Science, Tech, Math › Social Sciences Archaeology Equipment: The Tools of the Trade Share Flipboard Email Print Social Sciences Archaeology Excavations Basics Ancient Civilizations History of Animal and Plant Domestication Psychology Sociology Economics Ergonomics Maritime By K. Kris Hirst Archaeology Expert M.A., Anthropology, University of Iowa B.Ed., Illinois State University K. Kris Hirst is an archaeologist with 30 years of field experience. Her work has appeared in scholarly publications such as Archaeology Online and Science. our editorial process Twitter Twitter K. Kris Hirst Updated February 05, 2019 An archaeologist uses many different tools during the course of an investigation, before, during and after the excavations. The photographs in this essay define and describe many of the everyday tools archaeologists use in the process of conducting archaeology.This photo essay uses as its framework the typical course of an archaeological excavation conducted as part of a cultural resource management project in the midwestern United States. The photographs were taken in May 2006 at the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist, with the kind assistance of staff there. 01 of 23 Arranging for the Field Work The project director (or office manager) begins planning an archaeological excavation. Kris Hirst 2006 Before any archaeological studies are completed, the office manager or project director must contact the client, set up the work, develop a budget, and assign a Principal Investigator to conduct the project work. 02 of 23 Maps and Other Background Information Accessing background information, this project archaeologist prepares to go into the field. Kris Hirst 2006 The Principal Investigator (aka Project Archaeologist) begins her research by collecting all the previously known information about the area she will be visiting. This includes historical and topographic maps of the region, published town and county histories, aerial photographs, and soils maps as well as any previous archaeological research that has been conducted in the region. 03 of 23 Ready for the Field This pile of excavation equipment is waiting for the next field trip. Kris Hirst 2006 Once the Principal Investigator has completed her research, she begins to collect the excavation tools she will need for the field. This pile of screens, shovels, and other equipment is cleaned and ready for the field. 04 of 23 A Mapping Device A Total Station transit is a tool that allows archaeologists to make an accurate three-dimensional map of an archaeological site. Kris Hirst 2006 During an excavation, the first thing that happens is a map is made of the archaeological site and the local vicinity. This Total Station transit allows the archaeologist to make an accurate map of an archaeological site, including the topography of the surface, the relative location of artifacts and features within the site, and the placement of excavation units.The CSA Newsletter has an excellent description of how to use a total station transit. 05 of 23 Marshalltown Trowels Two brand new, neatly sharpened Marshalltown trowels. Kris Hirst 2006 One important piece of equipment that each archaeologist carries is his or her trowel. It's important to get a sturdy trowel with a flat blade that can be sharpened. In the US, that means only one kind of trowel: the Marshalltown, known for its reliability and longevity. 06 of 23 Plains Trowel This trowel is called a plains or corner trowel, and some archaeologists swear by it. Kris Hirst 2006 Many archaeologists like this kind of Marshalltown trowel, called a Plains trowel because it allows them to work in tight corners and keep straight lines. 07 of 23 A Variety of Shovels Shovels--both round and flat-ended--are as necessary to much field work as a trowel. Kris Hirst 2006 Both flat-ended and round-ended shovels come in remarkably useful in certain excavation situations. 08 of 23 Deep Testing Soils A bucket auger is used for testing deeply buried deposits; with extensions it may be safely used to seven meters deep. Kris Hirst 2006 Sometimes, in some floodplain situations, archaeological sites may be buried several meters deep beneath the current surface. The bucket auger is an essential piece of equipment, and with long sections of pipe added above the bucket may be safely extended to depths of up to seven meters (21 feet) to explore for buried archaeological sites. 09 of 23 The Trusty Coal Scoop A coal scoop comes in very handy for moving heaps of dirt from tiny excavation units. Kris Hirst 2006 The shape of a coal scoop is very useful for working in square holes. It allows you to pick up excavated soils and move them easily to the screeners, without disturbing the surface of the test unit. 10 of 23 The Trusty Dust Pan A dust pan, like the coal scoop, can come in very handy for removing excavated soil. Kris Hirst 2006 A dust pan, exactly like the one you have around your house, is also useful for removing piles of excavated soil neatly and cleanly from excavation units. 11 of 23 Soil Sifter or Shaker Screen A hand-held one-person shaker screen or soil sifter. Kris Hirst 2006 As earth is excavated from an excavation unit, it is brought to a shaker screen, where it is processed through a 1/4 inch mesh screen. Processing soil through a shaker screen recovers artifacts which may not have been noted during hand excavation. This is a typical lab-crafted shaker screen, for use by one person. 12 of 23 Soil Sifting in Action An archaeologist demonstrates the shaker screen (pay no attention to the inappropriate footwear). Kris Hirst 2006 This researcher was dragged from her office to demonstrate how a shaker screen is used in the field. Soils are placed in the screened box and the archaeologist shakes the screen back and forth, allowing the dirt to pass through and artifacts larger than 1/4 inch to be retained. Under normal field conditions, she would be wearing steel-toed boots. 