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The changing pattern of archaeological excavation in England; as reflected by the Excavation Index.

The Excavation Index, a national index of excavations compiled by the Royal Commission, makes it possible to generate some statistics on the changing pattern of English archaeology, as reflected in the number and periods of sites dug.


In a recent note in ANTIQUITY, Michael Morris (1992) examined the development of Bronze Age studies in England from 1840 to 1960. He states, 'It is a key assumption of this study that the broad changes apparent in Bronze Age studies . . . are a microcosm of the larger discipline', but goes on to lament that 'little comparable statistical data has been compiled for the rest of prehistoric studies or indeed for archaeology as a whole' (Morris 1992: 419). One source drawn on by Morris, the Excavation Index maintained by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME), can provide a range of statistics on the history of archaeological excavation in England. This note is intended to set Morris' findings for Bronze Age studies into the context of 'archaeology as a whole', using data from the Excavation Index.

The Excavation Index

Since 1978 the National Archaeological Record (NAR) of RCHME has been compiling an index of archaeological excavations carried out in England. The project has four main aims: to compile a list of all excavations in England; to locate the original records from those excavations; to locate the finds from those excavations; to indicate those excavations for which a report has been published. The information noted for each separate excavation, recorded in retrievable fields on the computerized database, includes: locational details, period and type of remains recovered, name of the director of the excavation, dates of excavation, sponsoring and funding bodies, the location of finds, the location and content of the archive, any publications.

At the time of writing the Index contains over 26,000 records nationally, and this figure increases annually through maintenance and enhancement. Its scope has recently been expanded to include surveys funded by HBMC and its predecessors, watching briefs since 1960 and evaluations.

As the compilation of the Index has progressed, the trends in and distribution of excavations within individual counties have been examined: Norfolk (Beagrie & Gurney 1988), Greater London (Sargent 1990), Surrey (Beagrie & Scott 1990), Suffolk (Carr 1991) and northeast England (RCHME 1991). The following discussion is based on national statistics. Future maintenance and enhancement of the Index will mean that these figures should be regarded as provisional.

Bronze Age studies and national trends in excavation

TABLE 1 records the number of all excavations and the numbers for selected periods for each decade from the 1790s to the 1970s. This time-scale was chosen to provide a background to the developments identified by Morris. FIGURE 1 confirms that the pattern identified by Morris for Bronze Age studies in outline reflects the overall pattern: a peak in the 1840s-1860s is followed by a decline between 1870s-1910s, with a further sharp rise from 1920s, interrupted by the Second World War, that continues again from the 1950s.
decade Bronze Roman medieval total

1790s 35 23 4 65
1800s 522 46 3 599
1810s 63 37 10 152
1820s 95 66 10 193
1830s 45 48 16 116
1840s 397 117 35 602
1850s 362 137 34 652
1860s 419 136 40 696
1870s 255 92 54 459
1880s 222 133 74 503
1890s 171 171 77 489
1900s 129 200 119 532
1910s 104 161 92 469
1920s 177 475 220 1070
1930s 340 738 302 1672
1940s 170 443 206 939
1950s 368 1276 752 2760
1960s 430 1678 1331 3920
1970s 475 2021 2119 5271

TABLE 1. Number of excavations on the Excavation Index by
decade, 1790s-1970s.

Many differences in detail are, however, apparent. While Bronze Age studies decline in the late 19th century the total number of excavations stabilizes at a reduced level, and while they echo the general pattern from the 1920s onwards they never regain the dominance they enjoyed before the 1870s.

General discussion

Trends in excavation generally will now be considered. The longer perspective of FIGURE 2 highlights the suddenness of the increase in excavation in the 1840s. Prior to that date, archaeology was the preserve of a few men of leisure, although a gradual upward trend in the number of excavations per decade can be seen. The sharp peak of activity in the 1800s was due entirely to the work of Sir Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington, who opened 465 mounds between 1803 and 1810 (Marsden 1974: 17): the number of excavations on Roman and medieval sites during the decade is as expected.

The 1840s saw archaeology emerge as a fashionable pursuit for gentlemen and the rising middle classes (Morris 1992). This was exemplified by the foundation and rising membership of the Archaeological Association in 1843, which claimed 1200 (male) members in its first year (Marsden 1984: 25), and of the Archaeological Institute in 1845. The county societies quickly followed over the next two decades: e.g. Norfolk 1846, Sussex 1846, Bedfordshire 1847, Buckinghamshire 1847, Suffolk 1848, Somerset 1849 (Levine 1986: Appendix IV).

As archaeology gained in popularity, the rate of excavation increased dramatically, reaching a peak in the 1860s that was not surpassed for 60 years. These were the decades of the great barrow openers, particularly Thomas Bateman (1821-61), William Greenwell (1820-1918), and John Mortimer (1825-1911): Greenwell and Mortimer were both at their most active during the 1860s. Barrow opening became the fashion; M.A. Lower, a schoolmaster in Lewes, wrote in 1852, 'I have to-day been teaching the "young idea |i.e. youth~ how to dig" barrows. Armed with pickaxes and shovels my pupils and I have partially excavated a barrow near the race-course' (quoted in Salzman 1946: 13).

