Guide – Getting Started

How to research an ancient site


The first step in researching any site, is to understand what is already known about it, many sites have had previous archaeological research, often there are air photographs or even excavation reports. Clearly it makes sense to understand as much as possible about a site before going on to any further research avenues.

General note

Unfortunately, the sources of archaeological information for a specific site are not comprehensively recorded in any one central database in the United Kingdom, so there is no single source to ask for information about a particular site. There are a number of sources which attempt to hold records centrally, however they often do not share information themselves. On top of this, in the UK there are hundreds of Archaeological and History Societies, and thousands of local groups each performing archaeological research, the vast majority of their research output is in short publishing runs and is often not recorded in any searchable format that is freely available. Finding all known information about a particular item of archaeology is therefore not an exact art, methods used in narrowing down the search can have the unwanted side effect of omitting some key evidence which usually turns up later and causes a dramatic rethink!

Clearly, with so many research avenues, there is a knack to choosing that research avenue which is most likely to turn up positive results quickly. With this in mind this section attempts to be a springboard for some of the starting blocks of research, to show some of the ways a researcher can tunnel down into as much detail on a specific site as possible.

We hope that this guide will help you find out new things about sites listed in the Brigantes Nation website, we also hope that you will pass on this information to us so the next researcher has one less task.

Central Sources

In England, the National Monuments Record (NMR) is a central record of national monuments, here you can find out what records are available (but not all), these sources can often be consulted and photocopying for private use is available at a cost. The NMR record contains aerial photographs, records of historic and listed buildings and a nationwide record of archaeological sites. Unfortunately the NMR record is not an online resource, and must be dealt with manually. Closely linked with the NMR is English Heritage, who are tasked with the care of all major archaeological sites.

For Scottish sites of interest, the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS) holds the national collection of material relating to the archaeological and architectural heritage of Scotland. The sites, monuments and buildings of Scotland’s past are recorded here and made available to the public, both online and by means of exhibition and publication.

Each county or district has an archaeological curator. This person is usually based in the Planning Department of the local authority and is responsible for documenting and safeguarding the archaeology in their area. They monitor planning applications and suggest appropriate responses. These can vary from insisting on preservation to ensuring that excavations are carried out where necessary. The curator will also usually hold and maintain a record of all archaeological sites in their area, from major earthworks to single find spots. This is the Sites and Monuments Record (or SMR for short). Some SMR offices do have an online search facility.

Online NMR/SMR limited search –

The ADS ArchSearch system has a clickable map of the UK which allows the user to tunnel down to to specific geography’s and shows the relevant SMR and NMR records for that area. This is not comprehensive, only a percentage of all SMR and NMR records are currently on this database, but it is a very good first point of access. ADS website also has a number of document libraries and some access to full online reports. It is worth taking time to get to know this site. In particular this site holds an online search system for the journal of the Society of Antiquaries, on of the main sources of early archaeological data.

Local Archaeology Sources

In general, archaeology is organized is as follows:

For known archaeology (archaeology which has been recognized and is listed locally or nationally), which is often protected, organizations or contractors will carry out fieldwork or excavation for the curator of that site. They can be single operators or small groups through to large regional or national units. All need to be approved by the Institute of Field Archaeologists (IFA). The final resting place for any finds and the notes, plans and photographs accompanying them will be an appropriate (usually local) museum. For private sites, usually of less “importance” finds and reports may be kept in private collections or museums. Often a museum, university, society or increasingly the contractor on behalf of a particular developer will publish the results of work or contents of their collection. It therefore follows that at for a particular area there can often be a myriad of potential sources of information for a particular site.

In some areas, experimental archaeology centres have been set up to allows use to learn by recreating the environment in use for a particular period. Reenactment groups contain many specialists in clothing, lifestyle and warfare.

Library Search

Many sites have been very well documented, in some cases they have had specific publications written about them, for a great many others, they are mentioned briefly in gazetteers or in more wide-ranging documents. As with all things archaeological there is not a single source to identify what has been published, sources of information include the libraries, national bodies such as English Heritage, general as well as specialist book sellers, and Archaeological Societies and Groups. Literary sources come on broadly two forms – Primary sources are those which are written first hand, such as an excavation report, secondary sources are those which are written based on primary sources, and as the name implies these are regarded as lesser sources of information. The direction a book search may take depends on the particular circumstances of the research, usually the first access point that comes to mind leads the way. Many book sellers have regular book lists, these can be particularly useful in tracking down the titles of books not found is library searches. Local libraries can often be an excellent source of historical information, often they hold journals of antiquaries whose information was based on a less developed countryside, some of these knowledgeable enthusiasts were writing at a time when their local countryside had not changed to any significant degree from Roman or Iron Age times and so had much more to see. Their interpretation is often dubious (some interpret everything as Roman) however, their descriptions of visible remains are usually spot on. Also local and libraries often collect articles and newspaper cuttings of interesting items.

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    How to research an ancient site Introduction The first step in researching any site, is to understand what is already known about it, many sites have
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