Tools of the Archaeologist

The archaeologist while on the digging site has demanding needs. The primary purpose of any archaeological excavation is to discover buried artefacts by removing the ground surrounding them. Excavation may be in soft sand, hard stony soil or even underwater. The tools required to perform the task will reflect the nature of the excavation site.

Types of Tools

Archaeological digging tools can be considered in two broad categories reduced by a number of sub-types. None of these is exhaustive.

Field Site Equipment:

  • Digging Tools
  • Health and Safety Kit
  • Recording Apparatus

Specialist Paraphernalia:

  • Underwater Gear
  • Laboratory Equipment

On most land-based expeditions, excavation tools are generally the same. There is a basic ‘tool kit’ that is almost mandatory for any archaeologist when digging in a field location.

Getting Started

Although most of the artefacts that are discovered are small and relatively fragile, therefore necessitating great patience and care with small tools when excavating them, there is also a need, at times, to remove large quantities of soil quickly.

Field survey preparations for a new site may reveal that many metres of non-yielding topsoil could be covering the primary strata layer of interest. Quick removal of the surface soil will not damage the archaeological record. Also, as many sites are only excavated for a few weeks a year (some only every second year) the weather, during these long periods between digging, can cause infilling of previously excavated positions. Larger tools can accomplish the rapid removal of unimportant debris.

Digging Tools

A pickaxe or mattock is particularly useful for breaking up and removing very hard compacted spoil. Shovels and spades are used to clear away bulk debris left from picks and mattocks. Other hand tools used in bulk clean up work would include hoes, rakes, forks, and of course the wheelbarrow to cart it all away. In some circumstances all of the spoil will be fine sieved, from the wheelbarrow, before dumping into a waste area.

Layout Equipment

Once the ground is cleared it will need to be laid out in grids to assist identification and recording. This involves pegging out squares and running string lines to form digging areas with one-metre baulks between them. Although the equipment is simple, the work involves careful measuring in three dimensions.

Using the field maps from the survey team, archaeologists will site the work areas with survey levels, compass, dumpy levels, plumb lines, spirit level, and open spooled measuring tapes often up to 100 metres long. Metal pegs, a heavy mallet to drive them securely into the ground, and good quality strong bailing twine are all needed to set up the squares.

Filled sandbags are usually placed around the top edges of the baulks. Finally the area will be swept clean with a yard broom.

Fine Excavation Tools

Some archaeologists and especially palaeontologists can appear more like dentists in their digging holes with fine surgical instruments and a slow calculated rate of excavation. For most, however, the tools are relatively straightforward.

The basic tool kit will consist of at least one standard 4 inch trowel, a leaf trowel used for finer more delicate work, plumb bob to ensure the baulk sides remain vertical, a foam kneeling mat or knee pads, a six to eight metre hand measuring tape, one 1 inch and one 2 inch paint brush, a set of callipers, well-fitting comfortable gloves, and a horde of black rubber buckets.

As well as these, a specialist might add a number of small tools such as a dental pick, scalpel, magnifying glass and smaller makeup brushes.

Recording Apparatus

Archaeologists may record finds as they are discovered and they will also make a detailed recording at the end of each day. Recording artefacts, including architecture, may be sketched or photographed. The archaeological photographer usually is equipped with high resolution digital imaging devices, sturdy tripod, adequate auxiliary lighting to combat the high contrast caused by open sun shadowing, and a calibrated measurement board.

All buckets with sherds and other finds are labelled on waterproof tags and some may be placed into named plastic bags for separation purposes.

Health and Safety Kit

Many archaeological digging sites are in hot remote areas where access to medical facilities is often not possible. A wise archaeologist will enter the site well prepared for the conditions. For example, at a hot, dry digging site the personal support kit might consist of many litres of cold water, broad rimmed hat, sun cream, insect repellent, first aid kit, and a portable shade system.

Specialist Paraphernalia

The archaeological specialist will need to tailor tools for the specifics of the task. Underwater archaeology requires much more than just wet suit, air tanks, mask, snorkel, fins, watch, and a catch bag. Digging underwater is both complex and dangerous. Lack of visibility is always a disadvantage. At deep depths there is very little light and stirring up the silty seabed can reduce visibility to nil. Special vacuum extraction hoses are used to suck up the seabed to the surface.

Recording underwater finds will require specially housed camera equipment. The diver, with risks of electrocution, may need to carry strong additional artificial lighting.

Meanwhile, back in the archaeological laboratory, technicians are using microscopes, x-ray machines, performing chemical analysis experiments, re-photographing with infra-red, ultra-violet and other specialist photographic techniques as they play their part in the complexity of archaeological excavation.

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