Shovels: Regional Diversity in One of Our Most Indispensible Tools

“…the shovel is the trademark of archeology and perhaps its most indispensible tool.”– Heizer A Guide to Archaeological Methods (1949:32)

“Lucille, God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well.”– The Shoveller, Mystery Men (1999)

When I was given the brief to write about archeological tools for ThenDig, my mind reeled.  Like Ms. Morgan, whose post about boots inspired this issue, I have been a collector of regional tools and methods for as long as I have been a field archeologist (going on 25 years now).

Everyone has trowel stories (including stories of lost trowels recovered like the Silas Hurry post about archeological tools recovered in St. Mary’s City).  I, however, have always been interested in the “coarser grained” archeology tools—shovels and their kin. One of my earliest mentors in the field of archeology kept his flat shovel razor sharp and could use it to make floors with a skill and cleanness that most of us only muster with a good trowel.  In his hands, the shovel was just as good as a trowel.  I will never be that good…but it did spark my interest and respect for the shovel.

At first blush this may seem like an innocuous topic.  How different can shovels be?  I do not claim a wide geographic experience—I have worked mostly in the southeastern US—but in the 13 different states I have worked, I have encountered a wide variety of shovel tools and techniques.  Each of these is an adaptation to the local conditions, or products of the genealogy of intellectual traditions.

Standard No. 2 excavating shovels recommended By Hiezer
Standard No. 2 excavating shovels recommended By Heizer (1949).

My old (1949) edition of Heizer’s A Guide to Archaeological Methods states that a “long-handled, round-point standard No. 2 excavating shovels are recommended. Spades, scoops, and square-point shovels are virtually useless owing to their inability to penetrate any but the softest dirt.” These shovels were clearly important and as recently as 2006 archeologists were combing the country (or at least advertising in some newspapers) for these shovels… The Nebraska State Historical Society was willing to pay up to $50 for True Temper No. 2 light-weight shovels in good condition.

Over the years, apparently, the archeological stance on flat shovels has softened a bit.  The seventh edition of Field Methods in Archeology still uses Heizer’s introduction (and preference for snub-nosed round shovels), but it also reports that “square-point shovels are useful in excavating sandy deposits and many archeologists find them valuable for cleaning excavation unit floors in the search for post molds, rodent burrows, and other features” (Hester et al. 1997:70).

Despite Heizer’s recommendation, my personal motto for archeology and the use of shovels is simple—“round shovels for round holes, square shovels for square holes.”  By this I mean that I prefer to use a sharpened spade to dig the small (30 to 40 cm in diameter), round shovel test holes that southeastern archeologists use to locate sites on survey, and a VERY sharp broad, flat shovel to dig 1×1 or 2×2 meter test units that are common in testing and full excavation projects.  This maxim of mine has been fed by my original training in the Mid-South where we commonly dug in nice soft loams and loess soils.  Things changed for me as I began to work in other settings.

In the Mississippi Valley the fine clays can be very difficult to deal with—when they are dry they are bricks and when they are wet they are a sticky mess.  Two different shovel styles (springing from intellectual traditions) have evolved to deal with these soils (why do I suddenly sound like an environmental determinist?). First, there is the spade that has a “half-moon” cut out of the blade—these are the self-manufactured versions of Heizer’s shovels trimming the point off and filing the edge with a bench grinder.  To the best of my limited knowledge this style comes out of the American Bottom region (or at least remains in style in that area).  The “half-moon” cut out allows for a lot of strength in cutting through clay (and even burned daub walls).  They do tend to make little ridges in the units floors, but if you were trained in this tradition you have probably become adept at minimizing this effect.

Rice shovel
The sharpened "rice shovel": weapon of choice for the Mississippi Delta.

The second adaptive strategy in the Mississippi Valley is the use of a sharpened “rice shovel.”  For those of you who have not encountered them, a rice shovel is a hybrid spade—with a snub nose and three holes in the blade.  The shovel is somewhat flatter than a typical spade (more like a flat shovel) and the snub nose eliminates the pointy bit the way the cutting the “half moon” out of a pointed spade does.  “Why the holes?”, you ask.  The wet, sticky clays of the Mississippi River valley can often stick to your shovel blade with such suction that it can be very difficult to dislodge your soil matrix once you have shoveled it up.  The holes break this suction insuring that you will be able to toss your soil into a bucket or screen.

