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The planning process

Considerable planning is required before an excavation to make it successful. Read more about the planning and preparation involved.
A photo of Jim Leary and Amanda Clarke planning where to dig
© University of Reading

In this Step we explain that archaeological excavation requires considerable planning before even a spade or trowel is put into the ground.

Archaeological deposits represent a fragile and finite resource and any sort of excavation, however small, will damage them. Excavation is a once-only opportunity that destroys and irrevocably alters the historic resource, and we have a responsibility to the past to preserve it for the future. If we can answer our research questions without excavation, we should – it is better to ‘preserve in-situ’. On top of this, excavation is extremely expensive, so each dig requires careful specification. For these reasons, archaeological investigations should never take place without very considerable planning and prior work. An excavation is not something that occurs without serious thought!

This planning process needs to be brought together and documented in a Project Design. A Project Design sets out exactly what it is you are about to do and why. This includes a detailed programme of work and the excavation methodology – the size and location of the trenches, for example, and the particulars of how they will be excavated and recorded.

Heritage managers (such as county archaeologists and/or Inspectors of Ancient Monuments) use Project Designs to inform their decisions about whether to let you excavate the site or not. And once a Project Design has been agreed, the heritage managers can use it to regulate what is and is not excavated.

Included within the Project Design should be your reasons for selecting that particular site or landscape for excavation. If the dig is in response to a development, such as building new roads, houses, pipelines or airports, the location will have been chosen for you. This if often known as ‘rescue excavation’ or ‘development-led excavation’. The excavation will be limited to within the area to be disturbed by the development, and funded by the developers. This accounts for most archaeological excavations undertaken in Britain and is carried out by trained, professional archaeologists.

Alternatively, the excavation may be undertaken for research reasons, often by university-based academic archaeologists or community groups, such as local archaeology societies. In these cases there need to be clear research questions that can only be answered through excavation, such as confirming the date or function of an earthwork or cropmark, or – as in the case of the Vale of Pewsey – the lack of previous research and the presence of recently discovered sites. As well as to answer specific questions, research digs are often used to train students in the process of excavation and other field techniques. Research excavations can be funded by universities, charities, paying participants or funding bodies, such as the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

If you plan to excavate within a Scheduled Monument this must be done in consultation with the national governmental body, such as Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland, CADW (Wales), Environment and Heritage Service (Northern Ireland) and The Heritage Council (Ireland). In all cases you always need the permission of the landowners before you excavate.

Decision on whether to excavate or not has to be evaluated against what we can learn from excavating in terms or research and local value with the cost to the archaeological resource (and financial cost). Remember: excavation is an unrepeatable exercise!

Thinking about after the dig before we dig

During the planning stage of an archaeological project we must also consider what happens after the dig, and this also needs to be set out in the Project Design. Post-excavation – as it is known – is often an overlooked requirement, however, usually takes more time, effort and money than the excavation itself. Without a sensible post-excavation strategy there is very little point in excavating in the first place.

Everything recovered and recorded during the excavation must be studied, archived and published to be of any use. The site sequence needs to be set out, the artefacts examined, soil samples processed and analysed, and bones catalogued and studied. These need to be written up in reports by relevant experts and integrated with the overall excavation report for the site to be interpreted and understood and a final account published. This process might take years, and should be a very significant part of the overall project budget.

Following this, all the material and data collected needs to be archived in a local museum or suitable repository, so that it can be accessed and studied by others in the future. All of this needs to be worked out and agreed long in advance and set out in the Project Design.


  • Excavation requires a well-thought out Project Design with clear aims, objectives and questions.

  • Excavation is costly and destructive and should only be undertaken if the questions can only be answered through excavation.

  • Archaeologists have a responsibility to the site and to future generations of archaeologists and to the public.

We’d now like to hear your thoughts on why the planning process is important.

  1. What are the main considerations when choosing what and where to excavate?
  2. What are the main differences between development-led excavations and research excavations?
  3. What differences in the type of archaeology uncovered does this lead to?
  4. Is it reasonable to expect landowners to let you dig on their land when you think you have a good research reason?

Add your comment to the area below or choose to reply to a fellow Learner.

© University of Reading
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Archaeology: From Dig to Lab and Beyond

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