The trowel holds an almost mystical status in archaeology. Old hands saunter onto site with this precious symbol of office sticking out of the back pocket of their jeans, while new diggers wield their shiny new ones with pride. Critics of archaeology can resort to the use of brushes and trowels as metaphor for working slowly, holding up development or whatever agenda they want to pursue.
Archaeologists routinely employ shovels, spades and mattocks to remove overlying layers on a site but the trowel comes into play when more subtle excavation is needed. Thin layers of dirt are scraped into a hand shovel using a short, firm inward scraping motion keeping the wrist rigid. If the ground is dry or rocky this produces a distinctive chink-chink-chink sound that carries some distance and betrays the presence of archaeologists. On damper ground the sound is softer, and in wet gritty soil the noise is a grating, crunchy sound like eating soggy cereal. The most efficient action is for the digger to hold the blade perpendicular to the ground and scrape towards themselves, edging progressively backwards away from the area they have cleaned.
New trowels are sharp enough to open boxes and packets with, or stick into the ground to hold section lines or tapes. I’ve seen them used as screwdrivers, for stirring tea and cutting cake. In an emergency they serve as a scale in a photograph. A trowel becomes the murder weapon in more than one work of fiction, and they can function as offensive weapons, so mine travels in my suitcase lest airport security confiscate it.
A new trowel has a sharp edge handy to work sun-baked soil and also to scrape away mud. Contact with stones and hard ground soon wears the points down. You can tell an old hand as their favourite trowel is worn from its original diamond shape to more of a lozenge. Right-handed trowellers may be betrayed by excessive wear on the left edge, sometimes with the blade ending up as more of a rhomboid shape. Older trowels become a more subtle digging tool, less likely to damage a surface and the shorter length makes it handier to use.
Most experienced diggers work with both hands, helping both to equalise the wear on the trowel and distribute the work to both arms. It is common to develop a blister on the index finger and to scuff the knuckles one by one. Scabbed knuckles come as souvenirs of a dig – a fact Jeffrey Flint cites in his defence against murder in Byron’s Shadow. Prolonged use of a wooden-handled trowel is also hard on the palm of the hand, so blisters are common at the start of digs until we become battle-hardened.
When I first started in archaeology, we were advised to obtain a standard 4-inch pointing trowel as used by bricklayers and available from hardware stores. Critically it was to have a cast blade, not riveted. As a fresh student I headed off to Tours in France, equipped with a 4.5 inch trowel from my dad’s garage. Its blade was of sheet metal cut to diamond shape and riveted onto the handle. The thin blade was great for scraping the mud in the Roman ditch I was assigned to, but only a few days into starting work higher up the ditch slope the blade broke. I’d tried to prise out a small stone in the layer I was clearing and the metal snapped. The ‘small stone’ turned out to be the corner of a masonry block a foot square. Urgently I wrote to my mother asking her to buy a four inch pointing trowel with cast blade (and a new pair of shorts too please, because mine had split and I was wearing cut-down jeans lent by a young American lady). The trowel duly arrived in a box, wrapped in a pair of shorts. In the meantime I’d had to resort to using French trowels which were long, thin affairs with the flexibility of palette knives.
The modern student can now buy a specially designed ‘archaeology trowel’ with tempered carbon steel blade. Not only is it manufactured to the right level of robustness, it comes with a cushioned handle to protect the palms – sheer luxury compared to the old days. A welcome touch is a rubber knuckle protector on the back of the tang, helping stave off those blisters on the forefinger.
A wise digger writes their name on the handle – trowel rustling is not unknown. We become comfortable with our own trusty blade, reluctant to lend it in case it gets broken by an attempt to prize up a stone or lost amongst the spoil in a wheelbarrow. Site etiquette demands that one should ask before using someone else’s trowel.
In the 1980s the motto ‘I know where my towel is’ was coined by Douglas Adams in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and indicated a veteran hitchhiker. Of course this became adapted onto student archaeologists’ t-shirts as ‘I know where my trowel is’. Mine is wrapped in my socks, buried in my suitcase and is bound for this year’s excavation in Alderney.
You can discover more about the dig on Longis Common by following the Dig Alderney Facebook page, or Twitter @DigAlderney. I will be joining the ‘Old Bones’ panel at Shetland Noir on 18 June 2023 to discuss archaeology in fiction.