This post aims to provide a helpful guide as to what tools I have found useful to take on site over the years and describes the basic toolkit I take on an excavation.
All the items described in this post are not specialist ‘archaeology tools’ and are commonly available and relatively inexpensive. However, it is important to realise that being a good field archaeologist is not about having gucci kit; it requires a working knowledge of a core set of archaeological skills which are only gained through training, experience and personal study.
1. 4” Trowel – The workhorse on all terrestrial archaeological excavations. The trusty trowel should be the starting point for any archaeologist’s tool kit!
2. Wooden Tools – Different sized wooden coffee stirrers and lollipop sticks are easy to get hold of and are fantastic for excavating more delicate finds which are likely to be damaged by using metal tools. Plastic sculpting tools are an alternative however they can be worn down very quickly by hard soil or bedrock leaving behind unsightly plastic flecks in the soil.
3. Metal Wax Carving Tools – For excavating the finer things in life. These are great for carefully digging around small delicate finds.
4a. Trowel & Square – A very versatile tool which is great for cleaning up sections, features or finds before photographs are taken.
4b. Spoons – I carry a table spoon and a latte spoon for clearing the spoil from small features (e.g. post holes). Bend the neck of the spoon so the spoon bowl is between 90-70° to the handle which makes them easier to use.
5. Brushes – For some archaeologists these are quite literally the spawn of satan and woe betide anyone caught using one! Ok, maybe a slight over exaggeration but there is a large difference in opinion between archaeologists on their use. Personally, I carry 3 different types: a toothbrush, for washing finds, a 1” and 2” paint brush, to be used for excavation when appropriate.
6. Masonry Pins, Line & Level – For setting up a string line when half sectioning a feature. The flattened point of the masonry pins prevents them rotating in the ground keeping the line between them taught.
7a. Cable Ties – For closing off environmental sample bags as they are less likely to work loose than pieces of string.
7b. Small Finds Bags – Having a couple of finds bags to hand is useful to help keep track of those really small finds which are more likely to end up falling through a hole in the finds tray than making it to the finds hut.
8a. Permanent Marker – These are always going missing on site so it can be handy to have your own to write context information on finds bags and labels.
8b. 6H Pencil, Sharpener & Rubber – For drawing plans, making notes and then rubbing them out again.
8c. Ruler – For drawing straight lines and measuring distances when producing plan or section drawings. A metal ruler is also less likely to be broken or damaged on site.
9. Waterproof Notebook – To keep track of everything you do and any observations you may have.
10. Hand Tapes – Two hand tapes are useful when measuring and recording.
11. Large Bulldog Clips – Great for fixing a hand tape between two pegs, nails or masonry pins when drawing plans or sections.
12. Tool Roll – How you transport and organise your tools is really down to personal preference. I prefer a tool roll but tool boxes or pouches work equally well.
Each excavation is different and everyone has their own preference as to what tools they use however this toolkit is what works well for me. There are many additions which can be made if necessary such as; photographic scales, hand shovel, plumb bob and line but this is the baseline set of tools I like to work from.
Inevitably tools get borrowed, left on the side of a trench, moved about by the excavation gremlins and it can be difficult to tell what belongs to who at the end of the day, so labeling your equipment is a really good idea. As well as labeling all my tools I also find it useful to mark them with a particular colour of tape so they can be easily identified.
All the Gear but No Idea!
Although this post is largely about tools and equipment it is important to remember that tools are only as good as the archaeologist using them.
Excavation is ultimately a destructive process, once a context has been destroyed it cannot be reconstructed. Therefore, excavation comes with the responsibility to accurately excavate, record and then curate the archaeological record to the best of our ability for future research and generations.
I adamantly believe that archaeology should be accessible to anyone who wants to learn about it. However, far from the ‘anyone can dig a hole’ attitude sometimes perpetuated by the media, archaeological fieldwork requires highly skilled and experienced archaeologists.
There are a number of ways, with a bit of time, passion and enthusiasm, to acquire the skills and experience required to become a competent field archaeologist:
Complete an Archaeology Degree – Perhaps the most comprehensive of all the options but one which requires the greatest investment of time and money.
Attend a Field School – Field schools offer fantastic training and experience and are often run by universities, however a number are now run by other organisations. They are a more affordable option but still usually require you to pay to go on them.
Join a Local Archaeological Society – These often direct their own excavations under the supervision of a trained archaeologists as well as put on lectures and other great events.
Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) – A fantastic way for young people to gain archaeological skills and some are even conducting their own excavations.
The Archaeology Skills Passport is also a good way of recording and demonstrating competencies at a range of archaeological skills and is recognised by a large number of employers, universities and organisations.
As with any learning experience the more you put in the more you get out. So in addition to the practical training you may receive on an excavation read books, journal articles, visit museums and archives to flesh out your knowledge about archaeological principles, methods, different periods and finds.