An Introduction to Archaeology
What is Archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of the human past through material remains. Typically, these remains are discovered through excavation, but can be found through a variety of different archaeological methods such as field walking, geophysical survey, metal detecting and aerial photography. Through these remains, archaeologists try to uncover how and where people in the past lived, what they ate, what they believed, how they spent their time, and who they were. Material culture produced by humans generally falls into two categories; artefacts, and features. Artefacts are portable objects made or used by humans, such as tools, pottery, jewellery, and weapons. At Waterloo, commonly found artefacts include musket balls, nails, coins, buttons, and other parts of uniforms or weaponry. Larger, non-moveable examples of human occupation on a site are called features. Features can include things like storage pits, buildings, walls and wells, and can include collections of objects such as trash pits or graves. Features found at Waterloo include the remains of a lavatory building discovered at Frischermont and the original footprint of the barn that stood by the North Gate at Hougoumont, as well as a pit used to dispose of amputated limbs at former Allied field hospital of Mont-Saint-Jean.
The same archaeological site can contain evidence of many different periods of occupation. At Hougoumont farm in Belgium, we have found artefacts from across a broad time spectrum, with finds ranging from medieval pottery to WWI buttons to reenactor’s kit from the bicentenary of the battle. Over time, layers of soil and debris build up in a process known as stratification, forming layers of slightly different colours that can be seen during excavation. The deeper the layer, the older it is, and the older the artefacts found within it will be.
Battlefield archaeology is a specific field of study within archaeology, looking at the evidence of military conflicts. You can learn more about battlefield archaeology, the techniques it uses and what can be discovered here:
What have Waterloo Uncovered been up to?
Waterloo Uncovered have been digging at the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium since 2015 with an international team of archaeologists and students from some of Europe's leading universities, under the guidance of our Archaeological Directors Professor Tony Pollard, Dr Stuart Eve, and Dominique Bosquet.
Many archaeological techniques have been utilised at Waterloo to aid in our excavations. An expert team of metal detectorists work alongside our archaeologists to guide where we should dig based on signals that they detect, and have been responsible for the discovery of some of our most exciting finds, including an enormous Howitzer shell and human limb bones found under a metal object at Mont-Saint-Jean. We have also conducted several examinations of areas of the battlefield using geophysical survey technology (including at Hougoumont Farm, La Haye Sainte and the lost chateau of Frichermont), in collaboration with organisations such as Ghent University’s ORBit research group and Liverpool John Moores University.
From 2021, Waterloo Uncovered will conduct the first ever systematic geophysical survey of the whole battlefield, made possible by a collaboration with academic partners at Bournemouth University and Ghent University. With the support of these institutions, from landowners around Waterloo, and from our local Belgian archaeology partners in AwAP (Agence wallonne du Patrimoine/Walloon Heritage Agency), we will soon be welcoming a new team member, in the form of a PhD candidate specialising in geophysical survey! The successful PhD candidate will undertake an ambitious project entitled ‘Waterloo Uncovered: Using Large-Scale Geophysical Survey to Investigate the World’s Most Famous Battlefield’. The student, under the tutelage of expert battlefield archaeologists and geophysicists, will carry out research that will guide the next five to ten years of Waterloo Uncovered’s excavation at the site of the Battle of Waterloo.
Here, you can learn more about the techniques archaeologists use from our Archaeological Director Dr Stuart Eve, in a series of videos covering excavating, metal detecting, GIS and more!
Archaeological Director Dr Stuart Eve gives an introduction to the archaeological techniques we use at Waterloo.
Learn more about remote sensing, GIS and LIDAR with our Archaeological Director Dr. Stuart Eve.
Dr Stuart Eve, who is a founding partner of leading UK archaeological practice L-P Archaeology, gives a beginners guide to how the commercial archaeology sector works.
Dr Stuart Eve presents a guide to metal detecting in archaeological settings, including how we utilise a team of metal detectorists on the battlefield of Waterloo.
Explore how we keep track and make sense of the archaeological discoveries we make while excavating, and learn the importance of recording to preserve the past for future generations.
Want to get involved in archaeology?
You may have watched Time Team, followed the Waterloo Uncovered project, or seen an archaeological excavation taking place close to where you live, but what do you do if you want to get involved in archaeology yourself?
There are many opportunities to volunteer in archaeology throughout the UK. The voluntary sector consists of a large, varied and often highly motivated body of people who undertake considerable research into the historic environment. Many local archaeology societies and groups welcome young people along and may have field projects that you can get involved in.
There are also many commercial archaeological companies – it would be worth finding out which companies work in your area and keeping an eye on their websites, as some archaeological companies have open days and special events throughout the year where you can get involved in what they are doing. Some commercial units will accept volunteers and this can provide a great opportunity to work alongside a team of professional archaeologists, although the work is usually of a very fast-pace and short-term nature.
Check out these resources to find volunteering opportunities around the UK:
Formal Education and Employment
Many volunteers develop their skills and interest to the extent that they would like to seek formal education and a job in archaeology. At university, the archaeology curriculum will be focussed on delivering knowledge about the past, how it is interpreted, methods and theory. Although practical experience is recognised to be important, universities only have limited time and resources to devote to this. If you are certain you want to be a field archaeologist, consider choosing a university that has a good field school, which will provide digging experience to put on your CV. A graduate job in archaeology is likely to be a fixed-term contract doing archaeological fieldwork. These get you into archaeological employment; from there, it is much easier to get a permanent job.
The following online resources provide up-to-date information on job vacancies and opportunities in UK archaeology and heritage:
Battlefields Uncovered Summer School
In collaboration with Waterloo Uncovered, Utrecht University runs an annual entry level course on Battlefield Archaeology. The three-month course will provide a fascinating introduction to the topic, and will cover some of the most dramatic turning points in world history through the lens of military history and archaeology. 2021’s course will be held online, and will feature group activities, workshops and lectures, led by leading conflict archaeologists and experts.