But in the mid 1990s I left the lowlands and worked for a decade in the Ozark Mountains.  This, again, radically changed my thinking about excavation.  In the lowlands of the southeast I had been trained to keep floors and walls level and pretty…and my trowels and shovels sharp enough to cut string.  In the rocky, uplands of the Ozarks all of this was nigh impossible.  Most of the sites I worked on were 50%-70% gravel and as such it became very difficult (and pointless) to keep and edge on a trowel as you were literally mining the rocks out of a roughly 10 cm level in every unit.  This environment made my favorite weapon, a sharp, large, flat-bladed shovel useless.  I had three adaptive strategies for the Ozarks.

1945 Ames Entrenching Tool
1945 Ames Entrenching Tool

1)      Entrenching Tool (or E-Tool):  I am told that entrenching tools go back to at least the Roman period, but the ones I use have their roots in the folding spades of World War I and II—In fact, I literally prefer WWII entrenching tools—I have owned three different 1945 shovels manufactured by Ames for the US Army (this has lead more than one student to declare that my shovel “belongs in a museum”).  I like to fold the shovel blade 90 degrees and use the shovel like an excavation hoe (or a large trowel).  It works really well in the gravelly soils of the Ozarks, but I actually picked this tool usage up from a colleague of mine who worked in Texas and the southwestern US…so I am not sure of the origin of its archeological use…but it is not indigenous to the Ozarks.

2)      Geologic hammer:  This tool was actually great in the Ozarks for cleaning the rocks out of the corners of your excavation units and for better defining the wall/floor transition.  Just like you would run your trowel along the base of the wall to create a right angle transition, you could use the pick end of the geological hammer to carve away the rocks to approximate a right angle…sigh.

3)      Small-scale gardening spade AKA “The Lady Shovel”:  Back to my maxim…using standard-size round spades to dig shovel tests was also difficult in the Ozarks as you were pounding through gravel.  I found that a small-scale gardening spade was the best for digging shovel tests as it allowed you to “go around” rocks in the process of carving out the round hole.  Unfortunately, many people (and some industry marketing) has given this tool the blatantly sexist moniker “the lady shovel” due to its frequent use in gardening (which apparently has become a gendered hobby).  A word of caution, however, you cannot use the cheap, welded gardening spades you might find in discount stores for shovel testing in the Ozarks…you have to have a “real” thick gauged steel shovel…just scaled down from the standard pointed spade.  The Ozark rocks would tear up one of the flimsy variety within a single shovel test.

In 2006 I once again fund myself changing geographical regions as I took up my new post in the rolling gulf coastal plains of southwest Arkansas—it’s called the Trans-Mississippi South by some researchers.  I’m now working in the beautiful sandy soils at Historic Washington State Park near Hope, Arkansas.  It’s beautiful—the ease of digging and screening sand, with just enough structure to hold it together and not collapse the way coastal sand does. There is dust on my entrenching tool these days…I’m back where I started with a sharp, flat, broad bladed shovel.

The Seventy Percent Solution

Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading.

– Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I have a confession to make. I don’t dig as much as I used to. The particular whims of my professional path have seen to that. As my duties have changed, the types of tools necessary to fulfill those tasks have also changed. I can think back to the tools and toys of my personal fieldwork era and wax all nostalgic about the various shovels and trowels that I’ve used, but I must admit that the tool that excites me the most is the one that I still use the most –my privately-owned professional library.

If, at the Principal Investigator level, our roles have become “not to dig but to think great thoughts,” then our most important tool must be that which provides us the necessary background information to think those thoughts. An oracle of sorts, I consult my library to help inform my attempts to plan for an excavation, address issues that arise during that investigation, and interpret what we’ve found.

Consulting this library, and indeed any professional library, is an archaeology in itself. I need to dig in the right places to find the necessary data. What it shows me is the historical progression of ideas, the changing body of data, and the perceptions and interpretations associated with them. I am by necessity forced to discern the subtle changes in the seriation of understanding as types and definitions shift, are split, reunited, and remade into something wholly new or again into something very old.

Each one of these has two stories, the one it tells and the one I can tell about it.

