The Changing Pattern of Archaeological Excavation in England; as Reflected by the Excavation Index

Article excerpt

The Excavation Index, a national index of excavations compiled by the Royal Commission, makes it possible to generate some statistics on the changing pattern of English archaeology, as reflected in the number and periods of sites dug.


In a recent note in ANTIQUITY, Michael Morris (1992) examined the development of Bronze Age studies in England from 1840 to 1960. He states, 'It is a key assumption of this study that the broad changes apparent in Bronze Age studies . . . are a microcosm of the larger discipline', but goes on to lament that 'little comparable statistical data has been compiled for the rest of prehistoric studies or indeed for archaeology as a whole' (Morris 1992: 419). One source drawn on by Morris, the Excavation Index maintained by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME), can provide a range of statistics on the history of archaeological excavation in England. This note is intended to set Morris' findings for Bronze Age studies into the context of 'archaeology as a whole', using data from the Excavation Index.

The Excavation Index

Since 1978 the National Archaeological Record (NAR) of RCHME has been compiling an index of archaeological excavations carried out in England. The project has four main aims: to compile a list of all excavations in England; to locate the original records from those excavations; to locate the finds from those excavations; to indicate those excavations for which a report has been published. The information noted for each separate excavation, recorded in retrievable fields on the computerized database, includes: locational details, period and type of remains recovered, name of the director of the excavation, dates of excavation, sponsoring and funding bodies, the location of finds, the location and content of the archive, any publications.

At the time of writing the Index contains over 26,000 records nationally, and this figure increases annually through maintenance and enhancement. Its scope has recently been expanded to include surveys funded by HBMC and its predecessors, watching briefs since 1960 and evaluations.

As the compilation of the Index has progressed, the trends in and distribution of excavations within individual counties have been examined: Norfolk (Beagrie & Gurney 1988), Greater London (Sargent 1990), Surrey (Beagrie & Scott 1990), Suffolk (Carr 1991) and northeast England (RCHME 1991). The following discussion is based on national statistics. Future maintenance and enhancement of the Index will mean that these figures should be regarded as provisional.

Bronze Age studies and national trends in excavation

TABLE 1 records the number of all excavations and the numbers for selected periods for each decade from the 1790s to the 1970s. This time-scale was chosen to provide a background to the developments identified by Morris. FIGURE 1 confirms that the pattern identified by Morris for Bronze Age studies in outline reflects the overall pattern: a peak in the 1840s-1860s is followed by a decline between 1870s-1910s, with a further sharp rise from 1920s, interrupted by the Second World War, that continues again from the 1950s.

decade   Bronze   Roman   medieval   total

1790s      35       23        4        65
1800s     522       46        3       599
1810s      63       37       10       152
1820s      95       66       10       193
1830s      45       48       16       116
1840s     397      117       35       602
1850s     362      137       34       652
1860s     419      136       40       696
1870s     255       92       54       459
1880s     222      133       74       503
1890s     171      171       77       489
1900s     129      200      119       532
1910s     104      161       92       469
1920s     177      475      220      1070
1930s     340      738      302      1672
1940s     170      443      206       939
1950s     368     1276      752      2760
1960s     430     1678     1331      3920
1970s     475     2021     2119      5271

TABLE 1. …