Archaeology is like being a detective, but instead of solving crimes, archaeologists look for clues about the past by studying the material left behind.

This includes artefacts, such as stone axes and ceramic pots, animal and plant remains, art, ruins and buildings. These material remains offer insights into how people lived, what they ate, what resources they used and the tools they made. Archaeologists rely on a variety of tools for both excavating in the field and undertaking analysis in the laboratory.

Follow the gallery trail to uncover the range of tools crucial to an archaeologist's toolkit and how these help archaeologists piece together the clues of the past.  

Sieves

Sieves

While we might think of a sieve being used in baking to catch lumps of flour, archaeologists employ sieves in much the same way during excavations. Sieves are used to catch fragments of bones, shells, and seeds that are hard to see in the dirt being excavated. These sieves are typically made of metal or plastic and have mesh screens of varying sizes, depending on the type of clues archaeologists are interested in and the size of particles of dirt. 

Ensuring that archaeologists can capture small artefacts, pieces of bones, and shell, is vital for piecing together the past. These clues can tell archaeologists what plants and animals were available to people in the past. They also tell us what the environment was like hundreds or thousands of years ago and how this may have changed over time from activities of people or natural events

Trowel

Trowel

Arguably the most important tool in an archaeologist's toolkit, the trowel is vital during an excavation. Archaeologists use the trowel to slowly and carefully remove layers of dirt to reveal artefacts buried beneath the ground. Trowels are small, handheld tools with a pointed blade, allowing for precision digging and scraping. Archaeologists must be skilled in using a trowel to avoid damaging fragile artefacts such as pottery or animal bones. As people lived, ate, used and made tools, the archaeological record is built up by the material they discard (much like your rubbish bin at home), this creates layers like a cake. The bottom layer is the oldest and the top layer is the youngest. Each layer provides a clue about the activities undertaken by people in the past. Using a trowel instead of a large spade helps archaeologists excavate each layer at a time to determine how things may have changed over time. Despite advances in technology, the trowel remains an essential tool in the archaeologist's kit, enabling archaeologists to work with precision and care.  

Measuring tapes & tools

Measuring tapes & tools

Archaeologists use measuring tapes for a variety of tasks during fieldwork and excavation. Measuring tapes are essential for mapping out the size and layout of archaeological sites and features such as hāngi, storage pits and building foundations. Archaeologists often plot out a grid over the ground where they want to excavate. Measuring tapes help to lay out these grids and allows archaeologist to plot where in the site features such postholes are located and where artefacts are found on a map. Tapes are also used as a scale in photographs to keep a record of the size of an artefact or feature.  

In addition to tape measures, archaeologists use other specialised measuring tools such as total stations and GPS (Global Positioning System) devices for precise mapping and surveying. Total stations use a laser to measure distances and angles, allowing archaeologists to create detailed maps of excavation sites. GPS devices are used to record the coordinates of archaeological sites and features and study their distribution across the landscape. All these tasks help archaeologists decipher the layout of villages, what activities were being undertaken across different areas and so much more. 

Callipers

Callipers

A tool crucial for uncovering the clues and stories held within artefacts, are callipers. Callipers are used in the same way as a ruler to give precise measurements, such as length, width or thickness. By recording these measurements archaeologists can learn about how tools were made and how they were used. Recording measurements with callipers also allow archaeologists to make comparisons between artefacts made in different places or from different materials or investigate if fish being eaten by people in the past were bigger? These are just some of the questions archaeologists can explore with callipers in their toolkit. 

Notebooks

Notebooks

Archaeologists use notebooks as a tool for recording important clues gathered during field and laboratory work. In the field, archaeologists use notebooks to write detailed notes. These notes include observations about the weather, the plants and environment surrounding the archaeological site, any features or artefacts uncovered, what different layers (see trowel section) looked and felt like, and more! Archaeologists also use notebooks to make sketches and drawings of artefacts, such as ceramic pots and to map out plans of the excavations. As the site is destroyed during the process of archaeological excavation, it is vital to keep detailed notes along the way, as once the site is gone, it is gone forever. A notebook full of detailed notes and sketches helps archaeologists piece together clues and build a picture of how people lived in the past.  

Cameras and digital recording

Cameras and digital recording

Archaeologists use cameras to take photographs of artefacts and features found in the ground, such as stone tools, building foundations and fire scoops. Photographs also capture what the site looked like before, during and after being excavated, providing a record of features and vegetation that may have been lost during the excavation process. Archaeologists also use aerial photographs taken from a plane or helicopter to find archaeological sites on the ground across vast distances. 

3D models are a specialised form of digital photography capturing the images of the artefacts 

Check out these examples here and here

Brushes

Brushes

The final item that makes up an archaeologist's toolkit is a brush. Brushes are used by archaeologists cleaning and uncovering delicate items during excavations. These range from small soft paintbrushes to larger dustpan brushes. These brushes can help gently remove sand and dirt without causing damage to fragile materials such as bone, pottery and glass. Brushes are also used to clean the surfaces of walls, floors, and other features, revealing details that may be obscured by dirt and dust. 

In the laboratory, brushes are used to clean artefacts. This meticulous cleaning process is essential for preserving items and preparing them for future study and storage and display in whare taonga.