Tools of the artefact specialist

When you get down to it, archaeology is a bit of a funny subject. We make use of specialised tools like magnetometers to do geophysical surveys and we use scientific instruments like XRF and LA-ICP-MS for materials analysis. Yet, the field archaeologist usually uses tools like the iconic trowel, shovels, mattocks and often a digger if you have a large area of turf and topsoil to clear. Recording is still often done by hand on paper, although there are some growing options for digital recording.

Like the field archaeologist, the tools of the artefact specialist tend to be quite simple. Initial artefact records are usually concerned with visual examination and measurements related to size and weight. In this blog post I’m going to discuss some useful tools for specialists and hopefully share some tricks that will help.

Measuring size

Calipers: when working with small finds, a good pair of calipers are an essential tool. Digital calipers allow measurements to be taken quickly, but manual calipers are a good alternative (Wikipedia has a useful GIF for learning how to read manual calipers). Most calipers will come in 6-inch or 12-inch sizes and are either made from plastic or metal. Having both sizes can be useful, especially if you’re working with both large and small artefacts. I usually just use my 6-inch because it’s more convenient. The choice between plastic and metal might not make a difference for some users, but it’s worth bearing in mind that metal can damage artefacts if not used carefully. 

Other tips:

  • Calipers are also great because you can use the stem to measure the depth of an object.
  • Use the larger arms for measuring the external dimension and the smaller upper arms for the internal dimension.
  • You can also buy external digital calipers, which would be useful for measuring large and/or complex shaped objects because they have curved arms.

Ruler/tape measure: despite being a ‘small’ find specialist, I am sometimes sent quite large artefacts. Don’t let the name fool you, small finds aren’t always ‘small’. In these cases, you will need a ruler or tape measure to record dimensions from these large objects, because your calipers will be too small.

String or flexible measuring tape: depending on what you’re measuring, if it’s a large or awkwardly shaped artefact, you can measure it with a flexible fabric measuring tape (like what seamstresses use). Alternatively, you can use a piece of string to measure an artefact and then compare the length to a ruler. I would only use this second method in circumstances where no other method has or could work, because it’s less likely to be accurate.

Rim diameter chart: if you’re working with vessels made from ceramic, glass, or metal, you’ll want a rim diameter chart. By placing a rim sherd on the chart and moving it until you find a curve best fit, you’ll be able to estimate the original diameter of the vessel rim. This is an essential process for vessel studies of all material types. You can download a rim chart HERE.

Imperial drill bits: clay pipe internal bore diameter is measured in 64s of an inch and this has remained the standard so that assemblage data is comparable. Although using the tapered bore gauged can be quicker, if a stem or bowl can’t be fully cleaned then the drill bit can be used to help gauge the size (use the non-drill end).

Tapered bore gauge: this isn’t an essential tool, but I recently discovered these. It’s really useful for taking the internal diameter of an object. I bought one that has imperial measurements (good for clay pipe bore diameters) and metric (good for anything else). I recently used mine while recording a clay pipe assemblage and I found it really useful.

Measuring weight

Digital scale: in the UK, artefact weight is usually recorded in grams, so please use a scale that reports weight in that unit. Use a digital scale, it will make your life so much easier. Again, like with the measuring devices mentioned above, you will probably want one scale that is very accurate for light weight artefacts where precision matters (such as coins, beads, etc.) and another scale that has a larger maximum weight for heavier objects.

Other useful items

Hand lens: out of all the other tools listed in this section, this is one of the most essential tools. You can take your preference with the power of the magnification. I opted for one with two lenses and a switch for two LED lights, which really saves my  eyes from strain.

Small LED torch/flashlight: a small LED torch is great for checking the colour and translucency of glass. Some dark translucent glass can appear opaque until light is shone through it and doing so can reveal some surprising colours. It can also help light any dark areas on an artefact, like the interior of a clay pipe bowl.

Tip: a vertical light can make faint decoration or maker’s marks hard to see, so use a raking light to help pick out detail.

Tooth picks or bamboo skewers: these are useful for cleaning dirt off an artefact, but real cleaning and conservation should only be done by a trained professional conservator. However, if it’s just a little bit of loose fresh soil on a recently excavated artefact, this can usually be carefully picked off with a little bit of pressure. If this doesn’t do the trick, then leave it for a conservator to do because you could damage the artefact.

Magnet: these are really useful for quickly testing if an artefact has iron content.

Tip: slag doesn’t usually have a high iron content and won’t usually be magnetic.

Petrie dishes: this might seem like an odd addition to the tool kit, but when working with really tiny objects, like beads, it is really helpful for making sure they don’t roll away and get lost on your carpeted floor.

Tweezers:  like the Petri dishes, this is probably only something that’s useful if you’re working with really tiny and/or fragile objects. I got a pair of bamboo tweezers, but rubber tipped ones might also work if used carefully.

USB microscope: totally not a necessity, but another good tool for working with really small objects, or artefacts with tiny detail, like coins. A USB microscope also lets you take pictures, so you can study them later.

Other office equipment

Trays: when I’m studying or recording artefacts, I really like to set them out on a tray. Artefacts are often dirty and/or crumbly (hello iron artefacts!) and I don’t want that all over my desk or office floor. Plastic trays (do they still use these in cafeterias?) are great for containing the mess. Newspaper would also work, but because the page can have a lot of printing on them I would worry about forgetting to put an artefact away and then accidently sticking it in the recycling bin when I’m done, so I don’t do that!

Desk lamp: A good desk lamp with a daylight bulb is really helpful for illuminating the artefacts you’re recording. On sunny days, I usually don’t need to use a light in my office, but on dark days or if I’m working in the evening (yuck!) an office lamp is essential. You can also get a lamp with a magnifying glass built in.

Spare keyboard and mouse: I am a bit of a clean freak when it comes to my computer and I don’t like getting my laptop dirty. I have a spare USB wireless keyboard that I use when doing messy work. I also have a spare mouse, but it goes through batteries quickly, so I just wipe my usual mouse down after recording artefacts.

Final thoughts

The digital calipers, digital scale and hand lens are the tools that I think are absolutely essential for most artefact recording, but you may find some of these other tools to be useful too. I hope that this helps and don’t forget our resources page has a basic database and paper based recording form for keeping all of your data organised!

Please comment below if I’ve missed out any useful tools, or if you have any tips or tricks that you want to share 🙂

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