Tools OF THE Trade

- An Archaeology Game -

trowel, magnetometer, glue, screen

Hi! I'm David Hurst Thomas and I'm an archaeologist. I went to St. Catherine Island in Georgia in search of a lost Spanish mission.

Hundreds of years ago, the Spanish built sites called missions for the Native Americans who lived in North America. Missionaries came to spread Christianity and to offer food and aid. Today, many of these missions are archaeological sites. They provide clues about how Europeans and Native Americans interacted with one another.

Like many kids in California, I visited these mission sites. When I grew up, I found out there were even more missions in the southeastern U.S. But no one seemed to know much about them.

The last account of the mission on St. Catherines Island was in 1687. How do you find a place that's been lost for over 300 years?

aerial view of small island

St. Catherines Island is located off the coast of Georgia.

Like all scientists, archaeologists have a special set of tools that help us do our work. Some tools like trowels , magnetometers , and total stations, are used in the field, where we excavate sites in search of clues. Tools like microscopes are used in the lab, where we examine what we find. Experts and local people are also valuable sources of information.

It took lots of tools (and many years), but my team discovered the lost mission. Want to hear how we did it?

Cartoon headshot of David Hurst Thomas in a cowboy hat

Play this game to see how we discovered the lost mission on St. Catherines Island. In each box of the comic strip, pick the tool that helped us solve the problem. 

Learn about each tool by clicking on it.



magnifies objects to reveal features too small to see with the naked eye



scrapes soil with a flat, pointed blade



bonds pieces of artifacts together without damaging them

total station

total station

measures the exact position of objects with a laser



experts and local people help explain findings

sifter screen

sifter screen

captures small objects hidden in the soil



finds underground objects by picking up magnetic differences

Great job! When you find something like a lost Spanish mission on St. Catherine Island, you discover a piece of history. Remember, it's not what you find, it's what you find out!


THE PROBLEM: All we knew from the old maps was that there was a mission somewhere on the island, but we had no idea where. We spent three years surveying the 14,000-acre island. We narrowed down our search to an area the size of 25 football fields, still a huge area covered in dense forest. 

What tool helped us find what's underground and gave us clues about where to excavate?

THE PROBLEM: After we found the church, we made a map of the site and decided where to dig. We divided the site into 1-by-1-meter grids. As we dug, we found lots of artifacts. But an artifact by itself only tells us part of the story We needed to know where it came from to understand how it was used. 

What tool did we use to record the position and depth of each object?

THE PROBLEM: Excavation is serious business. Every time we dig, we're destroying part of the site. I only get one chance to dig each spot, and it's my responsibility as an archaeologist to disturb the ground as little as possible. I also have to be careful not to damage delicate artifacts. 

What tool helped me dig carefully without destroying evidence?

THE PROBLEM: Most of the time we can identify the artifacts we find. But some leave us stumped. One day while digging at the place where priests lived, we found a copper-lined basin in the shape of a pear. No one on our team knew what it was, so we preserved it in place and protected it for the future. 

What would have helped us identify this artifact?

THE PROBLEM: We found all kinds of artifacts, including thousands of delicate beads buried deep in the dirt. We had to analyze each one to determine when they were made, where they were made, and what material they were made of. We knew this information could tell us a lot about the people who lived at the mission. 

Which tool helped us closely examine the beads?

THE PROBLEM: Digging in the mission's kitchen, we found many ceramic pottery pieces.We recorded where each piece was found and gave it a number. Later, this information would tell us many things, like how the vessel broke. We can also learn a lot about how the pottery was used by looking at the vessel as a whole. 

What tool helped us put the pieces together without damaging them?

people walking with a magnetometer in the forest

We used a magnetometer to figure out where to excavate.

Start here

people using a total station on a site

We used a total station to map the location of artifacts.

click here

person scaping the soil with a trowel

A trowel helped us carefully scrape soil from fragile objects.

click here

scientist and a local priest

A local priest helped us identify what a copper basin was used for.

click here

scientist using a microscope in a lab

Using a microscope we could see what the beads were made of.

click here

broken artifact and glue

We used glue to put the pieces of a vessel together without damaging it. 

click here

drag correct tool here

Image Credits:

All photos: courtesy of AMNH, David Hurst Thomas, and Lori Pendleton; Illustrations: Eric Hamilton