My library, unlike any other professional library, is also an archaeology of me. The volumes were selected by me for myriad reasons. Some are remnants of classes I took in school. Some were gifts from friends who were leaving archaeology and had no need of their books. Still others were purchased for a specific end, focusing on a project-specific topic. There are those books that I purchased on the off-chance that they could prove helpful with some unseen future project. My favorites were obtained for the best reason of all. These are the ones that touch on topics that interest me. Ironically, these are the books that are rarely completely read. Personal interest must take a backseat to professional need, it seems.

I must confess, I love books. The look, feel, and smell of a physical library is something incomparable to digital files, though I have plenty of the latter as well. Each book is a treasure in its own right and finding the book I want, or even need, can be a challenge. Even with the Internet, tracking down a specific volume can take a large amount of searching. For certain long out of print volumes, that searching requires a large amount of patience. Setting up notifications on bookselling websites. Tracking down the original publisher. Searching through stacks of books in the book room at various conferences that I attend. Not all of these attempts have been successful; I still have a list of books that I want. Some finds were successful years after I needed them.

I’m starting to get more selective about additions these days, though. I’ve already collected, and hopefully read, the absolute must-haves of archaeological literature for my needs and interests. Some of what remains on my want list are a little less urgent. I’m also beginning to come to grips with the idea that I can’t possibly read everything that I want, let alone what I already own. Still, as new projects come my way and new interests are developed, my library will expand in directions I probably can’t predict. However my library changes in the future, whether I cull or add works to it, it will continue to reflect my interests and career. It will continue to be my favorite tool.

The osteometric board

In the mid-1990s, Glenn Sheehan, Greg Reinhardt and I got a grant to excavate a site in North Alaska, on Point Franklin, named Pingusugruk.  We had surveyed the site in 1986 for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who were managing the area at the time as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife refuge.  Since then,  the refuge has been reduced in size and the land turned over to BLM to manage.  It was an interesting site, and the people of Wainwright encouraged us to come back and do an excavation.  We got funding from NSF, and back we went.

We had a fairly big crew, lots of gear and a pretty complete field library, since the site is remote and we were going in via Twin Otter.  We had no interest in excavating graves, and had seen no sign of them during the survey.  The only human remains anyone knew of from the site was one skull that had been on the ocean beach for some years (far away from the houses we planned to excavate).  It acquired the reputation of whistling at passersby, and had been removed to Fairbanks by Fred Milan at the request of Wainwright people many years before.  I believe it has subsequently been repatriated and reburied.  As a result, we did not bring any osteometric equipment.

So there we were, happily excavating the tunnel of a semi-subterranean house, when someone encountered some long dark hair.  We decided we needed to be sure what we had before going to talk to the Wainwright Elders, so we excavated a little more and discovered it was a musk-ox skin.  Great relief.  Excavation proceeded.

A couple days later, a bit more long dark hair was exposed, but this time it was next to a human cranium.  We stopped work, and one of us headed down the coast on our only ATV 30+ miles to Wainwright.  After discussion with the people of Wainwright, it was decided that we should continue the excavation, since that part of the site was eroding quickly and the person could wind up in the ocean during the next big storm.  We were to record and document as much as we could, but the individual was not to be taken off site, and instead reburied on Point Franklin at a location which did not seem to be eroding.  So we continued the excavation.  The individual was lying wrapped in a musk-ox skin in the lower of two entrance tunnels to a house which had been rebuilt.  We recorded everything in minute detail.  It took my brother John (who is an excellent field archaeologist even if he is an MFA in Landscape Painting) and I nearly a day to shoot the human remains in, with John lying on frozen ground most of the time to hold the peanut prism.  Then we needed to document the individual.

Well, we all had taken human osteology, and I am a zooarchaeologist, so I’ve measured a lot of bone and so had Greg. We had copies of von den Driesch and Bass in the field library, and I had a pair of calipers (standard dial calipers I’d bought in Copenhagen), but they weren’t nearly big enough to do measurements on long bones.  What we needed was an osteometric board.  And we didn’t have one.

