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Francis Pryor on Modern Archaeology and Ancient Life

Posted on 4th August 2021 by Mark Skinner

Noted archaeologist, star of Time Team and author of The Fens Francis Pryor transports readers back in time to British and Irish prehistory in his latest book Scenes from Prehistoric Life. In this exclusive piece, Pryor recounts the advances in technology and quirks of circumstance that have led to a revolution in archaeology in the modern age.  

Nothing is more exciting than archaeology. Like the moment when your trowel reveals a piece of clay that was dropped in a fire four thousand years ago and you spot the thumbprint of the last person who handled it, back in the Bronze Age. But over the years I have grown increasingly aware that such opportunities also bring with them responsibilities. Modern archaeologists must use every scientific trick in the book to reveal some of the complexities of ancient life. So that’s why today’s archaeology has become such a fast-growing and rewarding subject. 

We have become very much better at finding new sites. The big advance happened during the first World War, when aerial photography developed out of the need to accurately target artillery fire. The new technique revealed huge numbers of ancient sites in the 1920s and ‘30s. World War 2 developed the technique even further and led to the preservation or excavation of thousands of new sites in lowland river valleys ahead of the gravel extraction that was needed for the cement and concrete used in the post-war building boom of the 1960s and ‘70s. This sudden increase in archaeological activity led to the birth of many new excavation contractors who played a large part in funding the development of innovative methods of prospection, such as air-born Lidar, which uses laser beams to record and measure very small undulations of the ground surface. It’s a technique that can reveal ploughed-out burial mounds, house foundations and field boundaries. In wet areas, such as the Fens, it has discovered many Bronze Age burial mounds, many of which are probably largely intact. The rapid development of aerial survey has also been matched on the ground by many new techniques based around the resistance of electrical charges or ground-penetrating radar. Known to archaeologists as geophysics (or ‘geofizz’ to quote Time Team) these methods of prospection are revealing hidden sites, but they also allow us to spot places where particular types of deposit can be expected. Long-term waterlogging, for example, can lead to the preservation of prehistoric organic material, such as fabrics, wood and sometimes even flesh or food.

Archaeologists work closely with scientists and sometimes they can become an integral part of their research. The location and dating of earlier post-glacial deposits have helped climatologists build up their graphs of temperature changes leading up to the  acceleration brought about by the rise of industry in the 19th century. You won’t find many climate change deniers in the archaeological community! I can well remember being on a committee in the 1990s which advised English Heritage on how it must increase the capacity of gutters and drainpipes on its historic properties if their roofs were to cope with the predicted rise in rainfall. And sadly today those predictions have proved increasingly correct. 

The revelation of the structure of DNA in the 1950s has had, and will continue to have, profound implications for archaeology as it can provide much information about human genetic origins. Other techniques, such as the study of the composition of tooth enamel, can reveal where people spent their youth and it is becoming apparent that pre-Roman societies were far more mobile than had been previously thought. Archaeology, however, is also revealing that the infrastructure of the ancient world was certainly not chaotic. People have always chosen to live in a structured world. Many European roads, for example, follow routes that had been established long before the Roman Empire. And there is growing evidence for regular crossings of the English Channel from at least 1500 BC. The wider perspectives provided by new aerial and geophysical surveys, together with a steady increase in developer-funded excavations have caused archaeologists to look beyond individual sites. The modern approach is to examine entire ancient landscapes and how they developed through time. This is allowing us to think about the way that communities inter-related in the past: how land was managed and how different resources were allocated. We can also trace how fields, farms and settlements became established, and then how they grew or declined.

Modern methods of analysis are also allowing us to learn more about the techniques that were used to produce pottery and metalwork. So we are beginning to understand the extent to which prehistoric metal smiths and potters were able to control the sources of their raw materials, and the heat required to produce the finished products. Many of these techniques were clearly very sophisticated. The ability to accurately pin down different areas of production is enabling us to build up a picture of ancient supply chains and distribution networks. These were often based on pre-existing lines of communication and contact, but change could happen quite rapidly. So the system was flexible and was probably based on tribal or social ties and obligations, rather than a free market economy which did not develop until millennia later, following the Middle Ages.

I am pleased to report that pace of archaeological research is growing, as is public interest in the subject. And I can be certain of one thing: the more we learn about our prehistoric ancestors, the more we will respect them.

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