Post-excavation work (‘post-ex’) is what happens to the finds and all other records (including drawings, photographs and written records) from excavations after the on-site work finishes. It is a complex process, often taking longer than the dig itself. On large projects, post-ex can be as expensive to carry out as the on-site excavation phase and involves a wide range of specialist analytical and management skills.
Excavations produce new data all the time they are happening. Archaeological interpretation of what is being uncovered often changes day by day. Time pressure usually means that there is little time to consider the material being uncovered. All the on-site archaeologists can do is to record what they see as carefully as possible. Site records are written (often fairly rapidly), plans drawn and photographs taken, but these are rarely subjected to detailed analysis before the dig ends. Samples of soil, objects and structural material are removed from sites for a variety of reasons, which include environmental analysis and dating. Samples may be part-processed on site to remove the bulk soil content, but scientific analysis usually happens off-site in a laboratory. Finds are carefully lifted and packed on site, but undergo only elementary conservation and analysis.
Post-ex is carried out under the control of a post-ex manager who co-ordinates the cross-checking and archiving of this raw data and produces the structural, scientific dating and environmental analysis undertaken by a range of specialists (who may not have visited the actual excavation), the final interpretation, and publication of the project. Post-ex should be carefully costed into the project design from the beginning – even prior to the excavation. A problem in archaeology in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a widespread lack of planning for post-ex requirements – this has meant that on many sites the post-ex has taken far longer to complete than should have been the case. The post-ex manager (who may or may not be the excavation director) has to keep a sharp eye on the budget (costs can spiral out of control) and maintain a keen awareness of the evolving interpretation of the archaeology. It is common for some of the most exciting discoveries to be made in post-ex, when unexpected connections are made between elements of the site, or scientific analyses provide informative results.