Archaeological Sifting Tools

A tripod sifting box at a Colonial dig.

Archeology is the study of human society. It is the recovery and analysis of cultural material and data left behind from various civilizations. The field of study is similar to finding the pieces of a puzzle and figuring out how they fit together to create the bigger picture. Originating in 15th-century Europe, archaeology began with the collecting of large art objects and historical artifacts from Greece and Rome. The systematic study of archaeology began in the 18th century. Many developments and improvements to field tools and methods occurred during this time. The archaeological community and museums began to set standards and rules for excavations of sites. One of the standard tools developed during this time is the sifting screen or sieve.

1 Sieve History

The sieve or sifter is a wire mesh screen used to strain or separate small pieces or artifacts from loose soil. Prior to the 19 century, screening was not widely practiced. Screens were mostly coarse-mesh screens used to recover coins and beads. Today, archeologists use several grades of mesh screen to sift through the loose soil at a dig. By using a sifter, the archeologist will find the smaller pieces of broken artifacts that otherwise might be missed.

2 Personal Sieves

Many archaeologists prefer to design or create their own shifters, believing that different environments and situations require different methods and screen sizes for sifting debris. For sites that are hard to get to, archaeologists designed a screen that could attach to a backpack.

3 Multiple Screens

In many cases small flecks of bone and broken pottery are hard to find except through a double shifting process. The shifter is built with two sizes of screens. The screens are stacked with the larger screen mesh on top. As the dirt passes thorough the ¼-inch mesh, it is finally shaken through a 1/8-inch mesh screen.

4 Tripod and Rocker Screens

Larger screens hang from a tripod to make shifting of material easier by one person. Many times, the tripod is erected from poles found on-site. Rocking sifters are designed primarily for two people to use. As one person shovels dirt onto the screen, a second person shakes the screen. A single person, if necessary, can also use rocker screens.

5 Flotation Screening

A special type of screening called "flotation" excavates dirt from a large drum of water. The artifact material floats to the top as the water is poured off through fine-mesh screens. Flotation is effective for recovering remains of plants and seeds that are used to define what the people of the area hunted, grew or gathered to eat.

Kimberley Riccio has been writing professionally since 1978. She writes travel articles for various e-magazines and other online publications. Riccio holds a Bachelor of Science in business management from Wilmington University, culinary certification from Le Cordon Blu and a Master of Science in cultural sociology from the Defense Graduate Institute.