How to Perform an Archaeological Dig!

By braniac; Updated April 24, 2017
Perform an Archaeological Dig!

The world of Archaeology is exciting and glamorous to most people, but the truth is that Archaeology is a lot of hard work! As a professional archaeologist I have felt the thrill of finding ancient treasure and the agony of the muscle pain that went into the find. Follow my steps through a professional archaeological dig just for fun kids of all ages. Be sure to follow my advice on staying out of trouble with the law too!

Surface collecting can help you find the perfect spot to dig!

Finding a Site: The first step in archaeology is finding a site that will yield artifacts. The best way to find a site is through "surface collecting". Literally to walk over an area looking for anything out of the ordinary. Take plastic bags to collect ANY debris you find. Sometimes it isn't until you've washed away the dirt on an item that you realize what you actually have found. Remember that most good archaeology sites are in what is called a "middens"! A trash pile! There were no garbage trucks to take away refuse so ancient people would designate a "midden" to dump all unusable trash in. This midden was far enough away from their living areas to keep the smell down and critters away. Large shell middens are usually the result of ceremonial sites and are protected by law!! Do NOT dig in a shell mound!!! Ancient people would use everything down to a nub, so the artifacts you will find in a midden would be pottery shards, oyster and snail shells, animal bone and flakes of tools. If you are lucky enough to find a good "site", you might find arrowheads, beads, carved jewelry, and bone tools, to name but a few artifacts. Sites are usually found by word of mouth, people who have lived in the area for years. There are state files, but you have to be a licensed archaeologist to have access to them. Never collect on property without seeking the owner's permission. Pick your "surface collecting" site and divide the area into 4ths or "Quads". Label each area as A, B, C, and D. You should have a notebook to jot down anomalies you find on the property. Look for permanent markers like a large oak tree, or an old foundation of a house, and identify that "quad" as the Oak Quad or Foundation Quad. Familiarize yourself with the area you have chosen to explore. Remember that not all archaeology is ancient or pre-historic. I've found great sites in historical dumps near an old house foundation.

Evaluate your finds: Look at the articles you've collected when you get home. Identify the most inhabited region of the property, and then sort each bag separately according to debris: Modern trash, unidentifiable trash, ceramics (pottery), bone, and shell. Clean each artifact with plain water and allow them to air dry. If the artifact is made of stone or shell you may use a soft brush to get the encrusted mud out of any crevice. Do not scrub as you can damage any etching that may be on pottery or shell. After drying, examine the pieces for evidence of human tampering, or natural erosion. It may take a few trips of surface collecting to identify the most inhabited area of a property. The groundwork will save a lot of wasted back muscle.

A Table Screen is for sifting dirt and sorting artifacts!

Gather your tools! You will need a flat-blade shovel, trowel, dust pans, assorted brushes, at least two metric measuring tapes or folding sticks, plenty of plastic bags in assorted sizes, sharpie markers, clip board, line-level, string, 4 - 6 eye-hook stakes, gloves and fluorescent survey tape. The most important tool will be a screen. You can make a box screen fairly easy. Take four pieces of wood and make a box frame out of them using L brackets, attach the ΒΌ mesh screen to the bottom of your box with heavy duty staples. The larger the frame, the more dirt you can sift. I have frames 6 x 4 that hang from a tree to sift, or 2x 4 table sifters. I have small frames that I carry in my backpack while doing fieldwork. You should decide the size of your screen according to your commitment to the project. I will warn you that archaeology is addicting! Make your screen sturdy and it will last forever!

Starting to Dig!

Mark your trench! Decide how big you would like your pit to be. Average pits are 2 x 3, 3x4 and 4x4 meters. Don't do a 1 x 1 pit as you will be standing on your own hands while trying to dig! If you are a beginner I'd suggest a 2 x 4! Measure your pit. Place a stake with an eyehook at each corner of the pit and two in the middle if the pit is very large. Pull a taunt string/cord through each stake to keep the edges of the pit clearly defined. On the northeast corner tie an extra length of string/cord about as long as the pit is. This will be your plum-line to measure the levels. If you were doing a professional dig you would tie your plum-line into a GPS reading.

Chuck keeping accurate records!

Keeping Records! Write the date of the dig on all your bags. It may take several days to perform your dig. There is a numbering system in archaeology for State, County and assigned site numbers, but you don't have to go that far. You will change bags every 10 cm so record which level you are on! Note the type of soil you are digging in such as white sand, red clay, root-mat, which is the surface debris. Record the names of your team members for later questions that may arise. Note any conditions that may affect the dig, weather, heat, insects, and animal disturbance. I once dug into a snake hole. I didn't notice until I had a snake in the pit with me! Small piglets have invaded my site twice! The momma wild boar was just a few steps behind them. (Find a tree and climb fasssttt!)

Prep work!

Start to dig! You must first take off the root mat. This is the surface debris that will have too much modern contact to tell you much about a culture. This level is usually only an inch or so deep. Peel it off with your flat-blade shovel, but make sure you still sift it through the screen for anything interesting. Mark your bag using your sharpie marker as Root-mat, date and site name that you have chosen. When the leaves and roots are cleared out you begin the next level.
Take a measurement reading using your plum-line. Place your line level on the string that is attached to your eyehook stake on the northeast corner. Place your measuring stick on the ground like it was a flagpole, line up the string with the pole until the line level is even, and record the measurement. This is the start of your first level. Add 10 cm and that will be your second level and so forth. Each level is 10 cm high. As you dig, stop every so often to check your level. Don't dig into the next level without changing artifact bags. The different levels build a picture of the stratum that environmental changes make in the earth

Sweep the sand like you would a floor!

How to dig! In order to get a clear picture of each level you should dig with a flat edge shovel or trowel. Whether you use a flat-edged shovel or a trowel depends on the matrix you are digging in. Shells are hard to dig in and require a trowel. If you are digging in sand with very few artifacts then you can use a shovel. Use your discretion by what you are finding and how valuable this experience is to you. If you run a shovel through a piece of pottery you will regret it your entire life! Go slowly, sweeping the floor in small even layers like you were using a broom instead of a shovel. The floor of your pit should be a smooth, flat surface.

What are you looking for? Depending on your location, and if you did your surface collecting, you should find pottery (ceramics), animal bones, and shell. I have been at sites where we found masses of pearl. Once we peeled them off the neck of a mummified body, they weren't anything you would want to wear! The environment you dig in will determine the state of preservation. Out West I have seen sandals woven from hair preserved since archaic time. Underwater archaeology will lead you to outstanding treasure that will disintegrate before your eyes when you pull it out of the water. During droughts many canoes were exposed in the south. If they were not hauled into a lab and submerged in water they would explode like a toothpick factory in just days. But an average fun dig will give you a few pieces of pottery, a few flakes of tools and some animal bones to identify. You local authorities are always happy to help with this kind of identification because it gives them more clues into the past. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions (hence the recordkeeping!) and to lose your artifact if it is something unique. They are required by law to give you credit for the find and give you an exact replica of the find. If they stick your artifact in a drawer somewhere (which is likely!) you are allowed to ask for its return. They will not take your land from you because you found something Interesting.

Special Treatment! When you find something exciting, switch to your smaller tools and extract it like a pro! Use your brushes to take off surface sand. Try to get a picture of the artifact "in situ". That means where you found it!
Look for special features in the sand that have been left by man's use of the land. A "feature" is any stain in the sand. Sometimes they are nothing, but they could be a sign of a settlement.


Take turns with the shovel, or you will regret it in the morning! Treat artifacts with care!


Never dig on someone's property without permission in writing! Never dig on a Federal or State property!