Tools Used by Archaeologists

A wide range of tools are used at an archaeological site, some of which may be very familiar and others which are more specialized. Below are images and descriptions of just a few of the types of equipment you will see if you visit New Philadelphia during the field season!


For archaeology, the trowel is probably the most iconic and most-often used tool. It is the same tool that masons use to apply mortar to brick walls, though in archaeology it is used to excavate in a unit when the space no longer allows for the use of a shovel. There is a long-standing (but usually good-natured) debate in the archaeology community about whether a pointed or square-ended trowel is better. Opinions vary among the archaeologists at New Philadelphia as well, but it really is all up to the personal preference of the user!


Shovels, either rounded or squared, are used as the primary excavating tool, most especially in units where very few or no features or artifacts are discovered. They are used because they allow for more soil to be moved in a shorter time, as opposed to only ever excavating with trowels. Soil is shoveled either into buckets (usually 5-gallon size) and then carried to the screen, or is shoveled directly into the screen itself.


Screens are used to sift the soil that comes from each unit in order to search for and better spot artifacts. The most common screen varieties are the tripod and box (or personal) screen, both of which are used at New Philadelphia. Soil is poured into the screen from either a bucket or a shovel, then shaken back and forth to allow the lighter soil to fall through the screen mesh, while heavier artifacts will stay inside the screen box.


Handbrooms and dustpans are used while excavating a unit in order to more effeciently move the soil out. Handbrooms help to keep the "floor" of a unit clean, especially before a photograph is taken of it. Dustpans help to move soil out of the unit at a faster pace when archaeologists have begun only using their trowels. Soil can be scraped into the dustpan then dumped into a bucket, instead of moving soil one trowelful at a time.

Tape Measures

Tape measures are used to make sure that the size of the unit and the depth of each level are as exact as possible according to our field manual's regulations. They are also used when creating maps of units, as knowing the distance between artifacts or layers of soil will make the map much more accurrate.

Historical archaeologists use English Standard Measure in their work, either using the typical denominations (feet and inches) or using what is called engineer's scale (tenths of a foot). This is different than prehistoric archaeology, which uses the Metric System. Historical archaeologists use English Standard Measure instead of the Metric System because the people that are being studied used English Standard Measure when building their homes and creating maps to describe them.

Line Levels/Plumb Bobs

Line levels and plumb bobs are primarily used in mapping features and excavation units. Line levels are attached to the strings that are used to outline the units and the diagonal string in order to be able to better measure the depth of each level and any artifacts that may be found. Plumb bobs are used in conjunction with the measuring tape while mapping in order to provide a precise location for any feature boundary or artifacts that may be in the walls or floor of a unit.


Film and digital cameras are used at New Philadelphia in order to take official images of the floor and walls of each level of each excavation unit, artifacts, and occasionally candid shots of the crew.

Transit/Total Station

A transit or total station is a computer-like tool used in surveying an archaeological site (though architects and civil engineers use them as well). This equipment is used to create a map of the site, using GPS and spatial data which records exact locations and heights of specific points.

Soil Cores

A basic soil core is a small metal tube with a handle at the top that is used for probing specific areas in the soil in search of buried artifacts or features. Once a specific spot is marked for coring, the archaeolgist pushes the core into the ground using their body weight, then pulls it back out to inspect the soil within it. If artifacts or a significant soil change is present, that area may be a good prospect for excavation. Soil cores are also useful in locating sub-soil foundations; if a number of cores in a row were stopped by hard resistance, it is likely there is a feature buried in that location.

Tongue Depressors/Dental Picks

Wooden tongue depressors and dental picks, just like the kinds you see at your doctor and dentists' offices, are often used at archaeological sites. These small tools allow for the removal of soil in very tight or small locations in a unit, or can be used to clean off larger or more sturdy artifacts.