We can find out about the unwritten past through archaeological excavation. In Scandinavia excavations began in the 17th century as part of an awakened interest in the past. On the European continent, the 1748 discovery of Pompeii in Italy, buried in volcanic ash, led to excavations with enormous public interest. One of the earliest archaeological excavations in North America was done in 1797 on St. Croix Island to settle a boundary dispute between Britain and the United States of America by verifying the presence of a French settlement there in 1605.

Excavation methods have to adapt to the site under excavation. There is no one method that fits all. Construction machines such as bulldozers can be used to strip a site of modern turf on some large sites. Other sites are dug entirely with small hand tools. It is important to remember that archaeologists do not dig for artifacts. They dig for information. That information may be derived from artifacts but even more vital is the context in which the artifacts are found — the soils, the remains of human activities and the other related artifacts. Past activities always leave a mark in the soil, usually detected by a change in colour and texture. The soil also yields environmental data such as seeds, insect fossils, bone, and pollen, to mention but a few. For that reason, archaeologists do not just dig, they carefully scrape. Surfaces have to be as level as possible, both vertically and horizontally so that all changes can be detected. The chief digging tool is a mason’s trowel, and surfaces are usually swept with a broom or soft brush to make them as smooth as possible. Artifacts may be uncovered using small knives — a slightly curved grapefruit knife is ideal — and artist’s brushes.

Recording is as important as digging. The entire site, including all features and the position of artifacts, is mapped in three dimensions. Everything is also photographed, numbered, and recorded in writing.

Following the excavation, analysis of the data begins in the lab. This process is every bit as important as the excavation and usually takes at least four times as long as the field work. This is when overall maps can be prepared and the contexts of the artifacts can be interpreted. The artifacts are also studied separately and compared to material found on other sites as are the features found. Special analyses are undertaken, and only when all the results have been combined is the job done.

Viking Age burial site before excavation, Märsta, Sweden

Viking Age burial site after sod removal, Märsta, Sweden

Excavation of Viking Age burial, Märsta, Sweden

Excavation of the walled village of Eketorp, Öland, Sweden