Fortunately Greg Reinhardt is a very handy guy, and we had hand tools, and fasteners.  Wood, not so much, but Point Franklin catches a lot of driftwood.  A bit of cruising the beach and Greg had several nice boards, including a 1×6.  He cut an end off, made a solid wall held at a right angle with two corners sawn from another board (to get the 90 degrees) and sacrificed one of our tapes.  It was attached and fastened down so we could measure up to about 55 cm, which seemed like enough.  He folded up the rest of the tape instead of cutting it off, just in case we needed to salvage it later.  He then made a second sliding board with right angle supports. Greg and I hauled out the books, and spent hours in the supply tent out of the wind, with Greg taking measurements and me recording them.  We were able to tell that the individual was a woman, based on the shape of the pelvis, her worn teeth (from chewing hides) and other features.  She was quite small.

After we were done, we had to arrange a reburial.  The first thing was a coffin, which we obviously didn’t have among our field gear either.  Greg had found enough boards to build a coffin for the small woman, but we had nothing to line it with.  John had a towel he had apparently been saving so he’d have a clean one for his first shower when he got out of the field, which he nobly donated to the cause.  We let the community know, and all three pastors came up by boat, along with about half of the other inhabitants, and a fine solemn funeral was held.  It might have been her first, because people were not buried in entrance tunnels.   We wondered if she had crawled into the tunnel of an abandoned house for shelter while traveling, or been left there by companions needing to press on or die themselves.  It is highly unlikely anyone knew she was there when the house was rebuilt, because sand had built up over the years, and the upper tunnel to the upper house never got that deep.   Traditionally people avoided dead bodies, and the idea that people were knowingly crawling over one every time they went in or out of the house seems pretty unlikely.

The board is still on the North Slope, and has even been used on a couple of other projects.  The sliding part has disappeared along the way, though.

The osteometric board today

I don’t use it anymore, though.  When we started the Nuvuk Archaeology Project, which involves excavating a large eroding ancient Thule cemetery (I am actually not interested in mortuary archaeology and would be quite happy if I never excavated another grave; I just keep working on eroding sites where one of the things that is eroding is graves, and people don’t want their ancestors falling in the ocean), we bought a good bit of very nice osteometric equipment, including all sorts of calipers, and a very nice folding osteometric board.  The old board from Pingusugruk is now an artifact itself, part of the history of archaeology on the North Slope.

The new board in town

The Story of a Set of Bamboo Picks

When pondering which of my archaeology tools are most important to me, I had a lot of choices (for example, I have used the same trowel since 1969). I admit that I get very attached to those digging tools that work well, but some have better stories than others. The tool that I have selected for this post is my set of “Perino picks.”

Anyone who ever knew or worked with Gregory Perino became fascinated not only with his encyclopedia-like knowledge of archaeology, but also with his ability to create the perfect archaeological tools. Having done much of my early field work in archaeology in the Lower Illinois River Valley and at Cahokia, hearing Perino’s name was a common occurrence (the man dug everywhere!), and I am delighted that I had the opportunity not only to talk with him, but to work with him at several sites. In particular, he visited me regularly when I excavated the Mississippian Moss Cemetery, and I had the opportunity to visit him in Tulsa when I incorporated the Mississippian Schild cemetery (which he excavated) into my dissertation, along with Moss. Greg always told me that his job was to find, excavate, and describe sites, but interpretation and fancy analyses were for students and academics. He was always happy to share.

Greg was an amateur archaeologist who trained himself to be a professional. He was astounding in his ability to find “cool” sites and artifacts, and his excavation pictures demonstrate his amazing ability to conduct beautiful excavations. He had his own little bulldozer, he created special sets of shovels and trowels and screens, and he invented the Perino probe, which was sprung steel with a little steel knob on the end. Greg used the probe to find sites and also to identify what he had found. Having been trained to use the Perino probe, I can attest that you can tell the difference between stone, ceramics, clay, bone, etc. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that I don’t own one.

Another tool I don’t own is one of Greg’s postmold cross-sectioners. It was an adapted shovel that was a little wider than 95% of any postmolds (or possible postmolds) you might find. With two cuts, he could cross-section the postmold, and determine whether it was real or a rodent burrow or something else. He loaned me the shovel for some work I had to do on a special project. It worked extremely well, and significantly sped up the process of excavation (we had about 100 possible postmolds to examine).

