Why is Archaeology Destructive?; Deer Masks; Hill of Tara, Ireland.

Why is Archaeology Destructive?

Although we learn so much about past people –  their daily lives, what they ate, drank, how they lived, where they lived and can connect them with their relatives living today – it does come at a cost.

Archaeology is a destructive process – when we excavate we are actually scraping away the layers of cultural deposits and destroying them. For this reason archaeologists are trained in the processes of correct excavation techniques.

Excavating does not just mean peeling back the layers of time and uncovering artefacts. It also includes meticulous recording of the processes undertaken. This recording includes photographs at different levels and different sequences throughout the excavation, as well as section drawings, plans and records of site matrix.

Excavations at the site of Gran Dolina, in Atapuerca (Spain) ©Mario Modesto Mata
Excavations at the site of Gran Dolina, in Atapuerca (Spain)
©Mario Modesto Mata

Once a site is excavated it can never go back to its original state. It is gone. The same as when an historical monuments is destroyed – you can never get it back again – ever.

The same also applies to finds, artefacts and historical buildings. Although treated with the utmost care and respect, there are times when dating or DNA evidence are required, and these can only be obtained through destroying a small part in order to achieve these results.

In buildings a sample of wood can be taken for dendrochronological analysis – a section of the wood is removed and subjected to the appropriate scientific analysis. The same in DNA when we are attempting to find where a person may have originally come from. This is through analysing part of a tooth which leaves a signature of where a person grew up; or in their bones. A small section is drilled or cut away and through the analysis process is destroyed.

Archaeologists are extremely careful when samples are required and choose those that will disturb the site, or sample, the least and are least visible.

Although the process does include destruction we can learn so much, and by keeping meticulous records, those that follow us can understand what we found, how we found it, the care taken in answering our research questions and in some cases replicate our results to see if they come to the same conclusion.


  • Driessen. J. 2013. Destruction: Archaeological, Philological and Historical Perspectives. Presses Universitaires de Louvain.
  • Excavations at the site of Gran Dolina, in Atapuerca (Spain) – ©Mario Modesto Mata (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons


Archaeology Wow!! – Deer Antler Masks

Deer antler masks have been found at Neolithic sites in the UK and Germany. Although there is still a lot of debate as to what they were actually used for, they remain one of the most beautiful and elaborate examples of Neolithic craft work to date.

Red Deer Mask  © www.britishmuseum.org
Red Deer Mask
© www.britishmuseum.org

Twenty-one masks have been uncovered at Star Carr in England, and others at Bedburg Königshaven, Berlin Biesdorf and Hohen Viecheln in Germany. Ideas put forward include

  • ceremonial function
  • ritual function
  • used for stalking when hunting other deer

I guess we may never know the real reason behind their creation – but what stunning artefacts they are, and how beautifully made too!!



  • Insoll. T. 2011. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • McIntosh. J. 2009.  Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Red Deer Mask – © www.britishmuseum.org


Archaeological Site Guide – Ring of Tara, Ireland

The Ring of Tara, also called the Hill of Tara, is in Co. Meath, Ireland. It covers 100 acres and beleived to represent the ancient monuments of the Kings of Ireland right back to Neolithic times.

Plan of Tara ©William Frederick Wakeman
Plan of Tara
©William Frederick Wakeman

There are the remains of over 30 monuments including

  • earthworks,
  • circles,
  • mounds, and
  • barrows

The Iron Age enclosure is called Ráth na Riógh (Fortress of the Kings) and beleived to have been the High Seat of the 142 Kings of Ireland. The site is also thought to have been a place of the dwelling of the Gods.

LIDAR Image - Hill of Tara © www.knowth.com
LIDAR Image – Hill of Tara
© www.knowth.com

In the 13th century a small church was built on the hill. From the summit you can see far into the distance, all around, and the spectacular views are beleived to be why the site was chosen by its first inhabitants.

An amazing site to visit, even if it is only to have a coffee and take in the atmosphere of the ancestors of Ireland!


  • Hill of Tara – http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/583273/Tara.
  • LIDAR Image – Hill of Tara – © www.knowth.com.
  • Plan of Tara – ©William Frederick Wakeman (d. 1900) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Banqueting Hall Area Hill of Tara Ireland – ©Brholden (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



Great Books to Read……..



Great Web Pages to Look At…….


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