7. Reflections on the DigIT Project

The excavations undertaken under the DigIT project were organised at short notice, and constrained as to the choice of area as a consequence of the foot-and-mouth outbreak that devastated the rural north of England during 2001.

The archaeological objectives, to evaluate features identified through geophysical survey, assess their date range and condition, analyse the impact of modern agriculture and gain insight into the blown-sands that contribute so much to the importance of the archaeology of Heslerton, were all successfully achieved. The excavation confirmed that within 2.5km of the huge excavated Anglian or Early Anglo-Saxon settlement at West Heslerton, a second and larger settlement of the same class reflects an entirely unanticipated density of settlement in this period. The interpretation of the distinctive geophysical response of Grubenhäuser was confirmed and, although the sample size was minute, in terms of the settlement as a whole, the similarity of the Grubenhäuser distribution revealed by geophysical survey and excavation confirms that the excavated site is more likely to represent the norm in terms of Early Anglo-Saxon settlement in the region rather than an exception.

The ceramic assemblage from the three excavated Grubenhäuser was worthy of analysis as complete sealed groups, particularly for comparison with the material excavated at West Heslerton, with which it is entirely comparable. No Middle Saxon material was identified and the lack of enclosures showing in the geophysical survey may indicate that this settlement was deserted before that at West Heslerton.

The nature of the small circular features, a class of feature not previously identified and now termed 'barrowlets', remains problematic. These features, appearing in their hundreds in the geophysical surveys on the sands and gravels skirting the ancient wetland which covered the centre of the Vale of Pickering, appear to be linked with cremations and may go some way towards identifying why we have no known burials from the Late Iron Age or Roman period over much of rural East Yorkshire. Those examined here showed that the geophysical survey reveals some, but not all, of these features, and that in this area plough damage has destroyed the critical evidence needed to confirm or discard the current interpretation.

The study of the blown-sand resolved important questions regarding its development. Although the exposure of the sealed archaeology beneath it was small, the trench confirmed that, where buried by blown-sand, the Late Iron Age and Roman fen-edge linear settlement is exceptionally well preserved beneath deposits that started to accrue at the end of the life of the settlement. The limited sample of the features intersected by the 1.5m wide trench meant that detailed analysis of the cultural assemblage would offer little. However, the ceramics indicate that in this location the features identified in the geophysical survey reflect settlement from the late Iron Age to late Roman periods, with more intensive activity during the 2nd and 4th centuries.

The environmental assessment enhances our comprehension of the landscape context of the excavated features, confirming high water-table levels particularly in the ladder settlement, where a high water-table during the Late Roman period has been considered a likely contributor towards the abandonment of this settlement complex in the Post-Roman period. The potential for the recovery of good evidence from land snails has been confirmed, as has the good preservation of faunal evidence. Although pollen analysis was not undertaken, the plant macro-fossil evidence gives insight into the palaeoeconomy and provides important comparative evidence for West Heslerton.

The second objective in the excavation was the examination of digital recording techniques applied in the field. The project confirmed that the use of PDAs and more integrated and sophisticated Total Stations performed significantly better than the LRCs still functioning, but 'outdated', technology. Digital cameras with resolutions above 3.5 megapixels were shown to produce results that, for normal publication print size, were every bit as good as 35mm film, and in fact rather better in terms of latitude; they offer a host of benefits in terms of image processing, and cost of collection over film (hundreds more photographs were taken than if film alone had been used). However, archiving the digital photographs for future reference is a potentially serious problem. Digital survey, whether by GPS on foot, vehicle mounted GPS, or using the Total Station, is fast, flexible and accurate – no excavation should be conducted without a TST. Any ambition to capture all data digitally must be set against the quality, detail or intellectual depth of the data collected. Some devices looked promising but in the end generated either poor quality or insufficient data, such as the tiny 0.7 megapixel camera fitted to the PDA, sketches on the PDA (not much better than from a child's 'Etch-a-Sketch') and the Seiko Smartpad (let down by its inability to produce a vector drawing). In other cases, particularly the creation of detailed excavation drawings, while the TST and GPS were magnificent tools, the time needed to secure a result of sufficient detail was too great, especially as it took up time when the instruments were needed for other tasks. More importantly, the simple process of trying to draw using a pole with a reflector that needs to be kept vertical, rather than drawing with a planning frame, pencil and paper, or some form of digital notepad or tablet, detracts from the complex process of observation and interpretation that are the fundamentals of the drawn record. Everything about digital recording should be determined on a fit-for-purpose basis. The TST helps produce quick, spatially accurate overall pre-excavation plans; however, one would not like to plan a complex crouched burial with an assemblage of grave goods using a TST, nor would one wish to hold the pole or drive a robotic total station using its joystick in order to record a Roman mosaic.

The future for digital recording in excavations is guaranteed; even the context planning conundrum may well be resolved by combining rectified vertical digital photography, 3-D scans and user-defined overlays identifying boundaries, soils and inclusions. It is only a matter of time before PDAs incorporating mobile telephone, high-resolution camera and digital dictaphone are available to cover most of the context recording needs. It is, of course, now more than 20 years since handheld computers were first applied in excavations at West Heslerton; let us hope that the next 20 years will see a little less resistance by archaeologists or project managers to the potential of digital data collection. At the same time let us hope that people remain aware that the singular objective in using digital recording is to get better and more consistent data, suitable for sophisticated interactive analysis that will inform and improve our ability to interpret the past, as that is what it is all about.


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Last updated: Wed Nov 11 2009