ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 45, June 1999



From Mr Blaise Vyner

Sir: Paul Stamper traces the documented use of the mason's trowel for archaeological excavation as far back as General Pitt Rivers (`Only one way to scratch up the dirt', April).

Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington, two much under-rated field-workers, allow us to add a full century to that ancestry. The men directed a considerable amount of barrow opening and other excavation in Wiltshire between 1803 and 1810 (Cunnington actually started earlier).

Two excellent biographies (RH Cunnington's From Antiquary to Archaeologist, and K Woodbridge's Landscape and Antiquity) quote a number of letters which suggest that there is much to be learnt of their field techniques. From the excerpts published we learn that the pickaxe and spade were much favoured; however, Colt Hoare and Cunnington also used a mason's trowel and Colt Hoare even had an excavation tool especially manufactured.

Long after the barrow digging was finished, in 1829, Colt Hoare published a summary account in a volume entitled Tumuli Wiltunensis. To quote from the section `Mode of Opening Barrows':

On arriving at the cist, particular care must be taken in digging, especially if the rim of an urn appears above the surface; in that case you must proceed very slowly and carefully around the edge of the cist, so as to leave the urn so detached, as to be able to remove it entire; at first we made use of a mason's trowel for that purpose, but afterwards found that a knife with a very strong blade was more effectual, and had some specially made at Salisbury for that purpose.

Yours in antiquarianism,
8 April

From Prof Vincent Megaw

Sir: Paul Stamper's splendid eulogy for the mason's trowel sent me searching for a copy of my teacher Richard Atkinson's Field Archaeology. This does indeed recommend a `5-inch pointing trowel', as Stamper writes, but it goes on to advise that:

A more comfortable and durable trowel can be made by cutting down the blade of an l0-inch bricklayer's trowel (annealing it first and retempering it afterwards) and fixing it in the wooden handle of a gardener's trowel. The latter has a rounded end which is less apt to blister the palm of the hand than the pattern usually found on a pointing-trowel.

This is vintage Atkinson, a practically-minded man whose experiences in the Auxiliary Fire Services in WWII caused him to design a lightweight adjustable photographic tower and whose main mode of transport in the 50s was a Rolls-Royce restored to its original glory from a previous life as a hearse. He had its bonnet emblem replaced with a replica of the Megaw and Hardy Type 3 decorated bronze axe found near Stonehenge. He also made for his own trowel a leather holster.

Atkinson was also forever advising us students to mark our own trowels: `Every tool should be branded ... to discourage theft'. My own WHS cutdown (from 7-inch to 5-inch) trowel, which is about 40 years old, has a barely discernable `V'.

Yours sincerely,
Flinders University, Adelaide
27 April

From Mr Richard Bailey

Sir: In his essay in praise of the WHS trowel Paul Stamper refers to Sir Mortimer Wheeler photographed with a trowel at his side. There is more than photographic evidence, however, for his view on trowels.

In Archaeology from the Earth he has a chapter on tools where he includes, amongst the equipment of the directing staff, `Broad-bladed knives (blade about 7 inches long) and/or pointed masons' trowels'. He goes on to say:

The knife or trowel should accompany the supervisor everywhere, as an indispensible and inseparable instrument. Indeed, it is almost a badge of rank; without it, the supervisor can scarcely begin upon his task. Its uses in the detailed examination of a section are almost infinite. It is used, for example, for cleaning and checking difficult sections, and for testing by pressure, `feel', or sound, subtle differences in the soil. It is essential in the final preparation of almost every subject for photography. It is a useful marker in survey. It has a hundred uses and should be a treasured personal possession.

Knives or trowels are also included amongst the labourers' equipment, but without commentary.

When my wife went to buy my first trowel at a well-known hardware shop in York and asked for a 4-inch WHS pointing trowel, the immediate response was `Archaeologist?'.

Yours sincerely,
20 April


From Mr Mike Pitts

Sir: Andrew Sewell raises an interesting point when he suggests that the `handaxes' at Boxgrove should be called something other than axes (Letters, April).

There are two items from modern times that may be analogous to `handaxes', both known in English as `knives'. These are the thin, flat, ground stone implements with a sharp edge almost all the way round, common in the Shetlands, and which John Evans in the 19th century guessed might have been used for removing whale blubber; and Inuit flensing knives. The latter, made of iron, had a crescent-shaped blade with a narrow exposed tang from the inner edge fitted into a wooden handle. They were used with great dexterity with a fast rocking motion, and like flint `handaxes', could be extremely sharp.

So maybe Sewell is right in suggesting that `handaxes' be called `knives'. It's certainly better than `axe'. On the other hand, the beauty of `handaxe' is that it has been in use so long that its original meaning is now all but forgotten. While the handaxes at Boxgrove were clearly used for butchery, that is not to say that all handaxes were so used. Perhaps it's better to stick with what has become in effect a functionally meaningless term.

Yours sincerely,
9 April


From: Ms Valerie Fenwick and Ms Alison Gale

Sir: It was a pity that your review of our book, Historic Shipwrecks (`Getting it all wrong about shipwrecks,' April) was given a misleading title at variance with its contents. The reviewer wrote: `They do make some reasonable points . . . The authors rightly point out that . ..' So all is not wrong.

The reality is that Historic Shipwrecks is the first book to assemble facts on designated wreck-sites and place them within a narrative for the general reader. It has been welcomed by many.

Yours sincerely,
Netley Abbey, Hampshire
15 April

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