Urban Archaeology

Urban archaeology is a sub branch of archaeology that developed in the last decades. Urban archaeology deals with the study of the history of the living towns and cities. Distinctive of the archaeology of the towns or cities that had abandoned centuries before; like the ancient urban settlements of Mohenjodaro or Harrapa from the great Indus valley civilization. Urban archaeology is associated with the study of the cultural back ground of the living cities.

Urban Archeology a sub-discipline of Archaeology:

Urban archaeology is a sub-discipline of conventional archaeology, which specializes in the study of the cultural material of the large towns and cities that are standing today on a top of a thick cultural stratified deposit. It involves the reconstruction of the past of the great habitation centers that are centuries old, and are still living till now.

Have you ever thought that what is the place where your house is standing on right now? If not, than you should start thinking about the historic background of the locality you are living in. Because, if you are even living in a certain newly planned township, still there is a great possibility to find some historic records hidden below the buildings in that locality.

How Does it Form?

From the Neolithic era, man had begun to live in small villages. The envoirmental factor had always forced humans to change their location, like heavy rains, unavailability of the water, food or a shelter, etc. They moved and settled at the most suitable place. Such settlements were always temporary. Next after some years another group of the nomadic tribe finds the same place suitable for living, and they ■■■■■ their houses at the same place. This kind of rehabitation of a same place again and again over a period of time, results in developing layers of the artifacts and the other natural (ecofact) below the landscape. That’s why it is seen that such cities are higher in elevation due to the remains of the deposits from the past.

Those are more likely to have a rich hoard of cultural assets beneath.
Most of the historic towns have witnessed several epochs resulting in forming their historical stratification. “Every creative epoch introduces new elements into the traditional townscape, which… make their contribution to the morphological plurality of the urban composition.” (Papageorgegiou 1971,76.)

Urban technology

How Does Urban Archaeology Works?

When you think about archaeological excavation, the first thing comes to the mind is a dessert landscape. Where a team of archaeologist is busy in conducting excavation. Some are holding trowel in the hands, others are holding brushes and are trying to carefully expose some embedded artifact from the soil. Well , this is quite close imagination of a real archaeological excavation fieldwork. But when we talk about “urban archaeology” this case is really different.
Imagine a busy market place, with the podium on the either sides of a road; where the pedestrian are busy rendering around, with a busy traffic road. Having shops on the either sides of the road.

Now imagine again that the team of archaeologists is the same but they are right now trying to expose the artifacts from a certain trench which they have dug at certain spare land among the shops. This is what an urban archaeologist does. Like other branches or forms of archaeology, urban archaeology is also important to find past connections of the present town.

Who is the Urban Archaeologist?

Urban archaeologist isn’t simply a town digger. He has a focus on understanding the past human relation with the city of occupation. An urban archaeologist mainly studies the societies that were present in any time or place.Urban archaeologist thus contributes directly to help the future communities by reserving their past.

Is There Any Hitch in Urban Archaeology?

There is a little hitch regarding excavation in at an urban site. The archaeologist cannot dig where ever they want. Due to the infrastructure. So they have to be little opportunist in this regard. If they find any new building that is going through the process its foundation making, or if there is any park located inside certain house or a building, then they can immediately make a dig for the further investigation.

What Are the Characteristics of an Urban Archaeological Site?

A town that has a long settlement history or that has remained occupied by the people since long, and where the compactness of the houses and the amount of the human energy spent per unit of land area are considerably greater than in the surrounding region, is the most suitable site for the research.

Historic city centers are prepared of a web of buildings and streets from different periods that create various cultural and urban strata. This process is a long time journey that takes centuries, and after this they become fully ripen to present their urban character and offer quality urban culture.

What Is the Difference Between the Archaeology In the City and Archaeology of the City?

Archaeology in the city consists of any research question that links with an urban setting. So it is directly connects with a present towns or cities. While archaeology of the city is based on using archaeological methods to help in understanding a specific processes and elements that were involved in the urban development of a city that had abandoned many centuries before.

Benefits of Modern Day Principles of the Urban Designing in Relation to the Urban Archaeological Practices:

Several principles of urban space design have gained more prominence such as the emphasis of creating safe, accessible, well –designed, locally unique, vital environments. Since the existence of urban archaeological remains in urban space town and the city life is an important part of urban planning process in historic cities.

How Archaeologists Find out History of an Urban Site?

In urban landscapes, there is a high potential of finding a thick deposit of the cultural material. After making deep trench they dig out the artifacts, structures, jewellery , animal bones etc on the bases of which they can rebuilt the original history of the city or the lifestyle of the early inhibitors. As the cultural strata is so deep in the towns that the archaeologist have to make a deep holes, that are dug by adaptation of the civil engineering techniques, keeping in notice the safety of the surrounding buildings.

