Beg, Borrow, and Steal: The Archaeologist’s Lament

Ask any archaeologist what they consider the most iconic tool of the archaeological trade and they’ll probably say the trowel. And many an archaeologist has argued over which is the better trowel between the Marshalltown (U.S.) and the WHS (British). But, truth be told, either is probably good enough for the job as long as it’s a one-piece construction and not a handle wielded to the blade. These tend to break.

Oh, and we do things to our trowels. First and foremost, archaeologists sharpen their trowels. Usually just one side of the edge (otherwise it doesn’t hold an edge as well). A sharpened trowel is the path to a clean, straight wall in an excavation unit. I like to sharpen one of the short edges just for cutting roots, too. Some people even name their trowels like a knight in Lord of the Rings might name his sword.

Side note: the frequency of LOTR references on the job site increases exponentially with the number of archaeologists. “Second breakfast” and “elevensies” will come up in the morning; and a Gandalf imitation will show the first time someone picks up a stadia rod or prism pole.

So, here’s the thing: the trowel isn’t ours. We borrowed it from the masons. But no other tool does the job quite so well, so we’ve adopted it as our own. And the more you think about it, the more you realize that archaeologists just don’t have our own tools of the trade. We’ve borrowed or stolen everything we use!

What follows is an incomplete list of archaeology tools and who we’ve borrowed them from.

  • Transit & total station – Surveyors
  • Plumb bob & line level – Masons/Carpenters
  • Masonry string – Masons
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – Geographers
  • Shovels & mattocks – Ditch Diggers
  • Chaining Pins – Surveyors
  • Big-ass galvanized nails – Masons
  • 5-Gallon Home Depot Buckets – Painters
  • Folding Rules – Masons/Carpenters
  • The 3-4-5 rule – Carpenters
  • Letterboards for unit photos – Daily special board from the cafe in town
  • Whisk broom & dustpan – Mom’s cupboard
  • Compass – US Army/Boy Scouts
  • PFG shirt – Fishermen

And I didn’t mention a lot of the new high-tech stuff like LIDAR, GPR, drones, etc. which were all developed for other initial purposes.

Cowboys have spurs, firemen have fire trucks, policemen have tasers, chemists have test tubes, biologists have microscopes, astronomers have telescopes, photographers have cameras, truck drivers have trucks, bankers have money, and astronauts have rockets.

And archaeologists have… whatever we can beg, borrow, or steal to get the job done. Perhaps the screen is ours. Nobody screens dirt like us!

But if you go to any cocktail party or social gathering, when you say you’re an archaeologist you are instantly the coolest person in the room!

Until that astronaut shows up.

Shhhh. It’s Astronaut Chris Hadfield.
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About Carl Feagans 341 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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