Archives and Research

Archaeology and landscape

Find out about how Historic Environment Scotland funds and carries out archaeological research.

1 Overview

Archaeology is the study of the human past through physical traces left behind in the landscape. 

Scotland’s rich archaeological heritage spans more than 10,000 years of human life and culture. Remains provide us with vital clues about how people lived, what their societies were like and how they interacted with their environment. 

Teams across Historic Environment Scotland are involved in researching Scotland’s archaeology and landscapes.  

Our archaeology and landscape research covers, for example: 

  • minor routine archaeological works to support the conservation and maintenance of our 336 properties in care 
  • research and rescue excavations at any of our 336 properties in care 
  • systematic studies by our in-house Survey and Recording function 
  • a variety of ways in which our collections are examined   
  • grant provision to third parties 

We take a wide variety of approaches to research – from doctoral studies in association with universities to large-scale and long-running collaborations. 

We also fund archaeological efforts through our Archaeology Programme funding. 

2 Teams

Archaeology Strategy Team 

Area of focus: Developing and implementing archaeology strategy and programmes in Scotland. 

Our Archaeology Strategy Team is responsible for: 

  • the development and implementation of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy  
  • working with the Scottish Strategic Archaeology Committee and colleagues across the sector  
  • the management of the Archaeology Programme – Historic Environment Scotland’s investment in archaeology  
  • the human remains call-off contract (2013–16), currently held by AOC Archaeology 
  • the radiocarbon dating contract (2013–15), currently held by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) 

To learn more about the team and its work, email

Cultural Resources Team

Area of focus: Providing archaeological advice and programme management in relation to our properties in care. 

Our Cultural Team is made up of archaeologists and historians with considerable research experience in applied archaeology. The team has in-depth knowledge of the archaeology and history of each of our properties in care, and provides advice on archaeological sensitivities, the cultural significance of and conservation principles applied at our properties in care.  

The team is responsible for: 

  • providing archaeological advice and support through the consents process
  • managing the Minor Archaeological Works to properties in care call-off contract (2017-19) currently held by CFA Archaeology
  • undertaking archaeological research, content delivery and archiving
  • undertaking archaeological excavations and outreach
  • manages a small grants programme for research at the properties in care
  • providing input into the Statements of Significance programme

Archaeology Field Survey Team

​Area of focus: Surveying, recording and analysing archaeological sites and historic landscapes across Scotland.

Our Archaeology Field Survey Team studies traces of Scotland’s past at different scales.

The team examines:

  • whole landscapes such as St Kilda
  • individual archaeological sites
  • individual monuments

The team’s work often involves partnerships with universities, public bodies, charities and community groups.

Our staff are experts in a spread of archaeological periods, from early prehistory to modern times. Survey staff help us to illustrate and describe the sites and landscapes we explore.

3 Partnerships and funding

The reason behind archaeological fieldwork determines its sources of funding. The four main categories of fieldwork are: 

  • routine reactive work undertaken across our estate to meet the requirements of visitor operations and interpretation delivery at sites 
  • development-led – investigating archaeology in advance of its destruction by planned development 
  • rescue archaeology – investigating archaeology before its unavoidable destruction, either by natural processes or human agencies 
  • research archaeology – investigating archaeology to add to our store of knowledge and provide an enhanced visitor experience at our properties

Work following archaeological fieldwork, such as analysis, publication and archiving, is also usually funded by whoever funded the fieldwork. 

Funding for our archaeology and landscape research comes from many different sources. These range from large-scale European Union collaborative project grants to support from small, specialist charities.  

We also benefit from: 

We often conduct research in partnership with others in receipt of grants from various funding sources (including local authorities and government agencies), e.g. Landscape Partnership projects.  

We provide significant funding for research into Scotland’s landscapes and archaeology though our Archaeology Programme.

4 Projects

Links of Noltland excavations 

We’re leading rescue excavations at Links of Noltland in Orkney. Work began here in 2009, when erosion threatened the future of the prehistoric site. 

Archaeological work here has revealed a brilliantly preserved farming settlement dating from about 3000 BC to 1100 BC. Discoveries have included the ‘Westray Wife’, the earliest artistic representation of the human form found in the UK. 

Links of Noltland is under serious threat from climate change. We aim to excavate and record the entirety of the exposed remains to primary floor level before they are destroyed. 