Two of my bamboo picks

When I was excavating the Moss cemetery in 1972, Greg was visiting Kampsville from Oklahoma, and came out to the site one day and announced that I did not have the right tools for the job. He then gave me several “Perino picks.” A Perino pick is a piece of bamboo about 6-8” long that he cut to various thicknesses, then carved to have a nice blunt point on one end and a nice beveled scraping edge on the other. You can easily work around and expose delicate artifacts and bone without risking harm to the items. I love those picks, and still use them today.

But, after Greg left to return home, another visitor decided that my supply of Perino picks was too limited. That visitor was the late Eugene Gray. Gene was a wonderful person who was an avid amateur archaeologist. He was happy to share information with professionals, and he very much wanted to learn how to do things properly. Gene also worked with Greg whenever the possibility arose. In any case, during Gene’s visit to Moss, he decided that I needed a broader range of Perino picks, and besides, he was trying to improve his ability to make these tools. I happily agreed, and Gene made me a set of picks that are similar to Greg’s, but are thinner and have a GG on them so that they can be clearly identified as distinct from Greg’s. In case you are wondering, the reason everyone was concerned about my toolkit was because we were finding significant numbers of whole pots at Moss, and no one wanted them harmed due to excavation.

My set of bamboo picks was complete, and to this day, I use them proudly and I loan them infrequently. Not only are they wonderful tools, but every time I use them I think of the two terrific field men who created them for me. In the years since, I have shown students how to create such picks, but I would never trade a new set for my originals – they were made with much knowledge and love by two remarkable archaeologists.


Notes as Tools: Documenting Archaeological Destruction

Archaeology is destructive.

In our quest to reconstruct the life ways of past cultures we depend on the intact context of archaeological remains. The necessary irony of archaeological investigations is the systematic dissection of intact cultural deposits in order to study and preserve past cultures. Once these deposits are destroyed, the only place they are fully documented is detailed field notes taken by archaeologists.

Field notes are arguably the most important tool in the archaeological toolkit. Yet, they are often the most overlooked and under-appreciated (at least until they are needed during the artifact analysis or report writing stage).  That said, there is no single best way to take notes (though some would probably argue otherwise). Pre-made sheets with blanks inevitably have fields that aren’t needed from project to project. Different phases of any archaeological project require different types of notes. The availability of different technologies open new avenues for documenting archaeological remains.

At some point in our archaeological careers we will be required to write an excavation report without the benefit of having been in the field for that particular excavation. Writing a report completely based on a set of field notes made me realize how critical these notes are to facilitating the later stages of a project and future visits to the project area. Having written reports from field notes at both sides of a continuum from non-existent to overly detailed, I’ve laid out several note taking philosophies that I have shared with several students during archaeology field schools.

Don’t put off taking notes.

You are in the middle of this feature excavation and don’t want to interrupt your work flow with note taking. You can remember that the initial fill stage was excavated as “Zone A”, a sample of a charcoal lens was taken and is contained in aluminum foil in the “Zone B” artifact bag, and a single diagnostic projectile point was recovered just beneath the charcoal lens.

Ok. Well what if a city bus suffers a mechanical failure, careens into your excavation unit, and squishes you. All of that information that you were going to write down is lost. The poor archaeologist that has to write up the notes on your excavation will probably get a headache trying to figure out how the charcoal and projectile point are related.

Sorry, not realistic?

Ok. You have your notes in your head. Get rained out of the field. Soaked, dirty, and grumpy you decide to have a few margaritas at the Mexican restaurant next to your cheap hotel. A Law and Order marathon is on television (again), but you get sucked in anyway. You wake up in the morning with your “Rite in the Rain” field book stuck to your face with a mixture of drool and 10YR 4/3 silty clay loam. Vital details about your feature may or may not have made it into your field book.

Locate your notes in space

This can be done in several ways.

Note the grid coordinates (Northing and Easting or UTMs) of whatever it is you are documenting (remember to note the depth below surface or below datum!).

Record the angle and distance from your location to several permanent landmarks. Road intersections, property markers, and building foundation corners are good. Porta-potties are not. You never know a city bus could suffer mechanical failure and run into the porta-potty and your spatial reference is gone.

Remember, someone should be able to locate the areas that you are writing about while relying solely on your notes.

Add some interpretations

Thinking about what you are excavating helps you catch details that support (or refute) your working hypotheses.


While not every interpretation will be correct, hypotheses will prompt you to record details that support your model and prompt you to change the interpretation when you encounter something that doesn’t fit.

