Sifting, Sieving, Screening

“A good archaeologist can use anything, right?” – Roddy Regan

I received an email from “focus design” the other day, containing an advertisement for 21st Century Sifting Screens.  For the lucky readers who haven’t spent a few 100+ degree days mashing dried clay through 1/8th inch mesh, archaeologists generally push the dirt that they dig up through a screen, just to be sure that they haven’t missed any artifacts.  The amount of dirt that gets pushed through the screen and the size of the screen is determined by your research goals.  This work is done by a range of people, sometimes hired workmen (in the case of Catal), sometimes undergraduates, and sometimes, yourself.  I generally don’t mind screening (or sieving or sifting, depending on where you’re located geographically) if it is my own dirt–that is, dirt that I’ve excavated–but screening the dirt of other archaeologists is pretty tedious.  I’m sure that means something about my personality.

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Anyway, so the brochure shows features this fancy new screen made out of plastic.  It looks like a modified historic/California screen, which is a horrible contraption made out of wood.  I first encountered these things on the Cheney House dig, and have been just disgusted with the whole concept since.

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Basically, these things are built with one “leg” and a brace.  This makes them horribly unwieldy if you’re working by yourself, trying to heft 5 gallon buckets (that’s 19L for the metric folks) and pouring out the contents while balancing these damned things plus an artifact bag/bucket/whatever very often results in a lot of spilled dirt and cursing.  They’re not very well built either, and I’ve had to hammer them back together with the blunt end of a shovel more than once.  When you mention these points to any California or Historical archaeologist, they look at you like you have two heads.  That’s what they use and anything else is just weird.

Tripod screen, as seen in the foreground of this photo.
Tripod screen, as seen in the foreground of this photo.

Y’see, I was trained to use tripod screens.  These come in a lot of flavors, but I do recall hauling the heavy bastards out into the middle of the desert, along with a shovel and a bucket and all my paperwork and bags, setting up shop, digging, screening, then breaking down and moving to the next test pit.  They were made with three long metal poles, a big wood-walled screen, and a long length of chain that you used to hook each of the four corners of the screen.  Sure, sometimes the things collapsed, and as previously mentioned, they were heavy as sin, but once the thing was set up it was easy to dump buckets into it and you could walk away from a half-finished screen if something came up.  With the other screens, you were stuck unless you dumped the whole unfinished lot, which is, you see, completely unscientific.

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These are the screens that they use at Catal.  The umbrella is a nice touch, though I’m still undecided about the looped rope design holding the screen up vs. chains.  The looped rope restricts the movement of the screen–it’s harder to shake–and the screens are a lot smaller, so you can’t really dump a whole lot into them at once.  Still, anything is better than the stupid historic screens.

So, this 21st century design intrigues me.  I can’t help but look at the PVC and see it breaking after cooking for a few days in the Texas sun.  I also like the professional screener depicted in the brochure–clean clothes, garden gloves, and a silly floppy hat.  It’s like the undergraduates who come to the field with gardening trowels and safari clothes.  Cute, but a little useless.

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I’m probably what qualifies as a tool nerd in archaeology.  Yes, as Roddy says, a good archaeologist can use anything, and believe me, I have.  Indeed, I’ll try just about anything…so if a 21st century screen comes my way, you know I’ll be fair and diligent in my review.  Hint hint.