Blog Posts

How to be an archaeologist

Published: 03 May 2017
Posted by: English Heritage
Category: Behind The Scenes

Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory. It is done by excavating sites and analysing artefacts and other physical remains.

The difference between history and archaeology is that history is informed by specific events (for example, a battle or a new monarch being crowned) and uses the written word as the main way to understand them.

The study of archaeology is far broader: it covers 4.4 million years of human history. While the earliest written records date back to 3500BC (with the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians), archaeologists rely more on objects and changes in landscape to inform their research and records.

Excavation is probably the most recognisable form of archaeology – you might have seen digs on TV or even going on in your local area. Although excavation doesn’t always occur, it is a very exciting starting point when an archaeologist is discovering the past.

We want to get more young people engaged in archaeology and history at our amazing sites across the country. This is why we have started the Saturday Archaeology Club at Wrest Park, and host a range of events throughout the year – which you can find out more about below.

What do archaeologists do?

Archaeologists ask questions to gather evidence about the past. Before an excavation an archaeologist researches the area to get an idea of what they might find, they then decide where the dig site should be.

They do this by carrying out surveys of the area. Any changes in landscape could mean something interesting is beneath the soil. Archaeologists will survey by field walking, taking aerial photographs, geophysical and total station surveys, reviewing maps and historical data. All this research informs them of what might have been there and whether they should or should not excavate.

After the excavation an archaeologist may ask some of the following questions to form a picture of the past that is built on using the excavated objects:

  • What did the people live in? (Were they settled or did they migrate?)
  • What clothing did they wear? What weapons did they use?
  • What types of food did they eat, and what did they use to cook and eat it?
  • How did they die? What were their religious beliefs?

4 Key Archaeology Skills (and how you can practice at home)


Top left: objects from the Wrest Park Archaeological Store next to a scale; top right and bottom left: members of the Saturday Archaeology Club; bottom right: the Bronze Age layer of the Club’s ‘archaeology dustbin’


The first thing to think about is how archaeologists look at objects, and the process of excavation.

Everyone considered historical timelines by looking at the layers of our archaeological dustbin. Followed by the opportunity to excavate ice cubes and record their findings.



Some objects to excavate – anything from small plastic toys to coins

a container big enough to hold your ‘finds’

Warm water

  • A tray
  • Salt
  • A spoon
  • A toothpick
  • A freezer


Fill the container with water and freeze it with your objects inside. Leave it overnight and, once frozen you will be ready to excavate your own block. You can make this as simple or complex as you like. For example, if you want to create finds on different layers, freeze an object in a small amount  of water then repeat the process.

To excavate, you will need some warm water, a tray, some salt, a spoon and a tooth pick. Carefully excavate your object by melting the ice with salt and warm water, and pick away the ice with your spoon and toothpick.


Archaeologists need to look at landscapes for clues. They also need to be able to accurately record landscapes and where objects sit in it.


A topographical map shows the details of a landscape, often using contour lines to describe the shape of a hill or valley. You can make your own topographical map and you start by making a hill out of dough. Pierce through the centre with a pencil and then place the dough on a piece of paper and draw around it.

Use some thread pulled tightly to slice off a layer from the bottom (you want to get four to five slices out of the hill). Take this away and draw around your small hill making sure to mark the centre on the paper to line up the next slices. Repeat the process until you reach the very top.


At the Saturday Archaeology Club, we mapped the sculptures from the Dairy, and plotted their positions on a scaled drawing. You can do this at home. You will need some A3 squared/graph paper and a large tape-measure.

To accurately measure the furniture you will need to measure the longest and widest points of the room, and scale down the measurements to fit on the paper. Once you have done this you can use your tape to measure and plot the furniture in the room.


Archaeologists need to be able to identify and record different types of burials and bones – both animal and human. This is trickier to practice at home – so come along to one of our events!

In previous Saturday Archaeology Club sessions we have discussed the types of burial positions of the past, looked at grave goods and re-enacted burials. We then looked at excavated animal bone, got them to identify, draw and record these bones.


To think like a conservator, you need to carefully consider the objects you handle. Is it delicate? What is it made from? What could you use to clean it? Does it need special conditions to store them? Will working on the object damage it further?

We gave everyone a bound soil lump filled with objects, and like an archaeological conservator they carefully removed the objects from the compacted soil, cleaned them and recorded them.


There are all sorts of English Heritage events to appeal to budding archaeologists. This is Hands On History: Archaeology at Old Sarum

Get into archaeology at our 2017 events:


This popular weekend club at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire is especially for 8-16 year old budding archaeologists. Working with Headland Archaeology, Drakon Heritage Services and the Young Archaeologists Club it’s an exciting chance to learn a variety of skills needed to work in archaeology and conservation. This includes how to excavate, record, identify and conserve a variety of objects.

This year we’ll be covering:

  • 13 May: Archaeology of Totem Animals
  • 10 June: Pets from the Past
  • 09 September: From the Battlefields
  • 14 October: From the Mysterious to the Medicinal
  • 11 November: From Fields to Fact

You can get a taster of archaeology on 22 – 23 April at our St. George’s Day event, or come along to Awesome Archaeology (24 – 28 July) in the summer holidays.

Other archaeology events


  • Archaeology Discovery | Sat 27 May – Sun 4 Jun 2017
    Unearth some of Northumberland’s hidden secrets this half term with our Victorian archaeologists. Mini archaeologists will join two Victorian time travellers who helped John Clayton discover Roman remains and ancient artefacts along Hadrian’s Wall.
  • Hands on History: Archaeology Detectives |  Sat 22 July  and Sat 29 July 2017
    Let the kids get stuck in to history with the chance to uncover clues, and handle artefacts. Take part in a sand pit dig to unveil secrets from the time when around 500 cavalry troops were based at Chesters Roman Fort.017


  • Awesome Archaeology | Mon 31 Jul – Fri 4 Aug 2017
    Meet our intrepid adventurers and see artefacts gathered from their digs around the world.


  • Archaeology Adventure (Old Sarum) | Sat 22 – Sun 23 Jul 2017
    Become an archaeologist for the weekend and dig deep into Wiltshire’s past. Unearth replica relics in our sandpit challenge and discover how artefacts are found and preserved
  • Hands On History Archaeology (Old Sarum) | Mon 24 Jul – Fri 4 Aug 2017
    Join the Hands on History Crew for archaeology fun at Old Sarum.
  • Archaeology Festival Tintagel | Mon 24 – Fri 28 Jul 2017
    Dig deep into Tintagel’s past as our archaeologists reveal the secrets hidden in the ground and see if you can unearth your own buried treasure in our sandpit dig. (Buy tickets for this event online today and receive 10% off!)
  • There will also be a professional dig at Tintagel, in partnership with Cornwall Archaeology Unit. The Tintagel Castle Archaeological Research Project, is scheduled to run from Mon 10 July – Fri 11 Aug. Keep an eye on @EHTintagel on Twitter for updates.


  • Brilliant Bones | Tue 25 – Sat 30 Jul 2017
    Join us during National Archaeology Week and uncover the secrets and importance of archaeology – what facts will you dig up? Step back to the 1800s and join Mary Anning, Victorian archaeological expert, and make your own fossil to take home.

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