philip Barker (1977), Ian Hodder (1999), Steve Roskams (2001) and Martin Carver (2009). Excavations in the UK have, however, predominantly retained focus on the development of stratigraphical and single context recording, i.e. excavation by means of removing and correlating individual layers or contexts (Darvill 2015). Single context recording was developed by Ed Harris (1979; Harris et al. 1993) and widely adapted and developed in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s, specifically for deeply stratified urban archaeology. It was primarily seen as an attempt at formalising field recording in a universal structure of contexts or strata, which is descriptive rather than interpretative. The interpretation takes place post-excavation, which in later years interestingly is opposed by attempts at enabling a more reflexive approach to field archaeology, as illustrated by Hodder's interpretation at 'the trowel's edge' (Hodder 1997; 1999; Berggren et al. 2015).
For the sake of this article, methodological discussions and justifications for either approach is not the primary focus, but serve to illustrate the existence of two methodologies branching into several ways of doing archaeology. It is not a matter of single context recording vs arbitrary sectioning and slicing, or United Kingdom vs Denmark; all over the world methods vary according to geography, research questions and perhaps not least the political and cultural context in which the archaeology is exercised (Felding and Stott 2013; Carver et al. 2015; Madsen 1995). As a consequence, we generally observe a change from the very rigorous approaches to the more pragmatic hybrids. It is, however, very important to realise how the two objectives or ideals of documentation relate to different practices of epistemological traditions, and in turn how these relate to spatial recording in an evolving digital world.
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