Make your notes clear and make copies

Once you are in from the field, give your notes a once over. Annotate them in a different color pen so the stages at which the notes were places on the paper can be differentiated. Make copies or scans of your field books so a bus with mechanical problems doesn’t burst into flames and destroy your only copy.

Notes are a serious matter, they are often the only record of an intact archaeological deposit. While they don’t have to be works of art, they do need to be clear and accurately reflect what you excavated.

If others can’t understand what you worked on, then what makes you different than a looter?

Snake guards: a to-die-for accessory


Serving as a human scale for an erosional scarp in Oklahoma, while modeling the 2008 tan, heavy duty canvas style snake guard

When I was younger, I was a soccer player. I wasn’t the greatest, by any measure, but I was really fast. My coaches always tried to get me to wear shinguards, but I refused, because they were uncomfortable and slowed me down. This all changed in college, when the other team had no qualms about hacking at my unprotected shins. Lucky for me that they didn’t know that I wasn’t wearing a cup!

Pardon the rather light-hearted introduction to a very serious topic: safety. Archaeologists pride themselves on their eagerness willingness to work in the meanest terrain, and under the harshest conditions, in order to get the job done and have a story to tell over beers. We know we can count on our keen eyes to spot danger, and besides, “That never actually happens!”

Well, let me tell you, snakebites do happen. According to Juckett and Hancox (2002), approximately 8,000 venomous snakebites occur annually in the U.S.A., with no more than 12 fatalities. Apparently, this is outdated information according to the abstract of Gold et al. 2002, as the total is down to 2,000 (and yes, those are my attempts at having actual citations in this blog post). While many bites are dry, any venomous snakebite is dangerous as a major infection risk. After all, they’re eating live, wild rodents and other animals!

I first learned about snake guards in 2003, while I was attending the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project field school as a 31-year-old master’s student. I knew the jungle would be full of wild animals, but I never thought about poisonous snakes, much less the fer-de-lance (warning: graphic image!), perhaps the most dangerous venomous snake in the Western Hemisphere. I certainly never expected to kill one coiled between the feet of  two colleagues and myself!

Needless to say, when I told my family about this and all the other snake encounters we had during my two-month stint, they were a bit worried. When I mentioned returning for the spring 2004 session, my mother insisted on buying me a pair of snake guards to wear in the field! As it would turn out, I ended up loaning them out to someone else who was doing serious jungle survey, as my site was only a short walk from the camp (sorry Mom).

I started working as a Cultural Resources Management field tech in May 2004, after returning from Belize, and true to my word I wore those snake guards whenever I was on a survey. That is, except when it was cold, as the snakes are hibernating. Of course, this would come back to bite mein the ankle.

Since that day, I have always had my snake guards on while surveying, except in the dead of winter. I’ve grown accustomed to them to the point that I feel weird when I’m in field clothes and not wearing them. Not only that, but I’ve certainly come across my share of venomous snakes in the field, and was always glad to know that I was protected from all the ones I didn’t see. They also work very well at protecting my lower leg from briars, cacti, sawgrass, and all the other pricky/pokey/pointy things I have to walk through to do my job.

Here’s where it gets serious again: if you work in an area where there’s a serious threat of venomous snakes (and I’m no herpetologist, but I assume that’s a lot of places at least part of the year), you should consider investing in some form of snake protection, be it snake guards/gaiters or snake boots. Even better, if you work for a CRM firm, see if you can get your employer to buy some for the staff. A lot of the big-money clients are putting a heavy emphasis on company safety records, and a major recordable is a big strike that might cost a chance at a fat contract. One of my company’s largest clients has made snake protection a required part of the personal protective equipment, as a form of incident prevention after numerous “near hit” reports during the survey project.

And just in case you still think that what happened to me was something that almost “never happens”, or that I’m just unlucky (which isn’t entirely untrue…), I know two other people in Texas who were saved from snakebites by their snake guards! In both cases, neither person was even aware that they were being struck repeatedly until they wondered about the weird tapping sound/feeling on their leg.

I no longer have my original pair of snake guards, as they became too broken to be effective or comfortable. But the pair I currently have, similar to the ones I’m modeling above, go with me on every project. They’re currently sitting in my cubicle at work, ready for action. And they’ll most definitely be along for the trip to Turkey when I’m surveying for the Maender Archaeological Project!

