The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tools of the Trade: The Crude Tools

I have had a number of experiences lately in which the people with whom I'm speaking seem shocked at the tools that we use - the popular view of archaeology being that excavations are carried out with brushes, trowels, and dental picks.  There is, of course, some truth to this.  When you are excavating features (things such as hearths, old posts for holding up long-vanished buildings, etc.), then you want to use very fine tools to make sure that you don't lose something important.  Likewise, there are places where the archaeological materials that you may encounter are fragile enough to make very fine-controlled tools necessary. 

But, most of the time in North American archaeology, larger, more "crude" tools are actually perfectly appropriate for excavation.  When you are digging into a midden or a flake scatter, the goal is to get the materials out of the ground and into a screen where you can separate them from the surrounding soil and natural rock.  To do this, cruder tools than what is usually thought of work just fine.

So, to that end, here's the first part in a short series on the types of tools that we actually use, as opposed to those ones that people usually assume we use.  This first part is the blunt instruments or crude tools that we use on a regular basis.

The Shovel

Okay, no surprise here.  If you're digging holes, you need a shovel.  However, we need a few types of shovels.  First off, there are round-nose and square-nose shovels.  The type you use depends on whether you are digging a square or a round hole, and on how hard is the soil through which you are digging - hard-packed dirt is easier to dig with a round shovel, and if it's a square hole then you use the square shovel to clean it up before finishing your unit level. 

There are also different handle lengths.  A long-handled shovel works great when you are at the surface, digging a shallow hole, or digging a deep hole that it too small for you to enter.  However, when you are more than a meter down, maneuvering the long-handled shovel can become a bit of a pain, and the short-handled shovel is pretty useful.  The shorter handle shovel is also easier to control if you are having to exercise more caution than normal. 

The Breaker Bar

Okay, this one is probably the most shocking ot the non-archaeologist.  Hell, it surprised me the first time that I was asked to use one.  However, it is a very useful tool.

The breaker bar is a steel bar approximately six feet long (though some are shorter), with a chisel tip on one one, and (usually) a spike on the other end.  This is used to break up hardened soil (and occasionally to dig through pavement...which I can assure you is not fun). 

We don't like the breaker bar.  It is the definition of a crude instrument, looking more like a medeival weapon than the tool of a scholar.  You run the risk of breaking artifacts, and in some contexts creating false flakes that resemble the remains of making flaked stone tools.  However, when you are stuck with dense, hardened clay to dig through, there is no other practical way to do it.  You use the breaker bar, and be as careful as you can.

The Mattock, Pick, Chipping Hammer, etc.

So, these are similar to the breaker bar, but are not quite as crude.  Nonetheless, they are basically spikes, axes, or other blades mounted on wooden or fiberglass sticks of varying lengths, and they function in much the same way as the breaker bar: cutting through hard-packed soils.  The objection to using these is pretty much the same.

The Screen

The screen isn't really a crude instrument, but it is used in conjunction with the crude instruments.  It's basically a wooden box lacking a top, and with a bottom made out of wire mesh, usually 1/8 or  1/4 inch.  Basically, you put the dirt from your hole in here, shake it (and sometimes break up dirt clods), and then sort through the gravel and rocks left over to try to find artifacts.

Okay, so those are the most common crude tools.  A later post will desscribe the fine tools.

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