top of page

How do Archaeologists Find Sites?

There are a bunch of different methods that archaeologists use to get an idea of where a past settlement might be.

Primary Documents

A primary document is any sort of text or recording of information that was written at the time of the event. Books, clay tablets, old maps etc. There’s usually a bunch of geographical information included with the accounts of the event. If you know enough about how they viewed the world back then, you can get a pretty good idea of where major events happened, or specific locations of cities.

Get to Know the Locals

Normally, digs happen with teams from all over the world. The best thing to do when looking for new potential dig sites in a foreign place? Ask the farm boy down the road, interact with the locals living there. If it’s an area that’s seen centuries of human activity, they’re bound to know of a few places that were formerly inhabited. Tons of sites are found by locals going about their daily business all the time. Archaeology is not am introverted profession, get friendly!


Surveys are essentially long walks you take with your friends, but you keep your eyes on the ground the whole time. It’s essentially no different from how you hang out with your friends now, just replace phone with ground, and you have the perfect survey team. As you walk along, in a systematic fashion you’ll take note of finds along the way. Areas with a higher density of finds are better targets for excavation in comparison to areas with fewer. Obviously this only really works well if you have an area without a lot of vegetation. If you’ve got a lot of shrubs, small test pits are usually dug to see if there’s anything there. Sampling really helps on all sorts of landscapes, because archaeologists usually don’t have the time or the funds to fully excavate the whole of a site. How they decide where to dig can vary. Sometimes there’s a system put in place to properly, other times it’s just random.


Aerial photography, satellite photos, google earth, technology has given us unlimited access to the earth’s surface. Aerial photography is also super important for monitoring sites and tracking their changes over time. Random dips, or hills on land might not mean anything to us standing next to them, but a pattern, or ring might form when looked at from above, indicating that something might just be under our noses. We can look for ancient roads and connections… whole teams of people are dedicated to use these types of satellite images to look for ancient clues.


Geophysics! We’re studying things that come out of the earth, so it only makes sense that some earth sciences would cross over. Now, archaeologists use mostly two main types of geophysical technology: Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) does exactly what its name says. It takes radar, and penetrates the ground with it. It’s science-y enough to detect features and differences in soil composition.

Another cool methodology is called Magnetometry. Using a Magnetometer along the surface, we can collect data and produce images of what the ground is like up to 2 meters below! Human activity changes the magnetic reading of the soil. This can happen from digging, planting, burning, you name it.

GIS Mapping

GIS stands for Geographical Information Systems. It’s this super complicated technology, but it’s amazingly useful for archaeologists. What you essentially do is take data from research, surveys, and anything else and then plug it into this system. You essentially make a database of all the information you know, on a map. From there, statistical analysis can be carried out and you can get a pretty good layout of possible areas to dig next. That’s as simply as I can put it, I still don’t really understand it myself but it’s super cool and fun to play with.

Have any more questions about archaeology or history? Shoot me an email:

Looking to Find out More?

Finding Archaeology Sites By: Grahame Johnston

LinkedInSlide Share : Locating an Archaeological Site


You Might Also Like:
bottom of page