Tools of the Trade

Archaeological tools
Tools of the trade for terrestrial archaeologists.

This tool role, the prize possession, and creation, of one of my great friends and fellow archaeologists, Chris Valvano, always seems to have the right tool for the job. Created over years, with colorful strips of leather scraps, the roll itself is as much a tool as the tools it carries. The photo was snapped last summer, at the Michigan State University Campus Archaeology Program’s Field School, at which Chris and I were supervisors. The photo was taken by MSU Photographer Kurt Stepnitz, a regular visitor of our excavation sites all over campus. You can catch more of his archaeology photos here. Special thanks to Michigan State University for giving us permission to use this photo.

“Photo by Kurt Stepnitz, courtesy MSU University Relations

The Archaeology of Archaeology

In the 1970s, Historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland, the first capital city of 17th century Maryland, undertook extensive archaeological excavations at the St. John’s site. We were not the first archaeologists to look at this site and we could see the evidence of St. Mary’s archaeological predecessors. Dr. H. Chandlee Forman explored the site briefly in the 1960s. The most common artifacts resulting from this previous campaign were cigarette filters. Most were too deteriorated for identification beyond broad functional attribution since they were primarily cellulose, but there were some examples which could be identified. These represented filters from True© cigarettes. True cigarettes utilized an “advanced filter system” that incorporated an element of plastic (see the ad below).  According to court records filed as part of one of the massive suits brought under the tobacco litigation, True© was distributed nationally beginning in 1966 .

True cigarette filter on the left.


[yt video=V_gniQQaUwU] Advert for True Cigarettes [/yt]

In addition to the cigarette filters, we recovered pieces of a small, aluminum pan of the type associated with small commercial fruit pies in the last century. Fragments of  20th century bottle glass represented beverage bottles, a notable example being “RC Cola” (Royal Crown) which was developed in the south in the second quarter of the 20th century.

There were also actual colonial artifacts which had been modified by the earlier archaeologists. The most notable of these was a ceramic roof tile which bore the initial “HCF”, a date, and the provenience of the exploratory trench it was placed at the end of.


Perhaps the favorite artifact recovered from the excavations was a 20th century masons’ trowel. The trowel was intact with the exception of the wooden handle. The ferule which surrounded the base of the handle was very well preserved. Alas, it was not a Marshalltown!

Trowel excavated at St. Johns site at Historic St. Mary's City.


So that we don’t feel “holier than thou” in these matters, when HSMC returned to the site to undertake archaeology in preparation for the development of the exhibit which now surrounds the architectural remains we again found evidence of previous archaeology – this time it was us. In the course of the excavations, numerous forming nails (double headed nails for stringing squares), gutter spikes, and Mason jar lids (used as datum corners) were found. But this should delight us, rather than cause despair. It simply proves again that the underlying ideas of archaeology hold true regardless of how recently the cultural activity which led to the deposition.

One final note on the archaeology of archaeology. Israeli archaeologists working in Jerusalem recovered shoe and beer bottle fragments left behind by 19th century British archaeologists. The correlation between beer and archaeology have long been known in the profession (note the huge increase in archaeological publications following the repeal of prohibition…or was that just the WPA)?

Clipboards and Context

Archaeologists love their trowels, but for my money, when I go into the field, the thing I want with me at all times is my clipboard.

I have this one:

which I bought at Staples in 2007 and have never regretted. Technically the box makes it a little more than a clipboard, but I like it because it’s metal, durable, and holds a ton of forms, tags, bags, and graph paper.

Tracing the history of clipboards is frustratingly difficult. As near as I can tell, the clipboard is a 20th century invention. The first mention in the OED comes from the 1907 “Army and Navy Stores Catalogue” which lists:

The ‘clip’ boards for patience and bridge.‥ This board is fitted with nickel clamps on each side to keep it perfectly rigid.” (Army and Navy Cooperative Society 1969: 380).

This definition coincided with the transformation of clerical work into a full adjunct of management and organization of business (Braverman 1974: 304-312). In other words, clipboards appeared at a time when people needed new ways to track and organize systems of people and objects in space with the expansion of managerial capitalism.

