Archaeologists’ work in focus: Understanding and transferring ancient technology to future generations


When you picture an archaeologist excavating ancient remains, it seems like such a romantic job, but, in actual fact, the work carried out on site involves steady, detailed tasks, repeated over and over again. That’s because the archaeologists don’t want to miss a single piece of precious information that those ruins might provide us, but to record them accurately, and also because they recognize it is the value of those cultural heritage that ensures their protection. The same thing can be said of every fragment of broken pottery, so, this time, we talk to an archaeologist about the drawing process of these pieces of ancient history.


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  • Surveying instruments

  • Vernier calipers

  • Ruler

  • A wooden profile gauge to measure the shape of the artifact (conformateur)

  • A color chart to match the color of the earth

What's your faborite tool?

Kume-san likes the wooden profile gauge, called "mako". He bought it when he was a student and has been using it for over 20 years. It was an expensive purchase for a student. After repeated use, it molds easily to his hand, and grows easier to use all the time. The bamboo arc was apparently invented in Japan. The tool itself was undoubtedly designed to ensure it didn’t damage the precious articles it was measuring.


We measure and record the precise location where the piece of pottery was unearthed.

Once something is discovered, the first priority is to create record upon record upon record of every minute detail! First, we use a measuring device to measure exactly where the piece was taken out of the ground and record it on a ground plan of the site. Onsite, we call this “dropping the location.”

We wash the pottery in water and then dry it.

We then wash the pottery in water and dry it in order to check the surface, condition, color and form of the pottery once the soil is cleaned away. This process of numbering each item is called “registration.”

Covert question 1

What attracted you to excavation work?

I was interested in Mesopotamia. As the birthplace of civilization, it will always hold a strong attraction for me, and I will never tire of it. In excavation as well, the amount and type of precious artifacts we uncover is overwhelming.

We record the piece of pottery.

The next stage is to record the pottery from various different angles on paper. First, we observe fragments and calculate exact angles. We take photos of any distinctive pottery, but, most of the time, we create line drawings.

Covert question 2

What sort of people are best suited to excavation work?

Patient people with the perseverance to complete silent, simple tasks, as it takes steady work. International survey groups tend to divide tasks, but many Japanese archaeologists are able to do everything from item measurement to chart creation.

We also need a cross-section view.

First, we trace the actual piece of pottery. To record a cross-section, we measure the thickness of the pottery using vernier calipers. We feel the pottery to pick up several points where the thickness changes. We usually discover a large amount of clay pots and fragments at any one time, so speed is of the essence. With experience, you come to know instinctively where you need to measure.

Covert question 3

Do you like this kind of task?

Well, if I’m being honest, I don’t like it... If I had an assistant, I would get him/her to do it. But doing this over and over again probably does help build knowledge and experience. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is better to get someone else to do these simple tasks.

We transcribe the shape of the piece using the profile gauge and other tools.

We measure three-dimensional forms with this profile gauge. You use it to gauge the shape of the piece. I think the bamboo conformateur was designed in Japan. If you used a metal object, it could damage the item, but this is a gentler way of handling precious artifacts. We are extra careful when measuring the parts that are vital to ascertaining an artifact’s specific archaeological age.

Covert question 4

Don’t you take photos and 3D scans?

We do get asked sometimes why we don’t take a 3D scan instead of drawing the lines by hand, but, surprisingly, it can be better to draw the pertinent records by hand, so that you can clearly see the distinguishing features. For the same reason, it is better to select and record certain information rather than take photos of everything, so that the material can be more useful as reference data.

We create supplementary notes on color and other special features.

We record the color of the pottery. This is the color chart we use to gauge the color of the earth. Owing to its age, there may be many different colors on the inside and outside of any one piece of pottery, so we record them all by writing for instance, this section is a dark yellow, and this section is light yellow in color.

A real surprise

Is this not too analog?

Yes, this certainly is an analog method. Recently, some people have taken records by sending a drone up into the sky to do some photographic surveying, but, at the moment, it is more accurate to measure each piece at a time with the measuring instruments. Having said that, I don’t think it will be long before we are using artificial intelligence and drones more actively. To date, humans have decided roughly where ancient ruins are likely to be located by intuitively judging topographical features and the lay of the land, but one day soon it could be possible to sense those sites automatically.

We scan and digitalize the drawing for inclusion into a complete report.

Finally, we scan our handwritten records, and use pen or drawing software for tracing in order to compile a full report like this one. Anyone can understand the excavation conditions and any information about the pottery just by looking at this information. We collect and share this kind of information to help promote the development of archaeological research.

An interesting sidebar

Mistook for a huge discovery!

It was when we were excavating in the Kyrgyz Republic. We found a fragment of clayware in a 13,000 year-old land stratum. If it really was a 13,000 year-old find, it would have been the oldest piece of clayware in Central Asia. I spent the return flight thinking of a title for my article. However, when we got back and analyzed the piece scientifically, we discovered it was actually only about 3,500 years old. I was really disappointed. Oh well, I guess those sorts of things happen all the time, and that, in part, intrigues me.

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