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Collection Strategies

Collection Strategies


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Perhaps surprisingly, the collection of archaeological survey data does not necessarily always requires picking up and bagging every potsherd within a given field unit. There is a wide range of collection strategies used in archaeological surveys; each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The choice of a specific collection method depends on the research design of a survey project and the characteristics of the archaeological landscape of the study region (e.g. in an artefact-rich area collection strategies tend to be more selective, and vice-versa).

In most survey projects, the burden of proof required to answer research questions regarding settlement patterns, demographics, etc. is essentially quantitative. Sherd density figures are made to distinguish archaeological sites on the basis of quantitative criteria, using qualitative data (i.e. diagnostic pottery, coins, etc.) to date and interpret the various elements within the quantitative framework. Therefore, not all survey projects do literally collect all archaeological materials in the field; instead team members count every sherd within their strip of ground, using so-called clickers, and bag only those finds which have some diagnostic quality (e.g. rims, bases, handles, datable fabrics). The biggest disadvantage of this method is the fact that these sherd-counts cannot be assigned to specific periods. Of course, the collected diagnostic sherds can provide a date for the entire collection unit, but there is no way to check, for example, the proportions of finds from a multi-period site. Therefore, this strategy is sometimes refined by a crude find analysis in the field; counting and/or weighing all finds from a survey unit per pottery class, but still leaving the bulk of material in the field.

Nevertheless, many projects do collect all encountered archaeological finds. Logically, this is mostly done following the field-walking strategy (i.e. covering 20% of a survey unit = collecting 20% of the archaeological finds from that unit). Most projects, however, deploy additional collection strategies to improve their knowledge of sites discovered this way. Often a site is sampled systematically using predefined transects, grids or collection units, based on the principles of statistic sampling, to create quantifiable and comparable intra-site sherd densities . Besides, or instead of, this systematic collection strategy survey teams often conduct a grab sample of diagnostic finds within a discovered site, which naturally does not deliver any quantitative information, but can provide a large amount of qualitative data, with the hope of improving the possibilities of dating and interpreting sites.

Bibliography and further reading

Mattingly, D., 1999, ‘Methods of collection, recording and quantification’, in: Francovich, R., Patterson, H. & G. Barker (eds.), The Archaeology of Mediterranean Landscapes 5: Extracting Meaning from Ploughsoil Assemblages, Oxford, pp. 5-15.

Millet, M., 1999, ‘Dating, quantifying and utilizing pottery assemblages from surface survey, in: Francovich, R., Patterson, H. & G. Barker (eds.), The Archaeology of Mediterranean Landscapes 5: Extracting Meaning from Ploughsoil Assemblages, Oxford, pp. 53-59.

Orton, C., 2000, Sampling in Archaeology (Cambridge manuals in archaeology), Cambridge.

Plog, S., 1976, ‘Relative efficiencies of sampling techniques for archaeological surveys’, in: Flannery, K. (ed.), The Early Mesoamerican Village, New York, pp. 136-158.

Shennan, S., 1997, Quantifying archaeology, Edinburgh.

Tartaron, T., 2003, 'The Archaeological Survey: Sampling Strategies and Field Methods', in: Hesperia supplements 32, pp. 23-45.

Research topics: Survey Methodology