Now, when people think of the clipboard, they’re more likely to think of “Cut and Paste” functions on the computer. The computer clipboard functions as a temporary space (usually RAM), for storage of text, images, or other material for later use. Though versions of something like “cut and paste” had existed since the 1960s, the clipboard system that we know today had its origins in Xerox PARC and the development of personal computer (Moggridge 2007: 63-68).

But what both of these meanings and histories have in common with archaeological use is that, in both cases, the clipboard is a container of context. In the former, the relationships between commodities, costs, and locations formed a set of material relationships that had to be maintained on paper. In the latter, the relationship between information (text, pictures, etc…), RAM location, and a user interface creates an informational context.

And of course, for archaeologists, context has always been one of our central metaphors (Shanks and Tilley 1987: xix, see also Lucas 2001 for a historical perspective). The idea of the relationship between objects is as important as the objects themselves is what separates modern archaeology from antiquarianism, and from other disciplines that abstract objects from the material and social relations in which they are enmeshed. We’ve spent a lot of time theorizing what the relationship between context and human “culture” is, but almost all of us agree that there is something about being human that can be inferred and understood by looking at the arrangements and agglomerations of objects deposited by humans in the ground. That’s context.

The great irony of archaeology is that we have to destroy context through excavation in order to recover it—under the ground, it’s invisible and protected. To explain the past, we need context, but to get context, we need to excavate. Clipboards sit at the intersection of this process, because the recording of context, of the relationships of objects in the ground, is what allows us to get at culture in the past. It’s why, more often than not, we spend at least as much time writing and taking notes as we do excavating.

For reasons that most archaeologists (including me) haven’t figured out, non-archaeologists do not have this concept as a metaphor. I’ve been involved in excavations across New England, many of them with public components, and in every case, the most popular question asked by people who visit the sites is the same:

“Have you found anything good yet?”

Now, don’t get me wrong—I love this question, but it’s kind of a mixed blessing. It’s wonderful, because it’s a teaching moment—someone is interested in what you’re doing, and you get an opportunity to explain it. Unfortunately, the question usually recapitulates the public vision of archaeology—namely, that we dig up objects for their own sake, independent of context. It’s been my experience that most of the people who come to archaeological sites think of us as over-glorified treasure hunters. And getting the conversation around to context can be a cumbersome and difficult project.

But this is where my clipboard sits again at the intersection of context, excavation, and explanation. Whenever I get this question, I pull out my clipboard, and talk about context. I show maps I’ve drawn, unfinished bags of artifacts with field tags inside noting their location, the excavation forms half filled in—whatever I’ve got. And once people get that idea—that we’re primarily excavating context as opposed to artifacts, then everything we’ve found is interesting, because everything is part of that context. Every artifact, ecofact, and feature was deposited in an assemblage as part of a cultural process which the analysis of context allows us to explain.

The Archaeologist and his assemblage, ca. 2007. Note the clipboard in the foreground.

So my clipboard ends up being a carrier of context, and allows me to integrate excavation and explanation.  Not too shabby for a piece of metal with a clip…


Braverman, H. 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Lucas, Gavin. 2001. Critical Approaches to Fieldwork: Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice. New York, Routledge.

Moggridge, Bill. 2007. Designing Interactions. 1st ed. The MIT Press.

Shanks, Michael, and Christopher Tilley. 1987. Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Army and Navy Co-Operative Society. 1969. Yesterday’s Shopping: Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907. New impression. David & Charles PLC.

These Boots

Boots by Colleen Morgan
Time to retire another pair of boots. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

This week, we begin a new themed issue: Tools. Archaeologists have always had a unique tool set, often adapted from other disciplines: we use masonry tools, gardening tools, and paintbrushes. Whatever will help get the job done, and done well. It was a post by Colleen Morgan on her blog Middle Savagery that sparked the idea for this issue: her tribute to her boots, which carried her through many countries and many excavations, made me realize that, often, our tools can be more than the items we use to do our jobs: they can illicit memories, carry stories, and have special meaning to us and our discipline. For the rest of the month, you will get to enjoy posts about archaeological tools. These range from a post about archaeological tools discovered archaeologically, tools given as gifts from other archaeologists, or why certain tools are important to the discipline.

So, in tribute to Colleen’s post, our photo of the week is her photo of her boots. Hopefully, they will be able to last us through the month…

Photo: Boots by Colleen Morgan. Licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.