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What is a Site?

What is a site?  This question is a favourite one to ask archaeology students who are beginning their course – the site is an essential concept in archaeology, yet an infinitely flexible and variable one.  There is no universal definition, other than to say that a site is where archaeologists do their work – and in general terms is merely what an archaeologist chooses to identify as such, on the basis that it represents a particular focus of interest which stands out from the general background, often within recognisable boundaries - and may be comparable to other related foci within the period, landscape or type of activity which the archaeologist is investigating.

The term site is often used indiscriminately as a short-hand expression for excavations, trenches within excavations, concentrations of field remains such as surface finds, cropmarks or earthworks (whether excavated or not), even in some cases, large complexes of related features representing all these elements.  Only when talking about single artefacts do archaeologists tend to use the more restricted expression find-spot.
 For most purposes, however, a site tends to mean an identifiable ancient settlement, structure, cemetery or zone of industrial activity within boundaries such as earthwork defences or walls; it may also refer to an excavation of one of these.  Within the site, there will be a number of basic research questions which the archaeologist will need to investigate, and probably some more advanced ones too.  Firstly, the physical lay-out of the site and its structures – any walls, banks, pits or ditches will need to be established. This may be done by non-destructive survey methods such as geophysics or topographical survey, and/or by excavation.  Secondly, the chronology of the site must be investigated – when did humans first use this place and for what purpose?  How did it change during its period(s) of use?  What happened to it afterwards?  The answers to these questions can be very complex and raise other topics for further analysis.  The way that a site inter-relates with other sites and systems, with its own landscape and environment, and with previous and subsequent activity, are all critical questions in understanding the human story there.
 Site analysis is the detailed study of traces of past activity within an area which has been designated as a site by archaeologists.  Site analysis seeks to explore, quantify and document the available data, and to extract the maximum potential for study and comparison with data from elsewhere