maandag 4 februari 2013

Mine`s Better than Yours - Archaeologists and their Trowels


Archaeologists are funny people. Not only do they treat very old bits of metal and earthenware with an almost zealous reverence, they are also very stingy about and proud of the few bits of modern metal they use to poke in the sand. I am of course talking of the trusty trowel. It`s the archaeologist`s best and closest friend while in the field. Most will have a preferred brand of trowel and display pride so fierce that many Apple- and Samsung-fans could learn a thing or two from them.

First, for those savage uninformed heathens that don`t know what a trowel is: it is essentially a shaped slab of metal fitted with a handle that is used in construction for applying mortar to bricks. The archaeological trowel is usually smaller and measure between 10 and 15 centimeters (that between 4 and 6 inches for those of you who still think that body parts confer accurate measurements).The designs are generally more tapered to make them suitable for fine archaeological work. It is the single most basic tool in archaeology as it can both move relatively large amounts of dirt as well as scrape around the finds that have been wedged in the soil without risking the sort of damage that can be caused by a pickaxe.

There are two big names in the field of trowel production (hence the Apple-Samsung reference): Marshalltown and WHS. Both have their varying qualities and specialties that appeal to the fan base. Marshalltown is an American brand that has been producing hand tools since the 1890`s. The company`s signature trowel is the Philadelphia style, known for its “arrowhead” shape and relative flexibility granted by the thinner steel. This makes them a bit more forgiving but also (according to some) less durable. The company also produces a diamond-shape trowel of thicker steel, known as the London style. There is a reason for this name. 

The Marshalltown doing what it does best
WHS is its British counterpart. The name WHS refers to the beginnings of the company, William Hunt and Sons of Brades Steel Works, which started in 1793. Through the centuries, several larger companies have bought the brand name, yet it has always remained in existence. One possible reason for this might be the “nom-de-guerre” explanation that many construction workers have for the acronym WHS: Work Hard or Starve. The company`s headquarters are in Sheffield.
The staple archaeological trowel of WHS features a thick diamond shaped blade that is very durable yet unforgiving. It will not bend around objects, but neither will you risk a “spring-launch” effect. Opponents of this type of blade criticize it for its inability to flex well, rendering it more brittle than certain other models. The Marshalltown London style effectively a copy of this type of model, yet the type will always be seen as a British thing (hence the strategic name London style). 

As mentioned earlier, opinions on which type of trowel is preferable tend to be the strongly held ones. Those who swear by Marshalltown will not concede easily to working with WHS` and many people who own said British trowel have no respect for the “floppy colonial scraper”. But the adoration for the trowels cherished by their owners goes beyond a mere mine-is-better-than-yours discussion. Many archaeologists have very dear memories attached to their trowels. For some interesting ones, I suggest the following page. 
The WHS in its natural habitat

Personally, I`m partial to the WHS – although I`m not beyond using the Marshalltown if the choice comes between that and a builder`s trowel. In the two years that I`ve been on excavation in Horvat Kur, I`ve gone through two trowels. My first one served me well all season long and on the advice of my parents was stored in the tool shed. When the time came for me to collect it, the shed was so full of second-hand vacuum cleaners and radios that I could no longer find it. A second one was ordered and again it went with me to Israel. There, it scraped everything from topsoil to the finest dust, opened beer bottles during the evenings and was even involved in uncovering our most extraordinary find to date. Unfortunately it was lost the very last days of the excavation and is now probably spending its days at the bottom of a tool crate in a container somewhere on the shore of the lake of Galilee. 

Although sometimes a trowel just won`t do...

Despite the fact that this season my tasks will mostly focus on taking photographs for the Kinneret Regional Project, I will order a new one. The WHS is short, stubby and not always the sharpest tool in the shed, just like me. Therefore I cannot bring myself to pack all my stuff and consider myself ready for another season without the comforting knowledge that inside my suitcase, there is a trusty trowel to dig out pottery shards and beer bottle caps in equal measure. It is simply the way things should be.

Signing off,

The Lost Dutchman

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