Artefact survey or analytical survey is a tool in a landscape archaeologist’s toolbox which collects information about the location, distribution and organization of past human activities across a landscape. Archaeological field survey is a non-intrusive prospection, where the density of the archaeological material on the surface is measured by counting the archaeological material on the surface in a systematic way. Ploughing and other agrarian activities disturb the archaeological layers in the ground and expose the archaeological material (pottery, glass, building material, slag etc.) on the surface.
Field surveys can be divided into two types. The extensive survey usually covers large areas (up to several square kilometers) but the resolution of the approach is usually low. Landscape is covered by widely spaced transects. It is targeted at the identification of the densities of archaeological material which could represent archaeological sites. Large areas can be covered quickly in this way and provide statistical representative information of the archaeological occupation of previously unknown areas.
Intensive survey, on the other hand, is characterised by the high resolution approach, where archaeological material is collected within the dense grid squares. It usually covers smaller areas, previously discovered by intensive survey. Intensive surveys are more costly and take more time but can provide more comprehensive information on the nature of human activities on the site. In this way activity areas within the site itself can be determined and located.
The analysis includes the mapping of the densities of different types of archaeological material. Although material is usually highly fragmented due to ploughing, careful examination of diagnostic pieces can provide chronological information. Statistical analysis of different types of material and different size classes may reveal patterns of past human activities, but also post-depositional disturbance or modern interference with the visibility of the archaeological material on the surface. To understand the pattern of visibility of archaeological sites, the analytical field survey is often combined with geo-archaeological mapping and prospection.
Analytical field survey can answer to the questions on chronology of landscape use, distribution of sites, contemporaneity of archaeological sites, site use, settlement hierarchies and even paleo-demography etc. It also provides key information which can guide decision on the further archaeological research on the site, such as geophysical prospection or excavation.