- Excavation RecordsFossio tabulae

This is an extremely important aspect of the whole process of excavation on any site and if any part of this process is missed or is incomplete then important information on a find could be lost forever. I will give the headings for an Excavation Record Sheet from Arbeia and what is required under those headings. They are as follows and the relevant details will be shown when the user hovers over any of the sub-page titles:-

SITE CODE - a unique code to every excavation which is usually made up from the site initials and the year of excavation. A supervisor will give this.

AREA - occasionally sites are subspanided for recording purposes to keep all references to each area together. These codes can change from site to site. Sometimes it can be a number given to a trench e.g. 11, a letter given to an area with a trench number e.g. Q31, a reference to the funding of the site e.g. HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund) or a reference to earlier excavation e.g. RRP (Roman Remains Park). A supervisor will also give this.

CONTEXT NUMBER - each feature is given an individual context number. These record events which have taken place in the past and by giving each event an individual number the order in which events took place can be worked out. Some features will have several context numbers, one for every event which took place. Ditches are good examples of this. They are often re-dug so they will have a context number for the original cut, another for silting then another for a recut followed by more silting. There may be several recuts during its use and possibly backfilling at the end of its usefulness. Each action is given a number as it is excavated. It is also important that all finds trays are given the correct context numbers so that all the information collected is correct. Finds are used for giving information about activities which took place as well as for dating the deposits.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF LAYER OR FEATURE - this records the type of deposit or cut and should be given a simple name e.g. fill of post hole, cut of pit, occupation layer etc. It is important to get all the information correct at the time of the excavation as correct as possible.

EQUIPMENT USED - a list of all equipment used during the excavation should be made and this is used during post excavation. The type of information obtained from a feature excavated using a mattock will be different to a feature excavated with a trowel or other small tools!

STRATIGRAPHIC RELATIONS - this is very important as it records the sequence of events and should always be completed. The central box of this part of the record must contain the context number that is being recorded i.e. the same number at the top of the sheet. Above this number, the context number which is immediately above it must always be recorded (there is a context number for everything from the present day to the lowest limit of the excavation). Also checked should be the stratigraphic relation box on the context sheet for this feature has the context number that you are recording, in the box below it. In the boxes below the context number being recorded the context number immediately below it must be recorded. Without this information the context sheet is virtually useless. All this information is used during post excavation when all the details gathered during excavation is analysed. Often a collection of features can be linked together as part of a larger feature during this time e.g. a series of post holes to form a structure. Other features which were originally thought to belong together may turn out to be unrelated. Individual context numbers which do not have relationships to contexts above and below them recorded lose their connections with the events which took place when they were created.

DESCRIPTION OF EXCAVATION - this is the description of the deposit or cut. For a deposit the compaction, colour, composition and any inclusions should be recorded. Cuts need their shape in plan and profiles recording.


COMPACTION - this should be recorded when the deposit is slightly damp.

  • loose: non-coherent and crumbles very easily in the hand
  • friable: coheres when pressed together / crushes under gentle pressure
  • compact: crushes under moderate pressure but resistance is noticeable
  • hard: strong pressure required in the hand to crush the soil
  • cemented: cannot be broken with hands
  • sticky: slightly mouldable and sticks to hands
  • plastic: can be moulded into shape
  • laminated: organic material which is fibrous with wafer like layering or material deposited by water e.g. at the bottom of a mill pond
  • spongy: organic material which is compressible with an open structure

COLOUR - this should be recorded when the deposit is slightly damp.

  • modifier: light, mid or dark
  • hue: pinkish, reddish, yellowish etc
  • colour: yellow, brown, red etc

COMPOSITION - The most frequent component is always noted last.

  • sand: cannot be formed into a ball
  • clay sand: gritty; can form a ball which is easily moulded
  • silty sand: gritty; can form a ball which is not easily moulded
  • loamy sand: gritty; can form a ball if great care is taken
  • silt: non gritty; stains fingers; smooth and silky texture; non sticky
  • clay silt: non gritty; stains fingers; smooth and silky texture; sticky
  • sandy silt: slightly gritty; stains fingers; unsmooth and silky texture; sticky
  • loamy silt: slightly gritty; stains fingers; smooth and silky texture; non sticky but can form a ball which is not easily moulded
  • clay: non gritty; does not stain fingers; sticky
  • sandy clay: slightly gritty; does not stain fingers; sticky
  • silty clay: non gritty; does not stain fingers; non sticky
  • loamy clay: slightly gritty; smeared surface shows only a few irregularities
  • humic: less than 30% organic material; dark in colour; "dirty" and smeary if wet; friable if dry
  • peaty: 30-70% organic material
  • amorphorous peat: almost entirely organic; retains little structure
  • structured peat: almost entirely organic; retains structure and is fibrous; contains identifiable leaves, twigs etc


occasional (2-5% of total deposit)flecks (up to 6m)very angularpebbles (<60mm)
moderate (6-14% of total deposit)small (6-20mm)angularcobbles (60-200mm)
frequent (15-19% of total deposit)medium (21-60mm)sub-angularboulders (>200mm)
if above 20% give the actual %large (61-120mm)well rounded
sub rounded

Using these terms keeps the deposit descriptions brief and descriptive e.g. (one from each section above) friable mid yellowish brown loamy sand with occasional small sub-rounded pebbles



  • Shape: square, rectangular, sub-rectangular, circular, sub-circular, oval, linear, irregular


Break of SlopeSidesBasePost Holes
sharpsmoothflata tapered point
gradualirregularconcavea tapered blunt point
imperceptibleandslopinga tapered rounded point
straight orunevenvertical with flat base
convex orV-shaped

From these terms a concise description of a cut can be made e.g. sub-circular pit with sharp smooth straight sides and uneven base

HEALTH AND SAFETY ISSUES- this does not usually appear on context sheets but is on the VQ excavation record sheet. If there are no health and safety issues "none" would be written to the form but if conditions required protective clothing then this would be recorded i.e. safety boots, hard hat, high visibility vest worn because of machinery.

SKETCH- the space on the form is small so if sketches are small they would be drawn on the reverse of the sheet and noted in the space. Sketches can provide lots of information i.e. shape, profile, measurements, location of finds within a deposit, relationship to other features and relationship to the area of excavation.

FINDS- any finds from deposits are noted here but cuts do not have finds.

INTERPRETATION- this is a description of the feature stating how it was formed e.g. cut of post hole associated with the construction of structure or primary silting of Iron Age ditch.

PROBLEMS ENCOUNTERED- anything which may have affected the excavation of the feature is recorded here. This would include the weather, light, difficulty in distinguishing differences between deposits, partial exposure of deposit protruding from the baulk and over digging.

DRAWING NUMBERS- these numbers for drawing plans and sections should be recorded as soon as they have been allocated on the context sheet.

DATE OF EXCAVATION- this should be the same as the date it has been recorded and should be kept up to date so as not to forget small details.