Environmental Science in Archaeology New

Archaeology is all about history and digging old things up, right?

Well, kind of. History and excavations are important, but we wouldn’t know where to dig or what was found without using science and maths, as this fab piece by the Institution of Environmental Sciences shows. The full article is linked below, but here’s a summary to whet your appetite:

Techniques and practices

 Archaeology is a broad discipline that draws together environmental specialists from a huge range of backgrounds.  Maddy Riley’s article explains some of the more common environmental science techniques used in archaeology, and their application on Stonehenge – one of the UK’s most famous archaeological sites. These include:

Site surveying to identify a potential archaeological site

Stratigraphy to understand the timeline of the site

Tree-ring dating to determine both the age of trees and the weather conditions in the area where the tree grew

Radioactive carbon dating to identify the approximate age of organic materials

3D scanning to allow the study of minute details on the surface of objects that are undetectable to the human eye

Isotopic analysis to determine the precise proportion of elements in objects and sometimes to identify the geographic origin of the object

Bone chemical analysis to determine the approximate age of remains

All of these use knowledge across scientific disciplines, from environmental science to chemistry, physics to technology!  Read the case study below to find out how they’re used in real life:

Stonehenge: Environmental techniques in practice

Stonehenge is one of the most iconic archaeological sites in the world and its purpose remains a hotly disputed mystery. It is therefore a perfect example of how newer techniques have shone light on different aspects of its history.  Surveying the local area lead to the discovery of settlements near to the Stonehenge site, the largest of these – Durrington Walls – housed approximately 4,000 people. Some theories suggest that these inhabitants might even have been the builders of Stonehenge.

More recently, photographic 3D rendering and laser scanning of the stones has led to the discovery of rock art and carving that were not previously discernible.  It has also allowed archaeologists to theorise on what type of tool may have been used to shape the stones.

Using isotopic analysis on animal remains found on the site has added a further layer of mystery to Stonehenge in that some of the animals came from far as Scotland – suggesting that groups of people visiting the site may have travelled far to do so.

Practicing for the future

As environmental and archaeological science becomes more sophisticated we are able to learn far more about our cultural and environmental heritage and what we need to do to preserve it for future generations.

Read the full article here: Environmental Science in Archaeology_pdf


The full version of this article was published in the December 2013 edition of the environmental SCIENTIST journal. To read the full journal or to see past editions of the environmental SCIENTIST, visit the IES website.

The IES is a membership organisation that represents professionals from fields as diverse as air quality, land contamination and education – wherever you find environmental work underpinned by sound science. The organisation leads debate, dissemination and promotion of environmental science and sustainability, and promotes an evidence-based approach to decision and policy making.