Interaction Between Archaeology and Spatial Planning of the Towns:

The archaeological heritage, which has canceled the land, we are living in, is sometimes the only source of information about the past. As this heritage is a proof to the past societies, their culture, social and economic conditions and other daily life practices as a community. So it can be said that the strata which contains such a valuable cultural remains within it, is the direct evidence for the centuries of human activities.


1. Rules:

The basic rules of the urban archaeology are the same as the rules of the normal archaeology .

2. Pre-excavation Exploration and Survey:

Pre excavation survey is the essential part of archaeology. No scientific based excavation can be conducted without the survey of the area. Same goes with the urban archaeology. They have to make a survey of the town; to find that whether it is of historic importance or not. For this, they also make a deep hole or a trial trench; which bring out the material deep from inside the earth. That’s how archaeologist comes to find about the presence of the artifacts in the urban settlement.

3. Archaeological Research:

This method will be same like a typical archaeological research method. Like recording of the
artifacts, excavation, sites finds documentation etc.

4.Small area Invasion Method:

In the towns that have a long history, and those that are still occupied; have some issues regarding such excavations. As the land is so compacted and there is no space for making a trench. But in such cases where there is a public park, lawn or a building that has a large uncovered area attached to it as its property, might be used for making a trial trench. With certain modified methods. Like in such case small area invasion technique is required to make a small temporary excavation.
So this urban archaeologist can’t enjoy a full scale normal excavation. Instead they have to be focused to remove each and every recovery inch by inch from the same trench.

5.Harris Matrix Tool:

Due to complexity of a thick stratigraphy of the urban site. The Harris matrix system is employed. Because this tool helps in bringing forth an accurate and consistent excavation of a site, and make it easier to develop and connect the complex sequences in a more comprehensible way.

6. Layer Upon Layer

i. Houses on the Tel:

Such urban sites are mostly situated on the top of a tel. Tel is a mound of clay. Which is prominently higher than the surrounding ground. Due to the cultural stratas that is the indication of habitation and occupation available below it. Such kind of tel is the result of layer upon layer construction. As the poorly constructed houses of the peasants or farmers in the past, decay soon due to weather effects, so they just level the ground or the foundation and reconstruct the house at the same place reusing the old material.

That’s why the present houses built on tel are relatively higher than the houses of the first settlers. It is observed that the stratigraphy of even modern towns is very deep.

ii. Stratas at Risk and Its Possible Solution:

For the last three decades, stratification is facing the risk of vanishing, because of the modern development throughout the world.
To preserve the continuity of this valuable historic stratification, this is often highlighted in the recent international documents on conservation and archaeology- both rural and urban that only by promoting the public awareness the protection of the cultural heritage this target can be achieved. Further more public awareness will evolve through the presentation and accessibility of the cultural heritage. In this point, therefore, integration of the urban archaeological heritage to everyday life seems as a significant factor in creating public awareness for the conservation.

7. Single Context Recording Method:

In this method archaeologist draw each feature individually in plan, and then relate its position to the site trench. As they do no plan or excavate the entire area at once. The drawing is made on a square piece of translucent film.

How They Analyze the Transparencies?

Later after the completion of the excavation. The strata transparencies are studied by the archaeologist. First they study them individually, and then by putting them one over the other. That’s how they can easily find any kind of the material change or any activity that changed in the strata in next to the lower one. That helps a lot to reconstruct the past.

8. Introduction of Digital Technologies in Urban Archaeology:

As archaeological excavations are destructive by nature, so to overcome this problem digital technologies can be advantageous. Now they are wide spread in archaeological fieldwork, like in case of acquiring 3D spatial data the use of total station and GPS is the need of the modern world precise archaeological excavation.

9. Museumification of Urban Archaeological Sites:

This method involves the display of the objects recover from the urban site. It’s immensely important to put them on display, in order to bring the people closer and familiar to their heritage. Thus the towns with such museum displaying the things showing their origin will be able to attract more tourists as well.

Why There is a Need of Rapid Excavation in Urban Archaeology?

Urban archeological excavation is usually rapid unlike the conventional or any other normal historic site excavation. In this case they remove each object from the single dig one by one, and record it in situ. As such excavation is conducted in a busy area of a city, so a raid action is required. To make the work finish quickly.

Importance of Conservation of the Urban Archaeological Remains:

The recent developments on the urban conservation have given considerable value to the presentation of urban archaeological remains to the public in order to raise awareness for conservation.

Archaeological remains are considered “Heritage”. Due to its character, the urban archaeological heritage comes under the scope of conservation, urban archaeology and urban planning. Since urban archaeological heritage exist within the urban context thus it falls within the scope of urban planning; it has historic value and it falls within the scope of archaeology.

Modern Town Planning on the Basis of Urban Archaeology Conservation Rules:

Urban culture is the result of human development and urban conservation is related with the promotion of urban life that describes a strong sense of continuity. This necessitates the assessment of historic buildings and archaeological sites in their specific urban settings. Therefore, when incorporation of urban archaeological possessions to everyday life in historic city centers is the main issue, the primary amalgamation must take place between these three fields. In order to integrate the remains into the city life, there must be an interconnected work between the fields of urban archaeology, urban conservation and planning.

