Survey vs. Excavation: During my time as an undergraduate in Classical Archaeology, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in both a survey with the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) and an excavation with the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project (EBAP). While at EBAP, I’ve been asked many questions about which I like better and what the differences are between them. Both are important archaeological processes but are very different, especially as a student out in the field. This post will highlight the characteristics of survey and excavation in general and will also discuss differences and similarities in procedures and technique.
Main Goals: When one embarks on a survey, the goal of the project is to obtain an all-encompassing archaeological view of a large region. Generally work is done in square kilometres rather than square meters, which allows for a big picture view. Survey is used to identify potential sites (areas with high densities of material) and is commonly used to select promising areas for future excavation.
In contrast, excavation is a very detailed picture of a small area. It commonly occurs after a survey has taken place, like here at EBAP, but also occurs when features or artifacts of interest are found. Excavation usually includes uncovering architecture or artifacts below the ground surface in a systematic way.
In the Field: I generally like to relate survey to cardio and excavation to strength training. While participating in survey I spent my days hiking around the Greek countryside, through well-tended agricultural fields or jungles of prickly maquis. Every day I got to experience a different view, and by the end I had seen a significant portion of the Argolid plain. I also had the opportunity to meet a variety of people, especially the farmers who seemed not to care that a group of archaeology students were walking through their fields.
Excavation, in comparison, requires a lot less walking and a lot more lifting. From big picking to wheel-barrowing, the entire six weeks are spent moving as much dirt as possible. The season is spent at a single site, which allows me to really understand the history of Eleon and the archaeological processes taking place. Even though I walk up the same hill every day, I always looked forward to understanding more about the site and finding something which has remained in the ground since the Mycenaean period. I also find that working on a project as multi-disciplinary as EBAP has allowed me to get a glimpse of many of the facets of archaeology that I may otherwise had not been able to explore such as osteology or conservation.
Overall, both surveying and excavating are important pieces to the archaeological process, but are very different when compared to each other. I truly do not prefer one over the other because I have been able to have such interesting experiences in both. I hope to participate in more surveys or excavations because they really are two pieces to one puzzle.