13 of 23 Flotation An electronic water screening device is a godsend to researchers processing many soil samples. Kris Hirst 2006 Mechanical screening of soil through a shaker screen does not recover all artifacts, particularly ones smaller than 1/4 inch. In special circumstances, in feature fill situations or other places where the recovery of small items is needed, water screening is an alternative process. This water screening device is used in the laboratory or in the field to clean and examine soil samples taken from archaeological features and sites. This method, called flotation method was developed to retrieve small organic materials, such as seeds and bone fragments, as well as tiny flint chips, from archaeological deposits. The flotation method vastly improves the amount of information archaeologists can retrieve from soil samples at a site, in particular with respect to the diet and environment of past societies.By the way, this machine is called a Flote-Tech, and as far as I am aware, it is the only manufactured flotation machine available on the market. It is a terrific piece of hardware and built to last forever. Discussions about its efficacy have appeared in American Antiquity lately:Hunter, Andrea A. and Brian R. Gassner 1998 Evaluation of the Flote-Tech machine-assisted flotation system. American Antiquity 63(1):143-156.Rossen, Jack 1999 The Flote-Tech flotation machine: Messiah or mixed blessing? American Antiquity 64(2):370-372. 14 of 23 Flotation Device Soil samples are exposed to gentle streams of water in this water screening device. Kris Hirst 2006 In the flotation method of artifact recovery, soil samples are placed in metal baskets in a flotation device such as this and exposed to gentle streams of water. As the water gently washes away the soil matrix, any seeds and tiny artifacts in the sample float to the top (called the light fraction), and the larger artifacts, bones, and pebbles sink to the bottom (called the heavy fraction). 15 of 23 Processing the Artifacts: Drying A drying rack allows newly washed or brushed artifacts to dry while maintaining their provenience information. Kris Hirst 2006 When artifacts are recovered in the field and brought back to the laboratory for analysis, they must be cleaned of any clinging soil or vegetation. After they are washed, they are placed in a drying rack such as this one. The drying racks are large enough to keep the artifacts sorted by their provenience, and they allow free circulation of air. Each wooden block in this tray separates the artifacts by the excavation unit and level from which they were recovered. The artifacts may thus dry as slowly or as quickly as necessary. 16 of 23 Analytical Equipment Calipers and cotton gloves are used during the analysis of artifacts. Kris Hirst 2006 To understand what the fragments of artifacts recovered from an archaeological site mean, archaeologists must do a lot of measuring, weighing, and analyzing of artifacts before they are stored for future research. Measurements of tiny artifacts are taken after they have been cleaned. When necessary, cotton gloves are used to reduce cross-contamination of artifacts. 17 of 23 Weighing and Measuring Metric Scale. Kris Hirst 2006 Every artifact coming out of the field must be carefully analyzed. This is one kind of scale (but not the only kind) used to weigh artifacts. 18 of 23 Cataloging Artifacts for Storage This kit includes everything you need to write catalog numbers on artifacts. Kris Hirst 2006 Every artifact collected from an archaeological site must be cataloged; that is, a detailed list of all the artifacts recovered is stored with the artifacts themselves for the use of future researchers. A number written on the artifact itself refers to a catalog description stored in a computer database and hard copy. This little labeling kit contains the tools that archaeologists use to label artifacts with the catalog number prior to their storage, including ink, pens, and pen nibs, and a slip of acid-free paper to store abbreviated catalog information. 19 of 23 Mass Processing of Artifacts Graduated screens are used to sift soil or artifact samples to retrieve ever-smaller sized artifacts. Kris Hirst 2006 Some analytical techniques require that instead of (or in addition to) counting every artifact by hand, you need a summary statistic of what percentage of certain kinds of artifacts fall into what size range, called size-grading. Size-grading of chert debitage, for example, can provide information about what kinds of stone-tool making processes took place at a site; as well as information about alluvial processes on a site deposit. To complete size-grading, you need a set of nested graduated screens, which fit together with the largest mesh openings on top and the smallest on the bottom, so that artifacts fall out into their size grades. 20 of 23 Long Term Storage of Artifacts A repository is a place where the official collections of state-sponsored excavations are kept. Kris Hirst 2006 After the site analysis has been completed and the site report finished, all artifacts recovered from an archaeological site must be stored for future research. Artifacts excavated by state- or federal-funded projects must be stored in a climate-controlled repository, where they may be retrieved when necessary for additional analysis. 21 of 23 Computer Databasees Very few archaeologists can live without a computer these days. Kris Hirst 2006 Information about artifacts and sites collected during excavations is placed into computer databases to assist researchers with understanding the archaeology of a region. This researcher is looking at a map of Iowa where all of the known archaeological site locations are plotted. 22 of 23 Principal Investigator The principal investigator is responsible for completing the report of excavations. Kris Hirst 2006 After all the analysis is complete, the project archaeologist or Principal Investigator must write a complete report on the course and findings of the investigations. The report will include any background information she discovered, the process of the excavations and artifact analysis, the interpretations of those analyses, and the final recommendations for the site's future. She may call upon a large number of people to assist her, during analysis or writeup but ultimately, she is responsible for the accuracy and completeness of the report of the excavations. 23 of 23 Archiving Reports Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library (Indiana Jones). Kris Hirst 2006 The report written by the project archaeologist is submitted to her project manager, to the client who requested the work, and to the Office of the State Historic Preservation Officer. After the final report is written, often a year or two after the final excavation is completed, the report is filed in a state repository, ready for the next archaeologist to begin his or her research.