Tools of the Trade
From the trowel to the backhoe, different sites require different tools. Part of archaeological training is knowing when to use which one. Each site has a different set of environmental or logistical factors that dictate specific excavation techniques. At certain sites, like Range Creek, the archaeology is waiting patiently just below the dusty surface. Other sites, like Fort Raleigh, have thick layers of sand or other non-cultural material piled on top of the archaeological deposits. The trick is understanding the best way to balance expediency, efficiency, and efficacy in a controlled and systematic manner. In some cases, a backhoe (with a skilled driver, mind you) is an appropriate way to access an archaeological site. On more sensitive sites, even heavy boots can be too intrusive and a much gentler approach is needed.
The Dig Kit
In addition to shovels, picks, and buckets, what sets archaeologists apart from let's say, a gardener, is the presence of a shaker screen (used to capture small artifacts) and the trusty 'dig kit.' Sometimes this is merely a trowel, a tape measure, and a sharpie shoved into various pockets. Other times, the full scope of archaeological implements require their own carrying case. So, what's in the kit?
- A tape measure - For obvious reasons. Some prefer metric, others work in inches and feet.
- A trowel - Some like them pointy, others swear by a flat edge. Either way, it gives you lots of control, straight edges, and a flat floor.
- A line level - This allows archaeologists to accurately measure depth when excavating.
- String and metal spikes - These are for laying out your unit and allow you to keep it nice and square.
- Compass - A compass allows archaeologists to orient photos and maps north. This helps avoid confusion, as each side of the unit can be referenced as the north, south, east, or west wall.
- Brush/dust pan - Brushes can be handy for delicate work, but are also important for cleaning out the unit. A clean floor allows for maximum visibility.
- Permanent Markers - No archaeologist leaves home without them. They are used for marking artifact bags, pin flags, or whatever needs a good labeling.
- The secret weapon - Most archaeologists have one. Dental pick, sharpened bamboo stick, plastic spoon—when the digging gets tricky, these personalized favorites often appear.
- Other stuff - Gloves, band-aids, sunscreen, and other creature comforts can often be found in the kits of the extra-prepared.
Recording The Site: The Site Map
When on site, archaeologists are not just playing in the dirt. Information is being actively recorded both above and below ground. During an excavation, it is important to document all aspects of the archaeological resource by creating a 'site map.' A good site map effectively allows the archaeologist to bring 'the site' back to the lab. There it can be used to jog a foggy memory, clarify confusing details, or explain patterns in the archaeology.
Site maps range from simple sketches to detailed topographical maps. A basic map can be created with only a compass and a tape measure. Most archaeologists use surveying instruments to measure distance and elevation and a Global Positioning System (GPS) to pinpoint exact locations of trenches or even specific artifact finds. Precise documentation of the excavation creates a geographically accurate map of the site that can be 'georeferenced' and used in conjunction with other maps. The more you document all aspects of the site, the better off you will be back in the lab, and the more information you will leave for future researchers.
Culture of the Trowel
The trowel is the archaeologist's signature tool—good for everything from sculpting the walls and floors of a unit to inspiring raging debates.
Meet master backhoe operator Ian Barclay.