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Excavation, Survey, and Lab

What to Expect and what to bring


Each year before field school begins, the locations for areas to be investigated will be established by the Principal Investigator. Survey areas will be defined in the field using topographic maps and aerial photos. During some years, the survey team may employ shovel testing to help identify and define new archeological sites.  Metal detecting may be done in advance of shovel testing to determine areas of high probability for metal artifacts. Depending on the terrain and density of vegetation, survey transects will be established between 10 and 30 m apart. The best shovels to dig test pits with are a spade or a sharpshooter type shovel. The location and density of shovel testing will be determined by the Survey Supervisor. Shovel test units will have their individual GPS coordinates recorded, but they must be mapped into the site grid. Shovel tests should be excavated in 10 cm arbitrary levels to a depth of at least one meter or until bedrock or subsoil is encountered. Shovel test logs will be filled out for each test pit. All excavated soil from the shovel test will be dry screened using shaker screens fitted with ¼-inch mesh. Keep screened soil at least two feet away from unit. Once the soil has been screened, and a profile of natural and cultural horizons has been recorded, the test pit should be backfilled. Note: the shovel test log should describe the depth at which artifacts or features are recorded. The Survey Supervisor will collect all completed shovel test log sheets and artifact bags and the end of each day.      


​For participants who choose to conduct excavation, field work will typically consist of large, open block excavation units.   The Principal Investigator, site supervisors, and crew chiefs will be available throughout the field school to guide and teach participants on excavation techniques and documentation methods.  These individuals will also observe and discuss the exciting archeological discoveries as they develop throughout the week. 

​The size (generally 1x1 m or 2x2 m) and the number of excavation units is usually dependent on the number of FS participants and the type of site. At each site to be excavated, a permanent, arbitrary datum point will be established and set at 100 m. The southwest corner coordinates of each square block within the excavations will be the unit designator.

Prior to excavation of each new unit or level, crews will visit the Area Secretary (or Crew Chief) and receive a blank excavation form and artifact recovery bag. Upon completion of the lot or level, crews will return completed lot forms and field sacks to the secretary. The secretary or Crew Chief will ensure that all information is correct on the form, recovery bag, and any special samples that have been collected (e.g. soil samples). Please note that there are instructions specific to how soil and macrobotanical samples are to be labeled in the Field School Manual.

Usually elevation controls will be maintained using line levels established prior to field school. To maintain accuracy, line level strings should be no more than 3 m long. Stakes should be placed in areas where they will be least likely to be disturbed. Line levels should be checked daily by crew chiefs using a laser level or adjacent line levels to ensure they are providing consistent elevations.

Tools used for the excavation of open blocks may include shovels, trowels, Ingalls-style hand picks, bamboo tool or sticks, and root cutters.  Please see the complete list of recommended tools below.  Soil conditions and the nature and density of artifacts identified will dictate what specific types of excavation techniques should be used. For fragile artifacts, such as bone or mussel shell, bamboo tools or soft brushes should be used. Metal tools can damage bone and leave markings on the surface. Excavations are typically conducted in arbitrary 10 cm vertical levels, and each level will be given a unique designation.

Unless otherwise directed, all excavated matrix from block units will be dry screened using shaker screens fitted with ¼-inch mesh. Soil should be screened at least four feet away from the open unit. Set up screens a sufficient distance from the excavation so that when the backdirt piles begin to grow, they will not intrude upon the 4-ft buffer area. Every attempt should be made to excavate units within a block at a relatively constant rate. However, this may not be practical in all instances. Feature outlines will be mapped as they are encountered and completely exposed.  Crew chiefs and site supervisors will assist with the identification and mapping.  Once identified, the feature matrix should be assigned a unique feature number and a separate feature form should be filled out. Area Supervisors will be responsible for assigning feature numbers and maintaining the Feature Inventory Form.

Mapping: Items to be piece plotted on a plan map will be mapped from southwest corner and the three dimensions provenience plotted on plan map drawn on the back of the form.

Each block excavation area should assign a volunteer to be an Area Secretary. That person will assist Crew Chiefs and Area Supervisors to ensure that all forms are properly and completely filled out, field sacks are tracked and accounted for throughout the day, and that all field sacks and paperwork form completed units are transferred to the lab at the end of each day.

If at all possible, do not begin a new level or unit near the close of a field day. Rather, try and help out others with excavation and screening to complete already open lots before leaving the field. Paperwork and recovery bags associated with the excavations that remain incomplete at the end of the day will be collected by your Crew Chief and delivered to the Area Supervisor, who will retain possession of them until the next field day.


Each year, a small, dedicated lab crew work throughout the week to wash, sort, and inventory artifacts and special samples. Volunteers for the lab will be in a shaded area with tables, bins, and trays set up for washing and sorting.


Members may register as non-participants if they are camping or visiting with other family members who are active participants.  Non-participants are restricted to camp area activities and do not visit or participate in field or lab work. 

Recommended Equipment

Survey Crew

                                  • Lightweight leather hiking or work boots
                                  • Long pants – cotton jeans or khakis
                                  • Lightweight, long-sleeved shirt – 100% cotton recommended
                                  • Hat with brim
                                  • Gloves
                                  • Water bottle
                                  • Shovel or trowel depending on type of survey
                                  • first aid kit with tweezers
                                  • Lightweight Backpack
                                  • Compass with magnetic declination (e.g. Brunton 9020G Classic)
                                  • Watch
                                  • Sunglasses and bandana
                                  • Sunscreen and insect repellant
                                  • Snack
                                  • Wipes or hand gel
                                  • Clipboard and acid-free paper
                                  • Pencils with eraser
                                  • Knife, pocket or utility
                                  • Cord or rope
                                  • Small notebook
                                  • Metric tape measure (e.g. Stanley Power Lock)
                                  • Whistle
                                  • Ruler, inch and metric

Recommended Equipment

Excavation Crew

                                  • Comfortable clothes and closed-toe shoes
                                  • Gloves
                                  • Water cup and bottle
                                  • Knee pads
                                  • Hat
                                  • Sunscreen and insect repellant
                                  • Snacks
                                  • Digging Kit (toolbox or kit for all tools)
                                  • Clipboard, paper, and small notebook
                                  • Pencils and erasers
                                  • Ruler, inch and metric
                                  • Knife, pocket or utility
                                  • Cord or rope and twine
                                  • Metric tape measure -3-meter  (e.g Stanley Power Lock) and optional 30 meter tape
                                  • Whistle
                                  • Shovel, flat square blade, sharpened with bevel on top side, bottom flat and not beveled
                                  • Trowel, pointed 2.5” by 5” blade sharpened on both edges, top beveled, bottom flat (recommended brand Marshalltown)
                                  • Metal file (8”-10” mill bastard)
                                  • Compass with magnetic declination (e.g. Brunton 9020G Classic)
                                  • Bucket
                                  • Dental picks, bamboo splints, and small paintbrushes 1 to 3 inches wide
                                  • Whisk broom and dust pan
                                  • 5-gallon plastic bucket (Home Depot or Lowes)

Recommended Equipment

  • Lab Crew

                                  • Water bottle and cup
                                  • Folding chair
                                  • Sharpie
                                  • Pencil with eraser
                                  • Snacks
                                  • Gloves

Texas Archeological Society

Texas Archeological Society, Department of Anthropology, Texas State University, 601 University Drive, San Marcos, Texas 78666-4616

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