Sampling in Archaeology

Sediment Core, Cape Roberts Project
Sediment core analysis, as this Cape Roberts Project sediment core, is a sampling strategy. Hannes Grobe Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany

Sampling is the practical, ethical method of dealing with large amounts of data to be investigated. In archaeology, it is not always prudent or possible to excavate all of a particular site or survey all of a particular area. Excavating a site is expensive and labor-intensive and it is a rare archaeological budget that allows that. Secondly, under most circumstances, it is considered ethical to leave a portion of a site or deposit unexcavated, assuming that improved research techniques will be invented in the future. In those cases, the archaeologist must design an excavation or survey sampling strategy that will obtain enough information to allow reasonable interpretations of a site or area, while avoiding complete excavation.

Scientific sampling needs to carefully consider how to obtain a thorough, objective sample that will represent the entire site or area. To do that, you need your sample to be both representative and random.

Representative sampling requires that you first assemble a description of all the pieces of the puzzle that you expect to examine, and then select a subset of each of those pieces to study. For example, if you plan to survey a particular valley, you might first plot out all the kinds of physical locations that occur in the valley (floodplain, upland, terrace, etc.) and then plan to survey the same acreage in each location type, or the same percentage of area in each location type.

Random sampling is also an important component: you need to understand all parts of a site or deposit, not just the ones where you might find the most intact or the most artifact-rich areas. Archaeologists often use a random number generator to select areas to study without bias.