Structure of a report (Rule 31)

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, after 1880. The format of excavation reports dates back to the 19th century based on Pitt-Rivers’ Cranborne Chase model. This generally comprises summary/ abstract, introduction/ background, description of features, structures and stratigraphy, discussion, catalogues/ specialist reports/ appendices. In addition, the volumes on the Cranborne Chase excavation contain useful relic tables summarising context details including features, stratigraphy and finds. Now, in the 21st century excavation reports contain more data with more specialist reports, but follow the same format, without relic tables.

The structure of the research report should mirror the course of the research process while illustrating its positive and negative effects, and end with recommendations for preservation and future research.

A good report begins by defining the research goals, the assumptions made, the methods and techniques applied. The next stage is a description of the results obtained. This constitutes the basis for planning of possible future interventions or additional, complementary research. A very important element of this part of the report is a description of mistakes and omissions. Everyone makes mistakes. It is only by specifying them that it will be possible to eliminate the same mistakes in the future, or to take them into account. In this way, the research process can undergo continual improvement.

The final report of an archaeological project should ideally follow the structure indicated in the text-box. Following such a template will help to include all the necessary information. The listed elements are different in character and will be briefly discussed.

An archaeological report should include

  1. Title page (and verso) 
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. Table of Contents 
  4. Abstract / Executive Summary
  5. Introduction
  6. Account of activities, responsibilities and personnel involved
  7. Results and findings
    • facts
    • interpretation
  8. Conclusions and recommendations
  9. Information on the project archive
  10. References
  11. Appendices


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Title page (and verso)

The first page of the report should give its title (which should provide a precise indication of the subject matter), the authors, the archaeological site and the date of elaboration. The reverse of the title page is reserved for copyright information. Reports can be produced for a small, specific audience, but even so, one should include all the details that will allow bibliographic referencing, such as place and date. One should consider giving the report an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), which will greatly help future users to identify it. Each country has a national ISBN-office that assigns such numbers on demand. Even reports that will only be published digitally can now get an ISBN-number. If the report is part of a series, which will often be the case, there is also the International Standard Serial Number (ISSN). Periodicals will have an ISSN. Book-series will also have an ISSN, while individual books in the series have an ISBN in addition. The copyright page or verso of the title page includes a colophon, a list of key-words and these numbers.

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The scientific or material support of partners or contributors should be acknowledged as well as sponsors or other partners and then, all individuals and institutions who have provided assistance in the fieldwork, analysis, report writing and other stages of the project. Many people will have worked hard to bring the project to completion and this public acknowledgement may often be the only reward they receive.

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Table of Contents



The progressive numbering system and hierarchy of the report’s layout should be incorporated into a Table of Contents. Considering that the accessibility of reports is greatly enhanced by putting them in digital collections or on the internet, it is wise to consider whether a digital link between titles and text would be practical. Such links can then be included from the very start. They are also an advantage if several persons work on the report simultaneously, which nowadays has become the rule, rather than the exception.

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Abstract / Executive Summary


A short paragraph summarising the main contents of the report should be drafted if the report is longer than 10 pages. It should include a short statement of the goals of the project, the methods used, results obtained, conclusions reached and any recommendations made. The abstract should be concise, informative and independent from the report. It is advisable to draft this section after having written the report.

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The introduction should give the context and scope of the report and should include the terms of reference of the project that is reported on. It should include:

  • Description of the site, including
    • location and /environment,
    • contextual background,
    • historical background, and
    • its formal delimitation, as well as an indication of the surrounding space included in analysis.
  • Description of the objectives of the project, including
    • research objectives, and
    • research design.
  • Description of the project’s organisation and institutional affiliation.
  • Enumeration of the people involved, including
    • the principal investigator, and
    • the other people in charge of different aspects of the project
  • Introduction to the structure of the report.

If the report deals with a particularly comprehensive project, it may be necessary to split the introduction into several chapters that together will constitute an introductory section. Its function and contents will nevertheless be more or less the same.

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Account of activities


The account of what actually happened when the project was carried out is an essential part of the report. It should include a discussion of the circumstances and organization of the desk-based research and field work and the dates when it was undertaken. It should mention the identity of the individuals by whom the different tasks were undertaken as well as their institutional affiliation. The account should report on the methodology employed. It thus illustrates how activities and research were carried out and how data was collected. Although there can be merit in extensive narratives, this information should be presented logically and concisely. Omissions or possible problems of data collection, including any deviation from the research design and the reason for the changes, should be clearly indicated.

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Results and findings

The results of the project should be described and illustrated. These results often come in different forms. Practical results and scientific results go hand in hand. In this section, it is important to separate facts from analysis and to include conclusions.

Facts should be reflected in the text and should be illustrated, if necessary, in an annex, with drawings, or graphic and photographic documentation. These should include all stages of the activities and observations. In each case, the factual information should be clearly distinguishable from the analysis and interpretation. The section on results and findings will generally be composed of several chapters, each presenting the facts and analysis relating to a specific topic.

All in all the results should include:

  • A description of the location of the site, including a map and contour plans;
  • a description and drawing of the object of research, including an outline of trenches and areas of archaeological research;
  • a full artefact report with drawings and photographs of objects and materials; 
  • a comprehensive description of field observations;
  • environmental and specialist scientific reports;
  • reports on conservation work on the site and individual artefacts, including all changes such as excavation, back-fill, covering, or disassembling and re-assembling of artefacts, as the case may be;
  • analysis and interpretation of the results.