Practical Urban Archaeological Excavations in the Historic City of Peshawar:

Peshawar is one of the oldest living cities of the Indian subcontinent. The history of Peshawar is centuries old. And it’s still growing day by day. To know the cultural profile of Peshawar; excavation was conducted right in the heart of the old city. At the site of Gor Khattari, where presently is standing a caravansarai from the Mughal’s era.

Excavation in Gor Khattari:

A small scale excavation was started by the department of archaeology university of Peshawar in 1992. Later full flagged excavation was conducted in 2000. A trench was laid near the gateway of the serai; it had gone so deep to nearly 8.5 m, and still there are 8m meters more required to reach the virgin soil. The excavations dates back Peshawar to 4th century BC.


Urban archaeology is the study of the relationships between material culture, human behaviour, and cognition in an urban setting. Urban archaeological excavations bring forth remnants of urban boundary, coins, metal tools, jewellery, burial styles, and religious beliefs.
Archaeologist also draw each object in a single context on a transparent film individually. This is first done only in the first layer of occupation. After recording all the artifacts of the first layer, they start working on the second layer. And this process is continued until the arrival of the virgin soil.


Understanding humanities interaction with the natural environment in the light of history is possible through the urban archaeology. The excavation conducted in the towns help to reveal or disclose the ancient history of that town. So the people are able this time to find out about the lifestyle of their past nighbourhood instead of learning about certain king.
Urban archaeology helps to re develop an entire social system that was once existing in the past.

Sometimes the layer of occupation goes up to the level of the prehistoric era, which is quite useful to know the historic sequence of the old inhibitors of that town , which is not mentioned sometimes even in the manuscripts. This imbedded cultural evidence is in a great threat due to expanding spatial urban-development. So this has increased the necessity of producing interaction between archaeology and spatial planning to a greater level.


Below are few of the frequently asked question on the google about this topic:

What is the Definition of Urban Archaeology?

Urban archaeology is a sub branch of archaeology that deals with the study of the history! Of the living cities and town instead of the ruined cities.

Beginning of Urbanization?

Cities or urbanization began just 6,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of urban cities comes from Mesopotamia.

Recently a British-era tunnel was discovered during plantation drive at Ayubia National Park in Northern Pakistan.
Though I think that this excavation was not something that directly relates to Urban Archaeology but it this discovery tells a lot about the ways adopted by the people of that time to survive and communicate with each others.

Kudos! A very thorough and well researched article that any person who is not related to archaeology would easily understand and enjoy this article. It such a great pleasure to read so much about urban archaeology all in one article. It is indeed a very much interesting topic. I would like to share few things related to this topic.

Urban Archaeology Find in Hayatabad, Peshawar, Pakistan:

As you have mentioned about the Got Khattari excavation in Hayatabad, Phase 5, Peshawar, I would like to highlight another urban archaeological site in Peshawar, that’s also located in Peshawar. The site is located in the Industrial area of Hayatabad, Peshawar, and it is identified to be almost 2000 years old. The artefacts belongs to Sateen tribe and their time period dates back to second century BC. Provincial Department of Archaeology of KPK, are reviewing the site for the restoration ad also thinking of converting the site into a museum.

The excavations took about three years. Professor Gul Raheem, from University of Peshawar, and his team’s hard work rewarded back with the discovery of old relic of Greek Blacksmith’s workshop. According to Professor Gul Raheem this workshop is the oldest of its kind among other Greek period workshops that had discovered so far from the Indian sub-continent. According to him they first find ancient Greek coins after which they decided to dig deeper at the site, the other artefacts they recovered include coins, knives, smelting instruments of various metals, furnace.

Prominent Urban Archeologist in the World:

  1. Timothy F. Stroud
  2. Martin Carver: He is a professor at University of York, who is studying about the early periods of Medieval Europe Archeology and also finding new techniques for surveys and excavation.
  3. W. F Grimes: An urban archaeologist who has studies and research, more particularly, early times of Medieval archaeology of Rome and also of London and also has written a book about his findings in this area.
  4. C. Allen Braxton
  5. Martin Biddle: An urban archaeologist from England, who is also Medieval Archaeology’s first lecturer in his area.

I have a question for you, kindly tell me that what if some signs of old relic is found but half of it is below the already existing building, then in such a case what is the option with archaeologist, I mean then what do they do?

1 Like

Hi there. Very well said. Well… In such case again after the completion of pre _excavation requirements. The archaeologist will follow the exact technique that will b required to dig the site. As you said that some of the ruins are exposed… So they will excavate the site unit by unit in order to protect the site from any loss.

1 Like

Oh ok. Thanks alot!

1 Like