Success and failure in archaeological fieldwork is a graded scale. I wrote about this in autumn 2008:
My excavation at Sättuna has taken an interesting turn. I’m not feeling particularly down about it, but the fact is that we’re getting the second worst possible results.
The worst result would be to mobilise all this funding and personnel and find nothing at all. We’re certainly not there.
The best possible result would be to find all the cool things the metal detector finds had led me to hope for, viz the foundations of a 6th century aristocratic manor. We’re not there either.
The second best result would be to find other cool things than the ones I had expected, say, something with quite another date or function than I was looking for, but intriguing (and publishable) in its own right. No such luck.
What we have found is plentiful prehistoric remains, about one sunken feature per four square meters, quite labour intensive to document, and completely banal. And unpublishable. So I have the funding and the personnel to dig the site, I have the heritage-management responsibility to dig it, but I have no scientific motivation to do so. It’s like winning a year’s supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell.
I’ve spent the past two days metal-detecting and fieldwalking three Bronze Age sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren region with a team of up to eight skilled volunteers, and pretty much it’s one second-worst possible result, one inconclusive and one worst.
At our Nyköping site we got lots of knapped quartz and fire-cracked stone, allowing us to posit a ploughed-out settlement site. But no pre-modern metalwork. This suggests that narrows in lakes such as the nearby finds-producing one were really important in situating sacrifices. Celebrants didn’t stray much from them. 14 person-hours of metal detecting and 10 of field walking.
At our Gnesta site only a fourth of the surface was open to study due to remaining snow and meltwater. It’s richly seeded with recent rifle cartridges, some so fresh that they aren’t even verdigrised yet. 6 person-hours of metal detecting. I need to get back there.
At our Enköping site we found nothing. No pre-modern metalwork, little modern, nothing. 15 person-hours of metal detecting. The field’s under stubble, so conditions aren’t ideal. I’m coming back after harrowing in August.
Luckily, thanks to the interest and generosity of my collaborators, these two days in the field cost me only two tanks of gas and six person-nights at an affordable hostel. So unlike in the case of Sättuna, the lack of useful data isn’t a big setback. My current Bronze Age project is much more of a high-risk game than the Late Iron Age one I did in Östergötland. Sites of the latter period are littered with metalwork and debris. Bronze Age ones are far more frugal, reflecting the period’s relatively poor metal supply where every gram of metal had to be imported or recycled. We were at sites where major metal finds were made a century ago, and found nothing. I’m headed for sites were nothing has been found yet…