Presentation of findings

Findings shall be presented in a simple way. Maps should include an overlay of the coordinate system used during the research, as well as compass directions and geographical coordinates. Statistics and measurements should be illustrated with tables, charts, graphs and photographs, as appropriate. Graphs, photographs and illustrations have to be labelled and easily interpretable. There must be a clear link between illustration and text. Captions must be accurate and comprehensive, including precise titles and references to the relevant find numbers and diary entries. Scales should be indicated, and axes in graphs should be well-explained. Copyrights need to be indicated, and whether use of material is restricted or not.

Analysis and interpretation of the results need to explain the significance of the site, the artefacts and the conclusions that can be drawn. They need to identify important issues and suggest explanations for the findings. Any problems encountered shall be outlined and an attempt shall be made to present a balanced view. An evaluation of the investigation in view of its objectives should follow. This evaluation should include a discussion of how well the needs dictated by the planning process were served. The analysis should also illustrate the significance of the findings for the archaeological discipline and the general public. At the end of the analysis, the main issues should be drawn together. All new factual information should have been presented earlier in the report. Possible future research can be briefly discussed.

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Conclusions and recommendations

The analytical chapters on interpretation that have been discussed under the general heading of Results and findings will all include partial or far-reaching conclusions. At the end of a report, however, the conclusions should be combined and reiterated. It is useful to always combine this with recommendations. Such recommendations can include lessons learned on appropriate or failing methodology or equipment. They can address scientific questions that urgently need to be settled and they can and should include practical recommendations on the ongoing management of the site, the project archive and the collection of artefacts and samples that it may include.

In undertaking archaeological research, researchers assume responsibility for the preservation, curation and condition of a site and of any objects they remove. It should be remembered that preservation and securing actions should be planned with a view to the long-term, allowing research, understanding and enjoyment to progress, not only over a few years but over several decades. Recommendations should take the threats and opportunities of a site into account. Such threats may result from the natural environment, but may also include man-made ones. For this reason, it is very important to exchange information concerning threats for the underwater cultural heritage with the representatives of other sectors actively working in the environment.

In line with this responsibility, the recommendations could address storage and exhibition of artefacts removed from the site, and specific conditions that should be met. This could extend to the relative humidity, temperature, and lighting levels to be strived for, or specific instructions for transport. Recommendations could also relate to a future site management plan for the terrain where the excavation site is located, or relate to future activities or revised information needs.


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Information on the project archive

The report should also contain a clear summary of the contents of the project archive, its location and conditions of access. The archive can be composed of very different components, including both documentation and finds, as discussed under Rules 33 and 34.

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The last pages of the report should give details of all works by other authors, which have been referred to within the report. Details should include the author’s name and initials, date of publication, title, publisher, place of publication, and page numbers. Details of website references should also be given, including the URL of the webpage, date of access, author and title. References should be listed in alphabetical order of the authors' names and in a consistent format, for which various standards exist. These may vary from country to country or from publishing house to publishing house. For internal reports, a research group will have to choose the format that is the most appropriate, considering local conventions. Referencing software is a useful tool available for quick and easy conversion between different systems.

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Additional information that derives from the project, but whose length would unbalance the report, should be annexed to the report in appendices. These could be lists, catalogues, tables, statistics, drawings or photographs. One could also decide to include specialist reports that support the project, such as the dendrochronological analysis of wood samples if such analysis took place. This is equally true for other types of research that have their own cumulative logic. Reproducing such reports in extenso as an appendix will not burden the flow of argument in the report, while still giving every opportunity to assess and compare specialist results. Such analyses can be central to the project, but equally importantly they provide their own body of knowledge. In the case of dendrochronology, this refers to climate and climate change as well as to forestry, timber-use and timber trade.

Index and glossary

Other elements that can be considered for inclusion are an index and a glossary of terms. Technical terms are hard to avoid when dealing with technical subjects. Readers may not have the same specialist background and they have a right to understand what exactly one means in using a specific term. This is not a problem if a term is used only once, and can be defined in the text. If it is used repeatedly in a report that is to be consulted regularly, rather than reading from cover to cover as a novel, a glossary will be the only way to address the problem. Sometimes it is even necessary to include glossaries in more than one language, especially when dealing with phenomena that cross cultural and linguistic borders. An index, telling exactly on which page one will find discussion including a particular term, used to be a very practical addition to complicated reports and publications. Their preparation used to be tiresome. This has changed enormously since computers have replaced typewriters in word-processing. It is much easier now to prepare an index than it used to be. But the usefulness of an index has also decreased. If a report is accessible digitally, any word search is possible. A detailed Table of Contents is therefore usually good enough.

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Sensitive information


Some information, such as specific GPS indications, may be highly sensitive to disclosure. This may particularly be true in the absence of a management plan that addresses threats of vandalism. Sometimes, it may therefore be appropriate to prepare a separate report for public distribution. However, this touches on a profound dilemma. Archaeology builds on spatial distributions. Moreover, it serves a public purpose. So, in many ways, the public has a right to know. Denying access and withholding information may have more negative impacts in the long run than engaging as many as possible in protection through extensive information. Nevertheless, it may be wise to consider some information sensitive when it is not backed up by a full information strategy. This argument should not be used, however, to withhold information that would otherwise lead to a better understanding of the significance of the underwater cultural heritage, or of the issues involved in its protection.


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