Nondestructive Archaeology Low-impact archaelogical methods and their place in archaeology today

Archaeology is a destructive science. While excavation of a site can reveal worthwhile information based on the artifacts collected, and their context - the excavation itself destroys a site forever as it cannot be recreated and returned to the way it once was. To mitigate the destruction, new methods of practicing archaeology have risen in popularity due to their sustainability and low impact on archaeological sites.

The following nondestructive archaeological practices use modern technology, past archaeological collections and research, and sustainable survey methods. All with the intent of researching a site more in-depth while preserving the archaeological context and disturbing the site as little as possible. These practices were adopted and put into action as a part of the field survey project carried out by the 2023 Public Archaeology course under Texas Antiquities Permit 31201. The course trained us in nondestructive archaeological practices that provided foundational knowledge of the work that goes into archaeology as well as the importance of preservation and sustainability of archaeological sites.


A remote sensing method, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) is used to measure the topography of a measured area (US Department of Commerce 2012). LiDAR uses lasers that are shot toward the surface and bounce back from the ground and upon the return of those lasers, that distance is measured to create a precise topographical model of the site or area that is measured.

LiDAR is not a new technology, but has more recently gained momentum in utilization of site survey. It aids in documenting accurate measurements for maps that would otherwise take longer to develop if done traditionally. LiDAR use in archaeology also gives insight into how past civilizations interacted or sites were affected by their surrounding environment.

LiDAR is primarily used by archaeologists to reveal evidence of structures that are otherwise hidden over time or grown over by vegetation. For example, in the case of a study at Angkor Wat, previously unidentified features, including roads and canals, were able to be detected beneath the dense canopy surrounding the complex using LiDAR. Despite the overgrowth the markings of a thriving city were detectable based only on differences in elevation of the ground surface (Stephen 2014). Similar methods were used to identify tar kilns located in the Francis Marion and Sumter National Forest included revisiting previously recorded sites (with the help of LiDAR) helping to outline the history of tar production in the region (Snitker 2022).

Collection Archaeology

Nondestructive archaeology can also help address the "curation crisis". The curation crisis is a dilemma in which sites are excavated faster than we are able to find the time and resources to properly curate and store them (Kersel 2015).

Collections at museums, universities, or even in the garages of archaeologists often go untouched after their initial cataloging and registration or even initial excavation. Conducting studies on existing and vast collections can give information on far more archaeological sites than what would be possible if we only studied the sites we excavated ourselves.

Information can also be revisited on sites that are otherwise destroyed by excavation or development like those on the UTSA campus that are now the locations of roads, parking lots, or building complexes. While the sites cannot be recreated and the methods not replicated, artifacts and site forms held in collections still have untapped potential as research material.


Catch-and-release methods are non-destructive methods that also help address the curation crisis. Catch-and-release is an archaeological practice where artifacts are analyzed either in a lab or in the field and ultimately “returned to their place of origin” (Gonzalez et al. 2006). This type of surface survey limits the amount of disturbance and damage to the physical site. In the field school where this methodology was developed it ultimately taught the importance of conservation and sustainability of an archaeological site.

Catch-and-release also is a more popular method of nondestructive or low-impact archaeology when working with indigenous groups. In the same project, the Kashaya Pomo were consulted prior to the project beginning and their heritage respected when it came to the field work methods implemented (Gonzalez 2016).

Field Days

Nondestructive methodologies of survey and research were largely used throughout the group’s practice, with the intention to keep the sites as undisturbed as possible and preserving the context of the sites for future research.

Surface survey was largely the archaeological practice carried out during the days the group went into the field and when it came to artifact analysis - we practiced catch-and-release. Where the dimensions, weight, and color of each artifact were taken along with photos and recorded all at the site and left there after marking its general location using a GNSS receiver.

Collections research also served as a means of setting a foundational knowledge of the history of a specific site. After performing background research on each archaeological site, the group was able to revisit sites and note changes, including new damage, or erosion, as well as additions to the site based on contrasting our observations with the previously conducted site surveys.

Furthermore, the study also involved analysis of collections excavated by a prior UTSA field school in 1978 at the site 41BX234. The chert artifacts from that collection were compared to the artifacts studied through the catch and release methods carried out by the group.

Photo: Jonathan Paige, 2023

Adopting nondestructive methods as primary means of research is the first step in creating a more sustainable archaeological industry. LiDAR, collection archaeology, and catch-and-release all show that archaeological practice is capable of avoiding total site destruction for the sake of information. Upon application of these nondestructive practices, archaeology as a science shows that it is capable of adapting to concerns of destruction, addresses the curation crisis dilemma, and assists in the preservation of the context of archaeological sites.

Photos: Jonathan Paige, 2023

Cited Sources and Future Reading

Gonzalez, Sara L. “Indigenous Values and Methods in Archaeological Practice: Low-Impact Archaeology through the Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail Project.” American Antiquity, vol. 81, no. 3, 2016, pp. 533–549, https://doi.org/10.1017/s000273160000398x.

Gonzalez, Sara L., et al. “Archaeology for the Seventh Generation.” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, 2006, pp. 388–415, https://doi.org/10.1353/aiq.2006.0023.

Kersel, Morag M. “STORAGE WARS: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 42–54, https://doi.org/10.5325/jeasmedarcherstu.3.1.0042.

Snitker, Grant, et al. “Detecting Historic Tar Kilns and Tar Production Sites Using High-Resolution, Aerial Lidar-Derived Digital Elevation Models: Introducing the Tar Kiln Feature Detection Workflow (TKFD) Using Open-Access R and Fiji Software.” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, vol. 41, 2022, p. 103340, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2022.103340.

Ornes, Stephen. : “: Mapping the Lost Megalopolis: Laser Imaging Reveals Long-Lost Traces of Ancient Civilizations Hidden beneath Tropical Forest Canopies.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 43, 2014, pp. 15283–15285, https://doi.org/43190036.

US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Is Lidar.” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 1 Oct. 2012, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lidar.html#:~:text=Lidar%20%E2%80%94%20Light %20Detection%20and%20Ranging,Lighthouse%2C%20Dry%20Tortugas%2C%20Florida.