What exactly is in an archaeologist’s field kit?

This Monday was spent assembling all the materials we require for the field. In this blog post, we introduce you to “The Field Kit.”


Kelsey admiring an amazing field kit.

One of the most important parts of archaeological field work is making sure that you have the proper equipment to complete your project in a precise and consistent manner.  Archaeological field work is often conducted in relatively remote areas, and ensuring that we have the necessary tools prior to entering the work site enables us to be well-prepared for a variety of tasks and situations.  In this blog we are going to give everyone a brief summary of some of the common items that you would normally find in any archaeologist’s kit.



(A) Shovel; (B) trowel, files, pick; (c) clipboard, maps, notebook, forms, pencils, rulers, erasers, protractor, calculator, orienteering compass

The first and most recognized tool is a trowel (B).  Trowels come in various shapes and sizes, but for most people a drop-forged, pointing trowel is ideal (Marshalltown is a popular brand).  Trowels are used to remove sediment (matrix) in order to uncover artifacts and features. It is important to maintain sharp edges on your trowel to assist in soil removal; one way to accomplish this is to always have a bastard file or triangular file in your kit. Sometimes bigger tools are needed to remove larger amounts or more compact soils; therefore, it is always good to carry a shovel (A) and geology pick or mattock (B) to site with you.  Conversely, smaller brushes and dust pans (H, J), wooden sculpting tools (K), or carefully wielded dental tools, are often needed to delicately remove soil from artifacts or move smaller amounts of material from your work area. Buckets (W) are used to hold and carry the removed soils/sediments to shaker screens (X) where it is poured out and inspected for smaller artifacts, floral and faunal material, or other items that may have been missed at the trowel’s edge.  Archaeologists typically use ¼” mesh for screens, though tighter meshes may be used to ensure collection of micro debitage or other smaller materials.


(D) line levels and plumb bob; (E) metric rulers and tapes; (F) clippers; (G) nylon twine and lighter; (H) whisk broom and dust pan; (I) corner nails and datum nails; (J) assorted small brushes; (K) small picking tools; (L) utility knife

In archaeology, provenience and context are everything. Some of the most basic tools for determining location include metric rulers and tape measures (E) and an orienteering compass (C). These tools are used to determine the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the unit and associated levels/lots that you are excavating, as well as the location of artifacts and features in 3D space.  Sometimes, we get to break out the big guns, using tech such as dumpy levels, transits, total stations, or GPS (O).  Nylon string (G) is an important tool to bring to the field because you are using it with many other items, such as line levels (D) for maintaining accurate depth levels, a plumb bob for measuring horizontal provenience relative to level baselines, and nails (I) for marking the boundaries of your excavation area.  In some instances, your site will be overgrown with roots or trees and sharp tools such as root cutters (F) and machetes (X) are used to clear this away from the work area. A multi-tool or small knife (L) is always a good thing to carry as well.  We’ve all met people whose walls are so straight that we suspect they dig with lightsabers, but this remains unconfirmed.


(M) camera; (N) photoboard; (O) GPS unit; (P) scale arrow

Another very important (arguably the most important) aspect of any archaeological fieldwork is accurate and thorough documentation.  Every archaeologist should have an adequate supply of pens, pencils and erasers for filling out project forms, their personal field notebook (C), and drawing maps and profiles. A clipboard with a hard writing surface is also useful for carrying all your paperwork, as well as functioning as a portable drawing surface.  Another tool used for documentation is a Munsell colour chart (S) and soil texture chart, for providing standardized matrix descriptions. A camera (M), photoboard (N), and scale arrow (P) are also used to document the progress of excavation.  Sealable plastic or cloth bags of various sizes (Q, U), small containers (R), artifact cards and tags (T), and tin foil pockets are all important for holding artifacts and ecofacts to be removed from the field.


(Q) Cloth artifact bags; (R) containers for small, delicate artifacts; (S) Munsell colour chart; (T) artifact tags; (U) assorted plastic bags

Safety equipment is imperative on archaeological sites.  A personal as well as a project first aid kit should be readily available.  If you are working in the sun a hat is a good idea, as well as plenty of water and sunscreen in your field pack (V).  Bug repellent is a must, especially if you are working in an area in which the insects carry serious illnesses, like malaria! Wearing the proper clothing for your environment is important and some archaeologists feel more comfortable using knee pads and gloves in the field. When archaeological sites are part of more formal work environments, hard hats, steel toed boots, and safety vests and goggles are also a common sight.


(V) field pack, waterbottle; (W) bucket and tarp; (X) machete and shaker screen

We think that this pretty much covers the basics of an archaeological field kit. However, depending on where and when your field work is taking place you might have to complement your kit with more specific items.

Until our next post!

The SCRAP 2016 Team

(Cristina, Kelsey, Meaghan, Megan, Shawn, Virginia)