Archaeological projects vary in their nature, scope, methodology and budget, resulting in great variation of duration. Some basic surveys could last only for a few days, whilst some excavation projects can take decades to complete. However, the scale and complexity of many archaeological sites may prevent the undertaking of a full excavation, especially when advances in research and analysis techniques can turn the study of one quite small site into a lifetime of work. In view of this, it is wise to break up lifetime ambitions into smaller, manageable and easy-to-schedule projects. The nature of the project, objectives and its allocated budget will often determine the method or combination of methods that can be used in the various phases of the project.
Accordingly, when setting a timetable for a project, it is essential to keep the following in mind:
- What do we want to achieve during the project as a whole (long-term) and during intermediate stages (short and middle term)?
- What resources do we have or are we expecting to have for the project (funding, facilities, equipment, expertise, etc.)?
- How much time could be dedicated to each phase of the project (fieldwork, assessment, analysis, dissemination and curation)?
Due to many variables, the length of time that a project will take can be difficult to estimate. Nevertheless, some aspects of a project are easier to estimate, and it is less difficult to establish a timetable for them than for others.
Prior site evaluation
Quite often with underwater archaeological investigations, work is planned in a place where the investigator has not worked before. In this case, it is important to gather as much information about the area as possible, in order to have a realistic idea of how long the work will take and how it will be carried out. The advice of others with a thorough local knowledge, such as fisherman and local sailors or divers, should not be ignored. Moreover, the preparation of a major fieldwork plan could be preceded by initial evaluations of the site in the form of archival research, field survey or even limited excavation. This will result in a better understanding of the nature of the site and the fieldwork requirement (what needs to be done and how it will be done). Site evaluations are archaeological projects in their own right and should have a set timescale similar to major projects.
Several factors add to the planning. If they are left open-ended, unknown or ill-considered they could result in fieldwork taking longer to complete:
- Aims of the project: A full excavation where all possible material evidence is investigated, recovered and processed takes more time than a preliminary survey.
- Location: A remote area where the team will be living in on-site facilities and to where all equipment and supplies need to be brought requests the investment of more time than a place close by.
- Conditions: A project where working conditions are difficult or unstable usually takes longer. For example, if the site is in a tidal zone where work can be carried out only during a limited interval every day.
- Team Members: Team members who do not correspond with the requirements of the project, for example, a small and inexperienced team working on a deep shipwreck site, will have to be accounted for.
- Budget & resources: A fieldwork project that has already started and depends on an unsecured budget, such as private donations, without a contingency plan of how it will be funded through to completion.
- Work atmosphere: A negative work atmosphere and an unmotivated team can have a devastating effect on all phases of the project .Daily briefings and debriefings are indispensable.
Conservation is an integral part of the archaeological process and the post-excavation study of archaeological finds. However, it is also the aspect of a project that can potentially take much longer to complete than many others. For example, the wooden hull of the English Tudor warship, Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 and was discovered in 1971, has been under conservation treatment since it was raised in 1982, and will probably continue this treatment for at least another decade.
In any project, the timescale of the conservation process depends on a number of factors, such as the size of the excavation, the range, volume and condition of the excavated material and the availability of conservation facilities and resources either on-site or at the conservation laboratories of the receiving museum or institution.
Since it is usually quite difficult to know beforehand many of the factors that influence conservation requirements, particularly the types, amount and condition of the archaeological material, an accurate conservation timescale is difficult to establish. Nevertheless, a conservation strategy and an estimated timetable have to be considered and developed in the planning phase. This strategy should include pre-excavation considerations, possible on-site conservation, laboratory conservation and long-term stabilization requirements. To do this, consultation with conservators and other relevant specialists is essential. Also, an initial site investigation and a sampling strategy are advisable. Finally, reference to similar projects could be used as a guide. Without due thought being given to conservation before excavation, a project can face serious problems when unexpected materials and conditions are found, and the recovery and treatment of finds could significantly affect the project timetable.
Post-fieldwork activities include the assessment and processing of data gathered during the excavation as well as the study and analysis of excavated material. Obviously, some of these activities should be carried out simultaneously with other activities. For example, the artefact records should be kept up-to-date while the fieldwork is underway; once the fieldwork is done, the artefact records in all likelihood are finished as well. Other activities, however, need to be completed in a sequence; so one activity can not start until another one has been completed. For example, the study of a particular material might not be possible until it has been conserved and stabilized. Both parallel and sequential post-fieldwork activities should be included in the timetable. Early dialogue with finds specialists and other team members, in light of the available and expected resources, would enable the compilation of a timetable encompassing most aspects of the post-fieldwork activities.
Making information and data about investigated sites available to other institutions, scholars, NGOs and to the public at large should be the ultimate aim for any archaeological work. The results of a project can be publicized through various means, such as written reports, internet websites, leaflets, displays, press and media outlets, public talks, academic publications and conferences. Such activities can be done at different stages before, during and after the project, and can extend for a long time after all other phases of the project are completed.
The target audience and the reason for dissemination will influence when, how and for how long a project is publicized. To attract potential sponsors and funding bodies as well as volunteers who might be willing to help with the fieldwork and post-fieldwork tasks, it can be useful to publicize a project at an early stage. While research is being carried out, the preliminary results of a project could also be publicized to receive feedback from other researchers and spread interest in the initial achievements of the project. By the end of the project, the final publication should be compiled and disseminated. Another common way of publicizing the results of a project during and after its completion is through museum exhibits. This enables the dissemination of the project among a much wider audience and for a longer period of time. Accordingly, the project timetable should indicate when and how the project would be publicized and when each form of dissemination would be used.