A fundamental development took place in the range of tools used in Near Eastern archaeology once field operations were resumed following World War II. During the first century or so of archaeological fieldwork, the two primary tools of exploration had been borrowed from road construction: a large pickax for breaking up soil and a broad-bladed hoe for scooping loosened soil into baskets to be carried away. As long as the basic strategy of digging was to locate buried wall segments and expose them down to their founding surfaces, those tools were adequate.

Beginning in the 1950s, an important development in digging strategy led to a dramatic increase in the use of small hand tools, nearly rendering the large pick and hoe obsolete. The initial primary interest in architecture moved to a concomitant concern for the careful separation of soil layers to gain better stratigraphic control, more complete retrieval of data, and a clearer interpretation of the evidence. In Palestine, Kathleen M. Kenyon's excavations at Tell es-Sultan (Jericho) In 1952–1957 and her use of the so-called Wheeler-Kenyon grid technique demonstrated the need for small tools to provide closer control of the digging process. [See Excavation Strategy.]

Most of the newer small tools have also been borrowed from other endeavors—from geology and mountain climbing (hand pick) to dentistry (dental pick). Three tools have come to dominate: the handpick, the trowel, and the soft-bristled hand brush. Light vertical downstrokes using the handpick's flat chisel-headed blade can dislodge small clumps of soil, thus exposing potsherds and small artifacts in situ. Used in this way, the handpick also allows the excavator to notice changes in the color and consistency of soil that can signal the transition to a different layer. A mason's trowel is commonly used in conjunction with the handpick. Alternating vertical strokes of the pick with horizontal scraping motions of the trowel brings newly loosened soil toward the kneeling digger. This process turns over the loosened earth to reveal still-hidden objects and clears it away to allow the digger to see soil changes more clearly. A soft-bristled hand brush is then used to clear away the smaller particles of loosened soil, further revealing the character of the newly exposed earth below. The brush is later used to prepare the area for photography.

A variety of even smaller implements has been employed to clear soil from delicate objects (such as skeletal remains, mosaic tiles [tesserae], or necklace beads) or multielement complexes. Some of the tools found useful in such delicate work are teaspoons, dental picks, and soft-bristled artists' brushes.

The process of removing dirt from the excavation area has also undergone refinement. Reed baskets gave way by midcentury to buckets, known as gufas (or goufas, from Arabic), made from discarded automobile or truck tire tube casings. Those are now increasingly being replaced with plastic pails. The long- handled hoe, used to scoop up soil, has given way at most excavations to the trowel, hand brush, and dustpan. Between the digging area and the dump, a fine-mesh sieve is frequently used to sift excavated soil in order to reveal small objects (such as beads, coins, bone fragments, and stone-tool flakes) that might otherwise have eluded workers. Where there is a concern for retrieving ancient seed and pollen data, fine sieves or flotation devices are also used to recover material from the soil being discarded.

An increasing array of utensils and supplies now finds its way into the archaeologist's field kit. Laying out an area for excavation requires stakes and string, a measuring tape, and a line level to set balk lines; taking elevations of excavated features requires a transit and range rod; collecting and transporting potsherds, bones, flints, and other artifacts require buckets, paper bags and boxes, and cotton padding; and the all-important recording and registering of finds utilize a variety of tags, gummed labels, and waterproof marking pens. [See Recording Techniques.]

In the excavation camp, a complementary assortment of tools completes the recording and conservation process: toothbrushes and cotton swabs for cleaning finds and rulers, calipers, and circumference gauges for measuring potsherds and other objects that are to be drawn.

[See Conservation Archaeology.]


  • Cole, Dan P. “Archaeological Tools and Their Use.” In A Manual of Field Excavation: Handbook for Field Archaeologists, edited by William G. Dever and H. Darrell Lance, pp. 123–145. Cincinnati, 1978. Proper use of tools.
  • Heizer, Robert F., and John A. Graham. A Guide to Field Methods in Archaeology: Approaches to the Anthropology of the Dead. Palo Alto, Calif., 1967. Brief discussion of excavation tools (see chap. 5.A); of comparative value because it reflects New World conditions and methods.

Dan P. Cole