Abstract The finite element method has often been used to simulate excavation. When the soil is linearly elastic, the results of excavation should be independent of the number of stages in the excavation process, and lack of such independence indicates an incorrect procedure. The simple direct method described in this paper provides the required independence in the case of linearly elastic materials, and hence can be used for multi-stage excavation in non-linear problems without excessive errors. However methods whose errors increase with the number of stages of excavation are quite unsuitable for non-linear problems. Alternative methods of analysis, errors arising from the inability of the elements to model adequately the stress gradients near the toe of the excavation and excavation adjacent to a diaphragm wall are discussed.