The Archaeology Tools Guide

By Chelsi Slotten

Archaeologists use a lot of different tools when excavating. These will differ depending on the geographical area you are working in, the site conditions, and the type of archaeology you are doing.  For example, a lot of bioarchaeologists (aka archaeologists who study bones) have dental picks in their toolkit, which other archaeologists might not have.  Fire archaeologists also need special gear to protect themselves from the heat. Underwater archaeologists need scuba gear.  You get the idea, different situations require different tools. If you specialize in any of these fields you will learn more about what each requires. We’ll go over some of the most common archaeology tools you might find in someone’s kit below. Did we miss something? Do you have a tool you absolutely love? Let us know in the comments!

The top of a painbruch can be sen on the right hand side of the image.  The background is grey.
Brushes are useful for revealing details. (Source: Pixabay)
Image shows a flat trowel with a wooden handle sitting in the dirt.
Trowels are an archaeologisists most basic tool. (Source: Wikimedia)
Image has three panels showing wter being added to dirt, pouring the mud through a sieve, and what was recovered during the sieving proccess.
Sieves are important for catching any small artifacts you may have missed when excavating. (Source: Flickr)

Digging

What archaeology tools you need to do the physical work of excavation.

  • Trowel- A trowel is one of an archaeologist’s most basic tools.  Archaeologists use small flat trowels to carefully scrape back the soil in a controlled manner so artifact context can be recorded. Archaeologists can be pretty specific about their trowels, liking different brands, styles, handle shapes, or levels of wear. My trowel is super worn on one side from use. I definitely notice a difference when using a newer trowel.  I’ll keep my old lopsided one, thanks.
  • Plastic spoon- This one might seem a bit weird at first, but it’s actually super useful. Plastic spoons are small enough that you can do delicate excavation work and are plastic, so they are less likely to damage delicate artifacts than a trowel, which is usually metal, might.
  • Brush- Brushes make it easier to see what you are working on and can help clean and reveal fine details when you are excavating.  I find paint brushes or makeup brushes work well, but really any soft brush will do.
  • Shovel- Shovels are important for digging down to the cultural layer that you will be excavating.  They are also important for moving soil around a site and backfilling (aka putting the soil back in the site) if that’s something you’re doing on your excavation.
  • Something to blow air- Similar to brushes, objects that gently blow air over artifacts are useful for revealing details.  I personally have used turkey basters for this, but one of my university professors swore that enema bulbs were the perfect tool.  Pick whatever works.
  • Sieves/Screen- Sieves are super useful for making sure you haven’t missed anything, particularly anything small. Before you can add the soil you’ve removed from the site to the designated area you should always run it through a sieve first. Small beads, sherds of pottery, old seeds, and all sorts of other things can be missed if you don’t sieve your soil.
  • Buckets- Useful for moving dirt from one place to another.  Also good for sitting on.
  • Artifact bag- Yay you found something!  It’s important to put the object in a properly labeled bag so it can be catalogued and researched later.  
  • Sharpies- Sharpies are your friend.  I use them for everything on a site. Do yourself a favor and put some fluorescent tape on the end or you will lose them.
Wooden clipboard with a metal clip at the top. Photo is taken at an angle.
A clipboard for all your writing needs. (Source: Wikimedia)
A red line lev.
A line level will help make sure the string surrounding the excavation pit is level before you start recording. (Source: pxfuel.com)

A 10cm long black and white photography scale with an x and y axis.
A photo scale is a must have. (Source: freesvg.org)

Recording

A really important part of archaeology, potentially more important than excavating, is recording. Context is super important in archaeology. In order to to make sense of the site, we need to record where artifacts are found, what they are found near, and what position they were in when they were found.  Basically, write everything down. Excavation is a destructive process. Archaeological sites are destroyed as they are excavated so there is only one chance to know what was found on the site and where.  Take good notes.