During these decades the number of excavations on Roman sites also increased, though the figure was nowhere near as high as that for Bronze Age sites and barrow openings, probably reflecting the greater amount of time required to excavate a non-barrow site. There were, perhaps surprisingly, very few excavations on medieval sites at this time, despite the fact that many county societies combined interests in archaeology and ecclesiastical architecture.

The decades following the peak of activity in the 1860s saw a loss of enthusiasm for excavation, the number declining by about one-third to a rate which was then maintained until the 1920s. However, archaeology in the broader sense remained popular, and membership of the county societies continued to rise. Although the societies themselves believed that membership declined from the 1880s, blaming this in part upon the growth of new leisure pursuits, Levine (1986: 65-6) found that the average rise in membership at this time was about double the average decline; the membership of the Sussex Archaeological Society rose almost continuously towards the close of the 19th century (see annual reports in Sussex Archaeological Collections). One of the mainstays of the societies in the later 19th century was the excursion, and Hudson (1981: 43) argues that the role of the new railway system in allowing people to attend meetings and to go on excursions should not be underestimated.

Another measure of the vigour of archaeology is publication. One hundred and one members contributed articles to the first 25 volumes (to 1873) of the Sussex Archaeological Collections, while a further 89 members contributed to the next 25 volumes (Salzman 1946: 67-8). Architecture was also a valid area of study; the first 20 years of the Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, founded in 1885, were dominated by studies of standing buildings (Whinney 1985).

It was during the closing decade of the 19th century that the number of excavations on sites of the Roman period overtook those of the Bronze Age, which never regained dominance. Marsden (1992: 423) suggested that this may have been due to the depletion of the stock of unexcavated upstanding barrows. It could alternatively be a consequence of the emergence of archaeology as a more rounded discipline, as demonstrated by the broader concern (in principle) of the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882.

The number of excavations rose rapidly once again in the 1920s and 1930s, as a handful of professional posts in museums, universities and other institutions provided support for 'a new and self-consciously "professional" elite network' of archaeologists (Morris 1992: 423). Amateurs and the societies continued, however, to make a major contribution. Excavations on sites of the Roman period were dominant, while those on Bronze Age sites once more increased in numbers. It was not until the 1920s that medieval sites began to attract significant attention from excavators, perhaps reflecting an increase in urban archaeology.

This sharp growth in excavation was interrupted by the Second World War, but continued subsequently with urban renewal and the development of professional units. Multi-period urban sites have been the focus of much excavation over the last 50 years, helping to confirm the dominance of the Roman and medieval periods over prehistory.


Excavation is only one among many indicators of the state of archaeology nationally, albeit a significant one. Morris used the evidence of publication to trace the academic development of the discipline, while a study of local society membership would fill out the picture further. However, data from the Excavation Index has confirmed that the pattern of Bronze Age studies identified by Morris does reflect the pattern of archaeology in England as a whole, despite the differences in detail discussed above.

Using the Index

The database created by the Index, a national archaeological resource, is available in the standard format for the whole of England. It is computerized, allowing information to be retrieved from any combination of fields. The NAR also houses a large and expanding collection of excavation and other archaeological records on microfilm which is available for public consultation.

Enquiries may be made by personal visit, telephone or letter as detailed below. On-line searching of the Index is possible via a computer terminal in the NAR library in Fortress House. Catalogues can be generated in answer to specific enquiries. This service is free, with a small charge for the cost of printout.

Contact address

National Archaeological Record RCHME Fortress House Savile Row London W1X 2JQ

Telephone: 071-973-3148

Acknowledgements. I would like to thank my colleagues for their advice and assistance in preparing this note.


BEAGRIE, N. & E. SCOTT. 1990. The Surrey Excavations Index, Surrey Archaeological Collections 80: 179-85.

BEAGRIE, N. & D. GURNEY. 1988. The Norfolk Excavations Index, Norfolk Archaeology 40(2): 185-93.

CARR, J. 1991. The Suffolk Excavation Index, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology 37: 179-85.

HUDSON, K. 1981. A social history of archaeology: the British experience. London: Macmillan.

LEVINE, P. 1986. The amateur and the professional: antiquarians, historians and archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MARSDEN, B.M. 1974. The early barrow diggers. Aylesbury: Shire.

1984. Pioneers in prehistory: leaders and landmarks in English archaeology (1500-1900). Ormskirk: Hesketh.

MORRIS, M. 1992. The rise and fall of Bronze Age studies in England 1840-1960, Antiquity 66: 419-26.

RCHME. 1991. Excavations in north-east England: a note on the Excavation Index for England, Archaeologia Aeliana 19: 123-6.

SALZMAN, L.F. 1946. A history of the Sussex Archaeological Society, Sussex Archaeological Collections 85: 3-76.

SARGENT, A. 1990. The Greater London Excavation Index, London Archaeologist 6 (8): 216-21.

WHINNEY, R. 1985. One hundred years of Hampshire archaeology, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society 41: 21-36.

ANDREW SARGENT, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, Fortress House, 23 Savile Row, London W1X 2JQ, England.
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Author:Sargent, Andrew
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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