Tools of the trade

Submitted by Sammy Smith (


You may think that the number one tool of archaeologists is the trowel—or perhaps the paintbrush.

In reality, archaeologists working in Georgia spend more time with a shovel or a computer. Or a pencil and paper.

They spend time with the computer because it helps with analysis, graphic production, and report-writing. It is a highly effective tool when excavating or in the laboratory after excavation. Archaeologists spend time—while working on an archaeological site—with the lowly pencil/paper combination because it allows quick and inexpensive note-taking and sketch-mapping.

They spend time—in the field—with the shovel because it usually is the right tool for moving the right amount of soil. Archaeological investigations, like so many projects in these economic times, are underfunded. Thus, efficiency is prized. However, given that archaeological remains tend to be quite delicate, it can be tricky to determine the most efficient way to obtain good data from buried archaeological remains. Many times, the shovel allows the most efficient excavation. A backhoe is used sometimes, and a dental pick and brush are used sometimes. But, hour by hour, considerable archaeological fieldwork is accomplished using an ordinary shovel. But, which kind?

The photo shows two types of shovels you might find in a field archaeologist’s hand here in Georgia. On the left is a shovel with a blunt or straight edge. The one on the right is often called a round-point shovel. The leading edge of both are usually filed to sharpen the edge, so that they more smoothly cut through the soil—and roots.

Square-nosed shovels are commonly used to exavate square and rectangular units. The units are usually measured in meters: 1x1s or 1x2s, 2x2s, etc. The flat blade means that an experienced operator can removed a thin layer of soil (referred to formally as “schnitting,” from the German word “to cut”). This allows the excavator to carefully monitor the soil for artifacts and soil color/density changes that can indicate features. By removing small amounts of soil with each shovel-load, perhaps even a paper-thin slice, the archaeologist can determine just when soil changes begin or just where a small artifact came from that escaped their eye as they excavated.

Round-point shovels are not used for the type of excavation described above, since they would not remove a flat “slice” of soil. They are often used for shovel testing. Shovel tests are usually about 30-50 centimeters across, and round, or sometimes square. Shovel testing is used when the presence of buried archaeological remains are unknown, and archaeologists need to “prospect” beneath the surface to determine what is there. The round-point shovel allows the archaeologist to excavate a small “window” beneath the surface without doing much lateral damage to any intact remains. It works better for vertical holes than the square-nosed shovel.

When the soil leaves the shovel, it is deposited in a screen…but that’s a story for another time….

Archaeologists may have specific (and often personal) preferences regarding the angle that the shovel blade has with respect to the handle, so that not all shovels for sale in a hardware store may have a shape that an archaeologist would want to use. Why would the blade/handle angle make a difference?

CAUTION: Learning to file the edge of a shovel is a tricky business, and is best undertaken with great care (and adult supervision if you’re a youngster) while wearing leather gloves or an equivalent buffer for your tender skin. Many archaeologists have scars on their hands from the days when they were learning to sharpen shovels by hand. Don’t let it happen to you!