Puneet Varma (Editor)

Rescue archaeology

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Rescue archaeology, sometimes called preventive archaeology, salvage archaeology, commercial archaeology, contract archaeology, or compliance archaeology, is state-sanctioned, for-profit archaeological survey and excavation carried out in advance of construction or other land development. These conditions could include, but are not limited to, highway projects, major construction, the flood plain of a proposed dam, or even before the onset of war. Unlike traditional survey and excavation, rescue archaeology must be undertaken at speed. Rescue archaeology is included in the broader categories that are cultural resource management (CRM) and cultural heritage management (CHM).



Rescue archaeology occurs on sites about to be destroyed but, on occasion, may include in situ preservation of any finds or protective measures taken to preserve an unexcavated site beneath a building. Urban areas with many overlaid years of habitation are often candidates for rescue archaeology.

The focus of early work was to set up organisations to undertake rescue excavations shortly before an area was disturbed by construction equipment. Archaeologists relied on the goodwill of the developer to provide the opportunity to record remains. In more recent use, an archaeological survey may be required by planning process or building law, as with PPG 16 or PPS5 in the United Kingdom and NPPG5 in Scotland. Common conditions required by planning authorities are archaeological field survey, watching briefs, shovel test pits, trial trenching, and excavation. Guidance and standards of practice in the UK are largely monitored through the Institute for Archaeologists

Contract or commercial archaeology services have sprung up to meet the needs of developers and to comply with local laws and planning regulations. In the United Kingdom, over 3000 archaeologists are employed in commercial archaeology.

For many years, the emphasis was on archaeological evidence in the ground. However, with increased interest in industrial archaeology, rescue archaeology needs to commence by recording extant remains of buildings i.e. prior to demolition.


The term, and indeed the practice of, rescue archaeology is largely restricted to North America, South America, Western Europe, and East Asia, especially the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Korea, and Japan. Many European countries, such as, e.g., Germany, practice virtually no rescue excavation (though there is extensive research archaeology). The many rescue archaeology projects in the Middle East are generally termed salvage archaeology.

In North America, commercial archeology sometimes refers to the study of structures and artifacts created in connection with popular commercial activity, such as diners, motels, gasoline stations, and signs. Special focus is given to commerce and transportation, the effects of market economy and the use of space, and the development of roadside businesses.

As a profession

Whereas the organizations that take on rescue archaeology contracts are stable entities, the archaeologists who perform the actual field work are, in the main, an army of mobile workers. They work in all types of weather and terrain covering tasks such as conservation, excavation, artifact curation, field survey often in difficult conditions (such as dense woodland), and typically working to tight deadlines. Given that the outputs of much of the work that is undertaken in advance of development work is not published in peer reviewed journals, the people that perform the actual research are often anonymous and unrecognized.

"Shovelbum" is a play on one of the more polite names which professional archaeologists call each other when they enter the field of rescue archaeology and move from excavation to excavation. As much archaeology is now developer-led, the fieldworkers must move to where the work is when one contract is complete, much like ski-bums following the good snow fall. For professional field archaeologists the Shovelbum phase of a career is now considered a rite of passage. It is during this time that any field archaeologist worth their salt learns the ropes.


Rescue archaeology Wikipedia