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 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.

 

Nine Points on a Finger

Nine flint points on a finger.
Nine Points on a Finger. Photo by Buzz Hoffmann

This is a photo taken from Brian Hoffmann’s photostream on Flickr. These points are from his fieldwork in Alaska. The usual favoured explanation is that these are toys, but Brian thinks they are more likely to be tools. He’s certainly finding a lot of them, and he keeps on finding them. How many points do you have to find before you start thinking they have a serious purpose.

I chose this as Photo of the Week because it fits the tools theme, and the scale of the points is extraordinary. If I were digging the site I’d be cheerfully trowelling away these without noticing them. Even if someone said “Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” and pointed them out to me, I still think I’d be missing a lot of them. The other reason is that it gives me a chance to plug his blog at Old Dirt – New thoughts, where you can currently follow a dig in Minnesota.

Photo: Nine Points on a Finger by Brian Hoffmann. Licenced under a BY-NC-SA licence.

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!

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…

References:

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.