The site has featured on the BBC Two series Digging for Britain, while Current Archaeology magazine named it Best Rescue Dig of the Year 2014. 

Final excavations are planned for the summer of 2016. Dune consolidation aims to protect the buried archaeological remains not yet excavated. 

Archaeologists at work on the Links of Noltland excavation.

Excavations at Links of Noltland archaeological site.

Tantallon Castle excavations 

Our work at Tantallon Castle was an opportunity to get the community involved in building a better archaeological understanding of one of Scotland’s finest castles. 

Following an extensive geophysical survey of the castle site, excavations were undertaken with help from local volunteers including the local Young Archaeologists’ Club. 

Outcomes of the excavations included: 

  • a more accurate understanding of the castle wards, including footprints of lost buildings
  • an opportunity for volunteers to get hands-on experience of archaeological excavations 
  • a better understanding of how to manage and conserve the monument 
  • improved interpretation, including a new suite of site graphics 
  • a showcase for the link between archaeological evidence and historic events 

The excavations were also the focus of both local and international lectures. We’re currently working on an interim paper on the results of the work. 

Archaeologists exploring Tantallon Castle during a recent excavation.

Archaeologists at work at Tantallon Castle.

Research techniques 

Our research takes many forms, from desk-based studies of various archives to archaeological excavations to answer specific research questions.  

Usually a variety of techniques are used, including:  

  • desk-based assessments 
  • watching briefs, evaluations and excavations 
  • traditional and digital survey 
  • standing building survey 
  • geophysical survey and remote sensing 
  • palaeoenvironmental analysis 
  • human remains analysis 
  • the scientific analysis of artefacts and organic remains, including dendrochronology 

Excavation fieldwork is undertaken in four stages: 

  • excavation – the careful, and monitored and recorded, on-site work 
  • post-excavation studies – the analysis of artefacts, fragments and records gathered during excavation 
  • reporting – letting the general public know what knowledge has been gained from excavation 
  • disposal – depositing records of excavation with archival institutions, and disposing of artefacts and ecofacts through the Treasure Trove System

Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy 

Our Archaeology Strategy Team is involved in the development of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy. 

The strategy’s aim is to make archaeology matter, ensuring it plays a key role in understanding Scottish place-making and identity, to enrich and improve the quality of people’s lives. 

The strategy, developed in partnership with the Scottish Strategic Archaeology Committee and colleagues across the sector, takes its lead from Our Place in Time, the historic environment strategy for Scotland. 

5 Publications and conferences

The results of our archaeological research can be found across our publications. 

Our research output informs: 

  • conferences and related external publications 
  • academic journal publications 
  • magazine features, blogs and other popular publications 
  • invited talks and teaching, including at Bournemouth, Edinburgh, Stirling, Sheffield and Glasgow Universities 
  • workshops and collaborations to share best practice with other practitioners 
  • contributions to conservation plans 
  • press and TV contributions – both programmes and news 
  • social media 

Data from our archaeology and landscape research is recorded in-house and deposited in the Canmore database and with local historic environment records 

Our Archaeology Report Monograph series details site-specific excavations and research.

Academic publications are linked to Canmore where possible and may also be made available as books and associated e-books.  

Scottish Burgh Surveys 

Scottish Burgh Surveys offer guidance on the archaeological resource present in towns, and the questions that archaeology may answer where development occurs. 

Each volume describes: 

  • the geography and topography of the town 
  • its known archaeology and history 
  • its historic standing buildings and potential for further investigation 

Buy Scottish Burgh Surveys 

Buy Scottish Burgh Surveys in the third series, published from 2006 to 2010 in partnership with the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), on KirkintillochTain, Dunbar, MauchlineMaybole, Kilsyth, Barrhead, Govan, Whithorn, Fraserburgh, Wigtown and Galashiels.

Historic Dunfermline was published in October 2007 by the Dunfermline Burgh Survey Community Project, separately from the Historic Environment Scotland and CBA programme.

Volumes on Aberdeen, Coupar Angus, Cumnock, DalkeithDunblane,  Hamilton, Kirkcaldy Melrose Musselburgh Nairn Stornoway Stranraer Dumbarton, Forfar, Linlithgow and North Queensferry were published jointly with Tuckwell Press and Scottish Cultural Press, both of which no longer exist. Regretfully, these volumes are now out of print.