Desk-based assessments

A desk-based assessment is jargon for the research archaeologists do before starting fieldwork. It is essential to focus work and avoid duplication Archaeologists need to look at historical records of their area of interest before any investigation as these will give pointers as to the type of remains they can expect to find and put what they do find in context. Historic maps may record the previous land-use of a site or relatively recent ground disturbance that could suggest that archaeological remains are likely to be damaged, and can give pointers as to the date of any remains found during investigation.


It is important to look at records of past excavations for the same reason, to have some idea of what to expect. Looking at past excavation reports can also give ideas as to any site-specific problems that can be prepared for in advance. It may also help if remains from earlier excavations are encountered that need to be interpreted as well as remains from more remote periods.


Aerial photographs are also looked at as part of the desk-based assessment. These give an idea of the changing vegetation in the vicinity of the site in recent years as well as recording archaeological remains in the form of crop-marks, soil-marks, parch-marks or earthworks. Click for more information about aerial photographs.


Many of these records are held in the Historic Environment Record but the archaeological researcher will often also have to consult the local record office. In Buckinghamshire this is part of the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, or a local museum, such as Buckinghamshire County Museum. Click for more advice on these institutions and what material they hold. 

Going the extra mile

A report is often written up after this stage to record the results of your research. A report of a desk-based assessment will usually include:

  • Location of the site
  • Purpose of the research
  • Methodology
  • Historical background
  • Archaeological background 

The research you have done at this stage will help crystallize your ideas about what you want to do. The next step is to write this down in a project design.

Further reading

English Heritage, 1991. Management of Archaeological Projects. London: English Heritage.


Institute of Field Archaeologists 1994. Standard and guidance for archaeological desk-based assessment. 


Click to go to the next step: writing a project design.


Click to find other ways to get involved in archaeology.