An Introduction to Archaeological Evaluation
‘The Ancient Art of Divination’

Helen Martin-Bacon of Commercial Archaeology introduces the overview of a developers’ guide to archaeological evaluation.

Archaeological evaluation has always seemed to me to be a little bit like the ancient art of divination. Whilst archaeologists do not cast the runes or engage in occult rituals (as far as I know!) to predict the future and gain an insight into what archaeological remains might be buried beneath the ground within a proposed development site they are still engaging in prediction when they undertake archaeological evaluation.

By using a variety of archaeological investigative techniques during an evaluation archaeologists are aiming at determining, as accurately as possible, what archaeological remains may be encountered on a site and what the implications of this might be for the developer (in a way telling the future).

For the most part archaeological evaluation is an effective way of predicting what type of archaeological remains will be encountered and what their date, level of preservation and significance are likely to be. However, this is not always the case and there are occasions when archaeological evaluation, like the ancient art of divination, gets things muddled or just plain wrong!

The planning application stage

Although there are variations on the theme, archaeological evaluation is normally required at planning application stage. Local Planning Authority Archaeologists (aka ‘curators’) ask for archaeological evaluation so that they can be informed about what archaeological remains are present on a particular development site and what their level of significance is likely to be.

This will form the basis of the decisions they make on what kind of further archaeological investigation will be required at pre-commencement stage, or not, as the case may be.


There are a number of techniques employed by archaeologists to evaluate proposed development sites.

There are non-intrusive techniques which basically means no ground is broken and intrusive techniques where excavation of some form is undertaken.

Non-intrusive methods of archaeological evaluation include techniques such as:

  • desk-based research
  • aerial photography and lidar
  • cartographic analysis
  • review of geotechnical data and deposit modelling
  • geophysical survey
  • fieldwalking

whilst intrusive methods of archaeological evaluation normally comprise:

  • trial trenching
  • test pitting
  • geoarchaeological boreholing/hand augering.

No one approach listed above is always fool-proof which is why it is often the case that a combination of techniques is employed to evaluate the presence of buried archaeological remains on a development site as accurately as possible.  In forthcoming articles Commercial Archaeology will look in more detail at each technique and discuss their pros and cons and why a particular technique or combination of techniques may or may not be appropriate in particular circumstances.

Finally, whilst archaeological evaluation serves to inform curators regarding the need for further archaeological investigation, it also serves to provide developers with an upfront assessment/prediction of the risk they face from archaeological remains within a development site which, in turn, allows them to accommodate and manage the risk within their schemes.

Topics for developers’ guide

Introduction to archaeological evaluation »

Geophysical survey »

Trial trenching »

Borehole archaeological evaluation »

Brownfield development »


Coming soon

  • desk-based research
  • aerial photography and lidar
  • cartographic analysis
  • review of geotechnical data and deposit modelling
  • fieldwalking
  • and more…