Minimise the Pain! Archaeological field work techniques, Part 1

By Brigid Gallagher 16/02/2012

In December my youngest daughter turned 2.

Whilst this is not so extraordinary, for me it feels we are at a major milestone…a point where she is making the transition from my baby, to my little girl. 

She suddenly says everything at full volume, punctuates her feelings with a very big, growly ‘NOOOO’ and when you try to help her she responds ‘me do it’, with the hint of a whine.

She also loves her time at day care, has a best friend to whose house she is quite happy to play at without mum or dad, and at least knows what the toilet is, and what she ‘should’ be doing on it.

So while she is quite happy to be racing ahead into the next big adventure in her young life, its also forcing me into the next phase of my life (collective sigh please)…and quite basically that means….

Back to work!

…. with new brain matter that needs to be stimulated and old matter that needs a bit of jigging up.

My organisational skills are also getting honed again…though over the past number of weeks this has meant that by evening when I generally write Digging the Dirt, you would have found me cast on the couch wondering how long can I hold out to bed without being labelled the household bore.

But mainly I have discovered,  work means pain!

My once active, outdoorsy body which could dig, trowel, crouch, shovel, leap, push and bend for hours in all weathers,  has a few new muscular aches and groans.  The old claw hand has not returned but the muscles in my lower back, shoulders and knees are letting me know they are alive and kicking….and have been under used lately.  

So after a few weeks of fieldwork,  I have gone back to basics and thought about the physical movements used in archaeological field work, and how best to use the body and reduce stress on my muscles and joints…plus get lovely neat sections and trenches. 

And this is Part 1 of the crib sheet I am creating:

  1. Shovel throwing — its a flick of the wrist, not an arm swing from the shoulder.  

Bring the loaded shovel or spade up and push out from the body, followed by a short jerk of the wrist when the dirt is at the apex of the movement. While the head of the shovel or spade is held up the dirt is released into the air.  This has 2 positive effects.

      –      The bicept and wrist takes much of the load, rather than the upper back, making it a more efficient swing which can be continued for longer through the day.

      –      The deposition of the dirt is more precise.  As the dirt leaves the shovel it maintains itself as a single mass until it drops neatly on to the spoil heap or into the wheel barrow.  The dirt is not sprayed all over the trench surface.  The further the elbow is extended from the body, the further the dirt will travel after the wrist jerk.

Practise makes perfect and it was a common competition on UK archaeological sites to show who could throw further, with the least spill of dirt, and at the chosen target.  The wheelbarrow, for example, would then be moved further and further away, up to 15 m or so at times. One of my good friends and past adverseries, Phil Harding on tv’s Time Team,  sums it it up rather nicely in this youtube clip I found while researching excavation techniques.  He always did pip me at the post…and does love his shovel, as you you will clearly see.

         2. Trowelling –  take control of the trowel, it is not fragile

The flat edge of the trowel is firmly placed parallel with the ground.  With a small downward movement  the trowel is then brought for a short distance back towards the body, and a slice of dirt can then be flicked off.   

Down, trowel, and flick!  Repeat. 

This is generally a movement in the wrist, with the addition of some broad sweeps of the entire arm.  Trowels should not be dragged through dirt, unless the substrate is sand, then a cutting or slicing action is used. 

This technique creates a clean surface with fresh colours to view, not sprinkled with dirt that has fallen over the trowel edge due to too much dirt being moved at once, or the dragging the dirt over the cleaned layer ‘fuzzying’ up the colours or features.

Trowelling can be painful!  The greater the compaction of the ground, the more downward force you need to put on the trowel, the more it is felt in the wrist.  Muscular pain in the forearm is common, but by using a wrist flicking technique rather than whole arm movements the muscle strain in the upper arm can be minimised.

                  3.  Mattocking – trust the mattock!

Using the forces of gravity, the mattock descends from height with minimal downward force.  As the flat end meets the ground it is ideally at right angles to the ground.  This technique means the mattock should stop when there is a change in resistance in the subsurface strata, primarily due to changes in composition and densities, and therefore define events and cultural layers. 

This theory does not work in sandy sites, and cannot be maximised when the ground is full of stone and rubble

By using a descending pendulum action the body exerts less effort and energy, and is able to find a working rhythm. This technique can be continued for a much longer time than when force is also put into the downward stroke and you actively attack the ground.  There is relief for the body when the mattock head is pushed up to full height and left to fall naturally to the ground for the next strike. 

It is also amazingly accurate, and with experience stops at the next chronological layer in the ground.

This technique also means less pain.  The natural gravity dependant method causes musular pain at the top of the arms, shoulders and upper back.  When the mattock is also forced down into the ground the aches and pains spread into the mid and lower back, plus the buttocks as you absorb the force of the downward strike and impact.

Next time: Hoeing, brushing, section cleaning and crouching, bending and kneeling

0 Responses to “Minimise the Pain! Archaeological field work techniques, Part 1”

  • I so enjoy Time Team – always look out for you 🙂 The Significant Other is currently excavating part of our section, tearing out a lot of concrete & turning it into lawn. Must get him to read this post as it might reduce the moans along the lines of “oooh my pore back!” (NB My spelling is fine; I was trying to emulate Phil’s accent in writing, lol)

    • Spending the last 3 weeks in the field on 4 different sites with different requirements on the body…beach sand prehistory, clays and middens, industrial demolition and tailings, and even dangling by ropes in an ore roasting kiln for a few hours…I was quite surprised at the aches I had the following days. I felt archaic myself…and has forced me to think about some of the actions I took for granted! I feel for your TSO! I am sure a physio/osteopath would have a good take on it all.