Documentation techniques

Once the compilation and documentation of background information is complete, and following the decision to undertake an archaeological intervention according to the project design, archaeologists begin with the fieldwork. Many types of equipment and technology will be used at this stage.

The central objective of documentation at the start of fieldwork is to ensure a full, clear, and accurate description of the site, and of all field operations and observations, including excavation and recording techniques. A phased documentation programme in accordance with a phased project design is often the most efficient and cost-effective. It allows for winding up the project after each phase and for reconsidering the feasibility and usefulness of the next, as well as a fine-tuning of methods.

The techniques chosen for archaeological documentation should be the most effective, least destructive, most efficient and most economical means of obtaining the needed information. This seems to be a platitude, but in underwater archaeological work this principle needs careful consideration. To document excavation effectively, it is essential to record sites, features and finds accurately and comprehensively. All artefacts should be given equal weight whether they are wooden wreck parts, gold coins or antique amphorae, since they provide equal information about the past, and since it is their spatial interrelationship that counts. That, and the careful dissection and preparation of excavation plans and sections, is very labour intensive.

Whatever the documentation methods chosen, the actual documentation will consist of computer-data sets, plans and sections, as well as photographs, drawings and illustrations, recording forms, logbooks, site notebooks, diaries, dive logs, etc. Original data and field records should be maintained in a manner that permits independent interpretation insofar as possible. This means that the archive should be structured in such a way that the results are verifiable, for the principal researcher as well as for others. Record-keeping other than field notes should therefore be standardized in format and level of detail. Choices for certain methodologies must be explained, both for independent interpretation and for the periodical progress of the project. Obviously, that explanation will include a discussion of cost-effectiveness relative to other methods.


Example of an artefact record sheet



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Murphy’s law


Archaeological operations are amongst the most labour intensive underwater operations. Much needs to be done by hand. In planning efficiency one should counter the unfortunate ‘Murphy’s law’ that everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Technical devices, whether they are pumps, engines, cameras or surveying and measuring equipment other than rulers and tape-measures, need careful treatment and maintenance and have a tendency to malfunction at inappropriate times. To compensate for this, one should be able to deploy back-ups at short notice. As a result, there is a strong tendency to keep to simple and infallible devices: pencils, frosted plastic boards, tapes, strings, rulers and the like: the so-called KISS-method: ‘Keep it Simple Stupid!’ In many ways this is a sound reaction. And in remote but shallow sites, underwater archaeologists should definitely be proficient in getting results, while using very simple means.

Sometimes, however, this reaction has developed too much into a creed. In operations with mixed teams of professionals and volunteers, there is an understandable tendency to volunteer for the diving rather than for the maintenance of non-personal equipment. For many, diving is the motivation to volunteer in the first place, which takes away all stimuli to improve efficiency and cut down on the hours spent under water. Unnecessarily prolonged operations are the result. In some respects this can still be relatively efficient, but in other ways it is a waste. For instance, the directing archaeologists cannot be deployed elsewhere.

Clear assignments are therefore essential. Another option is to take turns for diving, equipment maintenance and all other activities.

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