  • Pencil- You will need to erase things, use pencils. Once the artifact list, profile drawing, etc is finished you can go over it in pen. Do the first draft in pencil.  It will save you a headache in the long run.
  • Paper- Remember how recording is really important? You need something to record on.
  • Waterproof paper- Archaeologists excavate in all weather, including rain. A sudden downpour ruining your notes is not fun, and waterproof paper can help avoid those sorts of issues.
  • String- You will be setting up a lot of grids as an archaeologist.  String is useful for denoting the boundary between different sections of the excavation and different 1mx1m sections of the site.
  • Level- When you get around to making your profile drawings you are going to want to know how the different levels relate to one another horizontally AND vertically.  If you have a level string you can measure down from it to create a more accurate profile drawing.
  • Measuring tape- Used to measure things before you record them. The details matter.
  • Camera- Take all the photos. Most artifacts will no longer be in place after the excavation is complete so make sure you have good documentation of where things were and what they looked like. 
  • Photo scale- Make sure your photos contain as much visual information as possible by including a photo scale.  If you’ve lost your scale (and to be honest, who hasn’t lost a scale at some point) I’m a fan of putting a Sharpie in the photo.
  • Clipboards- You will need something to write on. I cannot overstate how important a clipboard is.  Trying to write on a rock or colleague’s back is not fun.
Image of a yellow and grey machine set up on the grass.  The machine is a total station and a concrete sculpture can be seen in the background.
Total Stations are helpful for getting digital data for your report. (Source: Wikimedia)
Image of a mechanical compass with the arrow point just slightly east of north.
Always know where you are headed with a compass. (Source: Flickr)
Image of a bright green tape measure with a silver clip on the back. The tape itself is pulled out to 8 inches.
An archaeology tools kit wouldn’t be complete without a tape measure. (Source: Wikimedia)

Surveying

Before you can start digging you need to figure out where to dig. This is where surveying comes in, or as I like to call it walking while staring at the ground. You will be looking for potential archaeology sites while surveying, and what those might look like varies depending on where you are working. You’ll need a variety of archaeology tools to help with this.

  • Compass- I realize digital GPS and phones are a thing, but sometimes you might be in a place that does not have good reception, need to read an old map, or figure out what direction a site faces.  If you’re terrible at identifying the cardinal directions like me, a compass is a must-have in your pack.
  • Map- Again I realize that GPS and phones are a thing but a physical map can be really useful.  Particularly if you’re looking at a historic site, having a historic map that shows where things were will make your life a lot easier and allow you to do better archaeology.
  • Tape measure- Self-explanatory. Measure things to have better data.
  • GPS unit- Often these are handheld and are useful for recording the latitude and longitude coordinates of sites.
  • Total Station- this is one of the more expensive items you will work with. They are super useful for getting very precise measurements of where items are both horizontally and vertically.  Total stations are also useful for creating maps of locations of sites. They can be a pain to set up on uneven ground as they need to be level.  
A yellow hardhat on a black background.
Stay safe on construction sites with a hard hat! (Source: Wikimedia)
A red first aid kit. The kit is unzipped and you can see that it contains a variety of medical items and is well organized.
Be prepared for accidents with a first aid kit. (Source: Wikimedia)

Safety

These items may not strictly be archaeology tools. They are super important nonetheless. Safety on site is paramount. Include the following in your pack to be prepared for any issues that may arise.

  • WATER- Stay hydrated.  No matter where you work, dehydration can cause serious issues, so drink your water.
  • Sunscreen- Archalogists work outside, often in the sun. This makes us prone to skin cancer. Wearing sunscreen could literally save your life.
  • Hard hat- Hard hats are not always necessary. They are usually worn in areas where falling rocks may be an issue, or on construction sites. You can get the normal colour ones or splurge on something different to show off your personality.  They are also a great place to put stickers to promote your favourite archaeology podcast. *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*
  • High-visbility clothing- High-vis clothing may also be required to adhere to site safety standards on construction sites.  High-vis clothing is also useful when you are surveying, particularly in areas where hunting is common. Make sure other people in the area can see you to reduce the chances of an accident.
  • Good boots- Bad boots can result in blisters, sprained ankles, sore feet, ingrown toenails, and all sorts of other unpleasantness.  Archaeologists spend a lot of time on their feet. Do yourself a favour and invest in a good pair of boots.
  • First aid kit- Accidents happen. Make sure you’re prepared for the unexpected with a basic first aid kit.  If you work somewhere with specific dangers, hello poisonous snakes or insects, having something to address that is a good idea as well.

Final Thoughts on Archaeology Tools

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list of archaeology tools, but it does give a good overview of what tools you might see in the field.  If you’re looking for more information on what to wear in the field to be comfortable and protect yourself look no further than our blog on The Art of CRM Field Tech-ing, pt 2: What To Wear. Happy Excavating!

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