There is no one universal excavation strategy because developing one depends in part on the type of site being excavated and the purpose of an excavation. Therefore, an important characteristic of any strategy is flexibility in meeting the new problems, questions, and goals that will emerge during excavation.

With the advent of processual archaeology (also referred as the New Archaeology) in the 1960s, archaeologists began to ask questions of intention prior to going into the field. This process of developing a hypothesis and then testing it has reshaped the way archaeological excavation is undertaken today. Prior to processual archaeology, much of Near Eastern archaeology was more site oriented, with archaeologists interested primarily in cultural history. That approach stressed the excavation of large, multiperiod sites, especially prominent tells, to discover unusual art objects or “museum pieces,” to uncover monumental remains, and to establish the political history of a site. [See New Archaeology.]

Since the early 1960s the theoretical component of archaeology has become a driving force in determining how, why, and where excavation will be initiated. Most archaeologists now begin with a problem orientation and from it derive a theoretical model they will test with empirical data. Problem orientation is more formally developed as a research design, which articulates how specific archaeological methodologies employed at a specific site or in a specific region will address theoretical goals. Thus, a site must be selected that best meets the needs of the research design. Although there is no guarantee that the questions archaeologists ask will ultimately be answered by the material they excavate, there is almost always an attempt to link a problem orientation to an excavation strategy.

A good excavation strategy is the means by which to connect theory to data and must be predicated on the purpose or function of the proposed excavation. A strategy employed in salvage archaeology, where time is a critical factor, will greatly differ from the strategy used in a research excavation. The type of site will also directly affect the excavation strategy employed. Single-period sites are excavated much differently than multiperiod, or tell, sites. Prehistoric sites, classical sites, and underwater sites all have distinct archaeological configurations and attendant methodological approaches. However, almost all archaeologists are interested in the interpretation of archaeological data, rather than mere collection and/or description. To that end, most archaeological investigations in the Near East now include a multidisciplinary orientation and some degree of interest in environmental data. Archaeologists are increasingly turning to computers to assist in statistical analyses, data storage, artifact and architectural reconstruction, and systems modeling. [See Statistical Applications.]

The first step in almost any archaeological excavation is preexcavation research. Any previous excavation or survey of the site is studied, along with relevant maps, historical documents, drawings, and photographs. Geological and other types of areal research or survey are reviewed. This phase of research should also include historical and ethnographic assessments of the area under investigation, including visits to local museums and conversations with local professional and amateur archaeologists and any local residents familiar with the site or its environs. [See Site Survey.]

Following this phase of research, the site itself is surveyed and mapped. Artifacts from the site are collected systematically and then analyzed. The site is mapped and examined for signs of human or natural modifications. Areal photographs are also useful in discerning anomalies or other noteworthy characteristics. The site's environment is also surveyed in order to understand its ecological context.

A thorough preexcavation investigation is crucial because it will help refine the problem orientation and define specific research goals. However, as the excavation progresses, new hypotheses will be generated and new problems and questions will arise that should be systematically integrated into the research design and then field tested. Specific research problems lead to the collection of specific types of data. The method of collection, analysis, and publication is shaped by the research design. The research design should also help the archaeologist better define and determine appropriate methodological approaches.

The preexcavation phase can be the most important part of an archaeological project. In this formative period sites, regions, research hypotheses, and excavation methodologies are linked. In effect, the actual excavation should be putting a well-conceived and detailed research design into operation: the actual process of gathering empirical data with which to assess a theoretical model. The better crafted the research design, and the more thorough the preexcavation research, the more likely the research goals are to be met.

Once the formulation of the problem orientation and preinvestigation research is complete, the excavation, or acquisition of data, can begin by utilizing one of two standard approaches. A research design involving diachronic issues—such as culture change and continuity over time—will usually utilize a penetration methodology, probing subsurface deposits with deep trenches. This method stresses stratigraphic relationships (the vertical layering of artifacts and architecture). For synchronic issues a horizontal, or clearing, methodology stressing the spatial arrangements of artifacts and architecture at one point in time is more useful. Most excavation strategies employ both approaches in order to achieve the best possible context for all the archaeological data. With either method, the types of data collected and how they are collected should be systematically articulated in the research design.

Once the data are collected, they must be analyzed. Data analysis is as important as fieldwork. This phase of an excavation project generates the inferences on which archaeological interpretations and reconstructions are based. The analysis phase is often mediated by specialists who should be familiar with the field methodology in order to avoid inherent biases, which could affect interpretation.

The final stage of an excavation project is publication. Deciding which data will be published and how they will be presented are part of the excavation strategy. How the publication is organized is predetermined by the research design, excavation methodologies, and types of analyses.


  • Dever, William G. “Two Approaches to Archaeological Method: The Architectural and the Stratigraphic.” Eretz-Israel 11 (1973): 1–8. Clear and concise description of the horizontal and stratigraphic methods of excavation used in Syria-Palestine.
  • Dever, William G. “The Impact of the ‘New Archaeology’ on Syro-Palestinian Archaeology.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 242 (1981): 15–29. Useful overview of the history of the discipline in terms of field methodology for Syria-Palestine.
  • Drinkard, Joel F., et al., eds. Benchmarks in Time and Culture: An Introduction to Palestinian Archaeology Dedicated to Joseph A. Callaway. Atlanta, 1988. Very useful volume that includes articles addressing the history of the discipline of archaeology, techniques and methods of excavation practiced in the Near East, and theoretical overviews of different approaches to archaeology.
  • Joukowsky, Martha Sharp. A Complete Manual of Field Archaeology: Tools and Techniques of Field Work for Archaeologists. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1980. Excellent how-to guide for fieldwork; useful for anyone involved in the field, from the inexperienced volunteer to the excavation director. Details fieldwork techniques used internationally.
  • Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, 1991. Valuable, up-to-date sourcebook on all aspects of archaeology.
  • Sharer, Robert J., and Wendy Ashmore. Archaeology: Discovering Our Past. Palo Alto, Calif., 1987. Comprehensive introductory textbook for archaeology.

J. P. Dessel