Archaeology Equipment: The Tools of the Trade

Archaeology Equipment: The Tools of the Trade

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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.

01of 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.

02of 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.

03of 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.

04of 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.

05of 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.

06of 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.

07of 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.

08of 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.

09of 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.

10of 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.

11of 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.

12of 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.

13of 23


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.

14of 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).

15of 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.

16of 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.

17of 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.

18of 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.​

19of 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.

20of 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.

21of 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.

22of 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.

23of 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.