ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 43, April 1999


Only one way to scratch up the dirt

Paul Stamper praises the archaeologist's favourite tool - a nice, battered old trowel

When, as a schoolboy in the late 1960s, I went on my first dig, it was explained to me that a prerequisite was a 4in mason's pointing trowel. Specifically, it had to be a WHS (William Hunt & Sons) trowel.

My father was incredulous at such a specific recommendation for a bit of scratching around in the dirt, and even more horrified by the price, which I think was 17s 6d. Probably only my first pair of Levis produced an equal reaction.

The fact is that archaeologists are extremely precious about trowels - and fiercely protective of their own. You generally won't let anyone else use your trowel. I have seen serious grown-up archaeologists descend to payground spats - `That's my trowel!' `No, it's not.' `Give it back!' - when their trowels get unfortunately muddled up on excavations.

The reason for this is that trowels change with use, each in an individual way according to the way its owner has used it. New trowels are very unlovely things, all sharp and springy. The point is dangerous and it sticks in you. Then they get moulded down to a nice asymmetrical rounded tablespoon-sized thing. Eventually they look like teaspoons. They're pretty useless at that stage but few archaeologists ever chuck the things away.

There is actually an inverse snobbery about trowels - the more battered and misshapen they are, the better. For an experienced digger, it is extremely embarrassing to be seen with a bright and shiny new WHS, because people who don't know you will think you're a tenderfoot. Come to think of it, I have seen a few students grind down their brand new trowels to make them look old. That's a very non-U thing to do. It's cheating.

Anyway, it was while chatting at the British Archaeological Awards to Drew Geldart from Spear & Jackson, who now make WHS tools, that I realised how little I knew about either the tool itself, or its association with British archaeology. Geldart was able to tell me about the origins of William Hunt & Sons, whose steel works was set up in Sheffield in 1782. But when did the WHS become the industry standard? When, indeed, did the trowel itself become the archaeologist's main hand tool?

I went for help to the veteran diggers Philip Rahtz and John Hurst, and both were adamant that the trowel was firmly established by the immediate post-war years, although at that stage WHS had yet to achieve market domination. One rival brand, for instance, was Bowden, which Rahtz remembers as being thinner and springier than the WHS.

These recollection are confirmed, and the trail taken chronologically back a little, by Richard Atkinson's Field Archaeology of 1946 where he is unequivocal that the trowel is the best small tool for an excavator, and recommends a 5in blade.

What, then, of Mortimer Wheeler earlier in the century? Plate 81 of his Maiden Castle, taken in the late 1930s, clearly shows a trowel point being used by a supervisory type of figure to indicate a feature of interest. And there, as frontispiece of his Still Digging, that wonderful yarn of derring-do (and how to direct an excavation from horseback), is a picture of the great man at Verulamium in 1930 examining a mosaic. At his side is a mason's trowel, probably nearer 6in than five.

The earliest documented use of the trowel in British archaeology yet discovered - at least by me - is at the Glastonbury lake village, where a photograph taken in 1906 clearly shows its use (see J Coles et al, Arthur Bulleid and the Glastonbury Lake Village 1892-1992, plate 16). Arthur Bulleid's fellow worker there was Harold St George Gray, previously assistant to General Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900).

Which, of course, raises the question, what of the General himself? Was the trowel used on Cranbourne Chase? All I can say is that in the published team photograph of his workers on the Iwerne villa in 1897 (M Bowden, Pitt-Rivers (1991), plate 44), where - as in a Victorian household picture - each team-member grasps the tool which marks his calling, there are picks, shovels, buckets and nail brushes, but there's not a trowel to be seen.

A trivial by-way this may be, but it does seem ironic that the history of the British archaeologist's main tool should be lost in the proverbial mists. In America things are rather different, and their Marshalltown trowel (which takes its name from the Iowan town of manufacture) has been accorded iconic status by the archaeologist Kent Flannery in his article The Golden Marshalltown, published in American Athropology in 1982.

Dr Paul Stamper lost his first trowel when a schoolboy friend used it as a throwing knife. It was never seen again. He has had his present WHS trowel for 15 years.

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