• NCR Regional Archeology Program

    NCR Regional Archeology Program


Conventional Tools

Hand tools

Small conventional hand tools used in the field.

Many field survey techniques are available to archeologists, so choosing the right one depends on many factors, including time, field conditions, research questions, the size of the area to be studied, the amount of funding available, and other things. These techniques also require the right tools. Conventional items such as shovels, masonry trowels, screens, buckets, brushes, pencil and paper, flags, string, stakes, and nails are used, as well as cameras, rulers, and Munsell® soil color charts. Standardized field forms are used to document and describe excavation results, record artifacts found, produce plan and profile drawings, and create site maps.

For example, researchers conduct "Phase I" surveys. This type of survey is typically the first field survey that archeologists do when starting a project. One technique is a controlled surface collection where archeologists walk over the survey area looking for cultural materials. When they find something, they mark it with a flag to show its precise location. When collecting or excavating artifacts, the archeologist will create a unique "provenience" for the item, indicating exactly where the artifact was found. Often with pencil and paper, sometimes with a computer, a map is made which records the location of each artifact and its relationship to other artifacts.


Archeologists use a shovel and screen to excavate an STP.

Another Phase I technique is a systematic shovel test pit (STP) survey. During the STP survey, a grid of test holes is excavated with a shovel or trowel and the dirt removed is screened for artifacts. All cultural materials found are recorded and each STP is mapped. Using these various conventional "Phase I" techniques, decisions can be made as to where to place more extensive excavation units (EUs) for "Phase II" research.


An archeologist carefully excavates a historic foundation using a trowel.

In Phase II, archeologists carefully mark out excavation units with string and nails to define the outline of excavation. Using shovels, trowels, brushes and other tools, the EUs are excavated layer by layer. Dirt is screened for artifacts and careful notes and maps are made.

Sometimes, when it is not feasible to avoid or minimize adverse effects on archeological resources, archeological field work and research is expanded to a "Phase III" investigation. In this phase, archeologists perform mitigation (as part of Section 106 compliance) to avoid adverse impacts and to ensure that all archeological materials and features are fully and properly documented. Phase III may also encompass full-scale, research-driven excavations where archeologists learn as much about a site as possible through excavation.   

These are just a few of the techniques and conventional tools used by archeologists in their work. Learn more about some of the more "unconventional" tools that archeologists also use.

Unauthorized metal detecting and artifact collecting are strictly forbidden
in all parks and on all other federal property.