The Archaeologist’s Toolkit – An Essential Guide!

Archaeologists work all year round, come rain or shine, on urban and rural sites, in confined spaces or in green open fields, on complex sites with deep stratigraphy or on simple sites with scattered features. In short, an archaeologist needs to be prepared, flexible and ready for anything! In this blog post we thought it might be interesting to share the main tools of the trade – and they may surprise you…

1) Heavy digging tools – contrary to popular belief, archaeologists do more than their fair share of physical work! Medieval rubbish pits or Roman defensive ditches can be big, and deep, and all have to be excavated by hand, so a mattock, pick, shovel, spade (and wheelbarrow) are the archaeologists’ staples.

2) Trowel – Yes you’ve got it! You’d be right in thinking a trowel was pretty ubiquitous for an archaeologist but the chances are there’ll be more than one in the armoury: a favourite, well loved WHS trowel with its solid tip and long handle specially designed for us, alongside a much smaller, thin handled leaf trowel, for all that delicate work and at least one spare. Oh and that old WHS you can’t bear to get rid of which has been completely worn down at the tip to a small nub!

3) Drawing board – an A3 (or bigger) drawing board with waterproof graph paper is essential recording equipment for an archaeologist. Section drawings of features and plans of the site are drawn to scale by hand on a thick tracing paper called permatrace (it smells like fish…honestly!) and then reproduced in the office using digital software.

4) Toolbox – then, of course, we come to the archaeologist’s toolbox, which is full to the brim with drawing equipment: 6H pencils are a must! Black biro’s, 6 inch nails, line level and builders line/string (for the perfect section drawing), hammer, work gloves, tape measures, brushes, bull dog clips, grid pegs and no doubt a plethora of other items built up over the years or simply ‘acquired’ from unsuspecting fellow archaeologists. The toolbox usually also doubles up as a handy seat!

The Archaeologists Toolkit - essential archaeological equipment

5) Recording Sheets – the aim of Commercial Archaeology is to preserve by record. This means lots of writing! An archaeologist will have an array of specially designed recording sheets that prompt them to record in writing what it is they have found – what does it physically look like, its measurements and how did it get there and why. If you’re lucky; its sunny. But if you’re not (and the weather is doing what it usually loves to do in the UK), hopefully you have a Weather-writer, a clip board with a waterproof cover.

6) Cameras – part of that idea of preservation by record means, aside from all of our paperwork and drawings, we need to make sure we’ve taken good quality photographs during watching briefs, evaluations, excavations and historic building recording to make sure future stakeholders understand what we were recording. Using photographic scales is an essential part of this so people can gauge the size of what they are looking at.

7) Finds Bags and Boxes – despite what you might think, we don’t get to pocket all those lovely finds! They get carefully bagged up and labelled using permanent marker pens and are given the site code along with an individual number taken from a special small finds record. We usually have a wide assortment of sizes, to cater for smaller finds such as pottery sherds and coins, up to large bags for human remains and large animal bone fragments.

8) Environmental containers – if an archaeologist comes across an archaeological deposit that contains very tiny animal bones or a large amount of organic material (that’s right we could even be talking very old poo here!), it will need to be analysed by a specialist environmental archaeologist. This means we have to collect ‘samples’ of that soil and these are placed within large plastic bags or containers and once again labelled with the site code and a special sample number on a small waterproof label.

9) Dumpy Level – essential for survey and planning is the trusty Dumpy Level. It allows archaeologists to record heights (of buildings or wall remains, features and section drawings for example), which can later be worked out in relation to the National Grid System if a nearby benchmark is located.

We hope this gives you some sense of the essential pieces of kit used by a field archaeologist. The Oakford team work right across the South West: in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, sometimes on remote sites, so we always check beforehand that we have all the kit we need. Turning up at a watching brief without any finds bags or on the first day of an archaeological evaluation without a 30m tape can mean a long drive back to the office!