Guide, Introduction

A Guide to DIY archaeology


Background – Man’s impact on the landscape

For thousands of years men and women have fashioned the landscape according to their needs. Through the processes of farming, industrial development and related activities the successive occupying people have left their own unique mark. Initially, the geology of an area, the locally available resources such as water, drainage, defensibility, soil, as well as the relationship to other important places had a great influence on where people chose to settle. Once a place was chosen, depending on the tools available and the resources to hand, people would set about building dwellings, fields would be cleared for crops, husbandry and further settlement. In general, the more resources freely available to the settlement, the more successful it would be.

As time went by people developed both technically and into more organized social units. In time, more sophisticated social structures developed, the concept of the extended family, and the transformation of the father into leader led to more widespread tribal realms. At the same time individuals became increasingly specialized, crafts evolved which were formalized into trades. This, together with the spread of a common spiritual understanding helped people develop a social cohesion which allowed the sharing of a common cultural heritage across vast areas of Europe by the early Bronze Age (2500 BC). This increased spread of peoples, together with the power of a highly organized population, led disparate groups to come into conflict, in some cases entire populations were able to relocate and exert dominance in totally new geography’s. Towards the end of the Bronze Age, about 700 BC, helped by the exploitation of iron, a new social group emerged as dominant across a broad swathe of Europe, including England – these have been described as the Celts and were dominant throughout a great deal of Europe until the Roman at the very end of the first millennium BC. The Celts were apparently organized as tribal nations, in some cases smaller tribal units would be recognized as part of a larger tribal group. By the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, the largest tribe in Britain was known as the Brigantes, who controlled most of Yorkshire, Durham, Derbyshire, Cumbria, Lancaster and perhaps other areas as well.

The Brigantes expressed their Celtic identity in many unique and recognizable ways, and have left behind clues in the form of earthwork features and artifacts, these can be studied to reveal greater insight into the Brigantes tribe, perhaps helping us to reverse-engineer the history of the Brigantes tribe. For a better understanding of those events having impact on the Brigantes in the Late Iron Age, consult our Timeline.

The Celtic political dominance of Britain peaked and declined dramatically in the first century A.D., with the conquest by the Romans of most of the British Isles, including Brigantia. Since that time, some two thousand years have past, Britain has seen new invaders, each playing their part in the erosion and destruction of the evidence left behind by the Celts, also time itself has not been kind, wood, the most commonly used building material, has typically long since rotted, iron of course rusts and unfortunately most Iron Age pottery has hardly survived the test of time. Many sites have been built on, filled in, quarried, or are simply still lived on, however, some sites still remain, the larger sites can be very well known, such as Maiden Castle in Dorset or Mam Tor in Derbyshire but there are many, many more sites which are far less visible, many have yet to be excavated, and the exact interpretation of them can be uncertain. These remains are what we commonly call earthworks. The location and identification of these features, including hut circles, burial mounds, defensive sites, trackways, field systems and settlements has been a central theme to Iron Age archaeology for many years.


In many ways, the world of archaeology is an attempt to understand several worlds, in some cases thousands of years apart. Yet in order to understand a single aspect, we have to realise that each world, or period, left its footprint over those worlds that had gone before. Thus, in order to understand the world of the Iron Age, it is necessary to understand its relationship with what has had gone before, and after.

Amateur Archaeology

Like many professional disciplines, the world of archaeology has often shunned the interest of the private enthusiast, however, increasingly the role of the amateur is becoming key to the discovery of new archaeological discoveries. Archaeologists themselves are the first to agree that overall the understanding and preservation of our heritage is greatly underfunded, most funding that there is, largely goes into the preservation and recording of the known archaeological sites and materials, there is very little resource directed at identifying the thousands of ancient sites estimated to be still undiscovered. The amateur thus far has largely been an ignored and untapped resource, recent initiatives however have shown just what the amateur can achieve – Regularly metal detectorists find specific evidence which point to new areas for investigation. Local history groups and archaeology projects are for the first time allowing comprehensive field surveys and local information gathering to be performed, the resulting information is increasingly being used as part of wider archaeological research and dramatically changing our understanding of the impact the Iron Age had in shaping our countryside.

This guide attempts to show how an amateur archaeologist can make a real difference in the field of prehistoric research. It attempts to show how the myriad of research avenues available can be used simply and effectively, and how a little (or a lot!) investigation can sometimes add a great deal to our understanding of the past.

DIY Archaeology

Most people like visiting ancient sites, most people also assume that all that there is to know about a place has been written, or that what has been written tells the whole story. Every weekend thousands of us shuffle through the grand reminders of our past, many enjoy walking and find the ancient sites ideal focal points for a trip to the countryside, others visit museums thinking that the items available to view are widely known to the wider archaeological community. Yet what many do not realise, is that often there is more to these sites than has been previously noted, and that there are plenty of opportunities for the amateur archaeologist to add to the knowledge base. For example, some ploughed out earthworks can only be seen under very specific lighting conditions and are unlikely to have been shown in all but the most detailed investigations, an informed amateur could easily capture new and significant evidence. There are many other such ways that the DIY archaeologist can help out, from conducting isolated projects to participating in group activities, however, a little knowledge is a good starting point.

The biggest problem facing an amateur archaeologist is how to find out all that is already known about a particular piece of archaeology (an ancient feature or artifact). If you have a fascination for the Iron Age Brigantes Nation would like to help. It is our ambition to know all that is known about every site listed, and it is our ambition to have every known Iron Age site listed as well as any other information which helps our understanding of the Brigantes. Also, with features such as this guide, we hope to help the amateur find the best routes to information that we have yet to find.

Brigantes Nation – a quick word

Brigantes Nation was set up as an experimental project by George Chaplin in November 2001. The initial thought behind the experiment that by sharing information freely on the web, others could be encouraged to join a loose community of people with a special interest in the subjects covered. Individuals are encouraged to participate in research and also to solicit help for their own projects. The initial research project was aimed at understanding the life of Venutius, King of Brigantia (c.69AD). This has always been seen as a long term project and since then other research opportunities have presented themselves and although still primarily focussed on the Iron Age the help of contributors has enabled the number of research topics to be expanded.

This Guide

This guide is structured in a number of ways, largely in is constructed from essays on a particular subject, this way the subject gets the focus required, other sections simply give example images of artifacts to help recognition in the field, whilst others attempt to show how to make sense of the numerous types of information available.

This guide is aimed at people researching the Iron Age of Yorkshire, but addresses a much broader perspective in order to help the reader understand what evidence is relevant.

This guide, being a voluntary project, is written in order to benefit specific research, so there are some big omissions!

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