Minimise the Pain! Archaeological field work techniques, Part 2

By Brigid Gallagher 17/02/2012

In Part 2 of my crib sheet to help the aches and pains of archaeological fieldwork…         

          3.  Hoeing – it is all in the abs!

Forget the gym, this is the ultimate abdominal work out.  Whilst hoeing looks as though it is another shoulder and arm action, to get effective hoeing in anything other than sand, its the abs that need to take the brunt of it.  At the end of a good session of hoeing your arms should be aching from your triceps down to the wrist, and the stomach muscles even worse. 

The hoe edge should be parallel with the ground, then with a small forceful down ward pressure drag back…clenching the stomach  muscles and triceps to keep the hoe from bouncing up again.  It may only mean a few mm’s are scraped away but the effect should be a clean surface over a larger area very soon. 

Working in lines across the site the waist will also be worked… the more the front stomach muscles hurt, the more you turn sideways onto the hoe to use the waist muscles.  The only minimiser of pain that comes to mind is to spread the feet one in front of the other with the front thigh absorbing some of the pressure being exerted. 

So the conclusion is there is no way to minimise the pain, enjoy it, and know that there will be rewards when you next try on clothes that are slightly too small!  And if you do it enough, one day there will be no pain, and a well cleaned trenched in a short time…ready for an archaeologist with a fab body to investigate the features and produce great photos.

         4.  Brushing – Flick, flick, flick.  Tap, tap, tap…its in the wrist.  

There is nothing worse than looking at an area or structure that has been brushed clean and the features or details are not visible, the colours are dull and there are specks of dirt, mortar, sand etc across it.  For 1. it is a waste of any pain felt, and 2. you just have to do it again.  Double the pain!

Essential during cleaning of many structures and hard surfaces so many people use the whole arm to brush the dirt, moving from the elbow, rotating the shoulder socket.  This action involves the movement of the whole arm causing more strain on the upper back and shoulder than a flick or tap technique.  Dragging the brush along the surface of any archaeology churns up new surface dirt, or redeposits it from another part of the brush. 

To really clean a surface, structure or a vertical section firmly place the bristles (or slap the bristles) on the surface being cleaned, rotate the wrist 90 degrees and flick the wrist up taking the loose dirt with it.  The more you get sprayed with the dirt being removed, the better your technique.  

Flick, flick, flick the horizontal surfaces, and tap, tap, tap the vertical sections or walls…this technique loosens and dislodges the offending dirt and specks and helps them fall to the ground…keeping the colours fresh and the details visible. 

Using the wrist to brush instead of dragging the arm means alot less muscle action and usually means you only have to brush the area once, not go back for dirt that has been reapplied or missed.

But remember on a vertical section to start brushing at the top!  Move the dirt down the surface to the base…once, not over and over again. 

           5.  Cleaning the section – Verticality is the ultimate goal 

Mantra: Not everybody is good at cleaning a section or baulk.  Hands up… I am one of them.  But with practise I should get better. 

Cleaning a vertical section has so many benefits that it is worth going through the physical rigour, and mental pain!  

                              a.  reading the stratigraphy is so much easier

                             b.  dimensions are accurate

                             c.  section photos are so much better, as the lens has the ability to exaggerate any poor excavation.

                             d.  the site looks clean, and if you ever need to go back to an area to check your layers, contexts, profiles or strata it does not generally have to be cleaned up again….except in sand, gravel or other loosely compacted or fine grained sites.

The technique: attack with the cutting edge of a small spade in a diagonal direction from the top of the section, whether there is archaeology at that level or not.  It will all be studied and recorded. Follow up with short jabbing movements with the pointed end of the trowel down the section or continue diagonally.  Finish with the straight edge of the trowel across the face of the vertical section to clean and define if the substrate allows it.

Clean, short, sharp movements with the back side of the spade parallel with the side of the trench will save time and get to the essence of a section – it has to be vertical.  Not bowed, wiggly, wider at the top, sloping to the base…vertical.  The eaiest way to avoid this is to look at the section face diagonally from the top.  Close one eye if need be.  Its very easy to produce a section that slopes in at the base if you are always looking straight on at it.

This is not always comfortable working; the muscles between the shoulder blades generally hurt, but there is some satisfaction in the initial attack at the top edge. The wrist and forearm take the main brunt of section cleaning when working with the pointed end of the trowel to clean around stones and artefacts protruding from the face, and your knuckles can get ripped and bloody.

Changing hands and shaking out the fingers is the best remedy (with some well positioned band aids).  This is one of the main causes of claw hand because of the tension of the muscles between the hand-wrist-forearm, and and a regular change in movement (hence the shake out) is important.  If you have shaky hands at the end of the day…more micro pauses are required.

          6.  Crouching, bending, kneeling – do what is comfortable, but always bend through the knees.

Its an age old story, but bending with your knees is a real saviour in archaeological fieldwork, especially in the long term. 

The other is to watch and learn from cultures that squat.  The skills of squatting are the same as crouching; mastering this means long hours of comfortable archaeology.  The body gets itself into a comfortable position with minimal inpact on the joints and muscles.  It takes practise, but on site squatting competitions can improve skills.  In British archaeology it is a sin to sit while excavating, and kneeling is only just tolerated by some…crouching and squatting is an essential skill. 

Long hours of crouching can lead to stiffness when unfurling the body again, and the top of the back across the shoulders can ache.  Aching shoulders can be helped by releasing the trowel or tool in use and letting your arms go soft on the ground beside or in front while remaining in the crouch position. Gently moving the head from side to side can also help.

Sometimes you just have to kneel.  Aching thighs and calves can be relieved and the tension across shoulders is relieved.  This is best on the knees in sand and other soft soils…but whatever the surface being kneeled on, in time you will get knee callouses if you do not have a kneeling mat.  Kneeling mats are sometimes seem as the soft option, but why have callouses if you don’t have too?

          7.  Conclusions?  I am getting older, my body is getting older…its time to take care of it.  But mostly my mantra regarding archaeological fieldwork is….


At the end of a day, soak in the bath or stand in a hot shower.  Let the water run over you from head to toe….and at the end of an excavation…massages and facials are definitely required.

And do not leap into trenches.  My physio will be able to best say why.