Requiem for a trowel
When the end came, it came quickly, the only warning a slight oddity in the pushback as I worked my trowel under a rock in my flower bed. I was trying to flip what seemed like a small stone, my trusty Marshalltown 4.5-inch pointing trowel in my right hand and a fresh viola in my left, ready to pack into the hole. Then a dull snap that signaled the end of a wonderful relationship.
A trowel is the go-to tool of archaeologists everywhere, as well as a universally recognized symbol of the profession. It’s been likened to a Swiss Army knife, and there’s a simple reason for that: this one tool can do an amazing variety of excavation jobs with only slight changes in your motion. Handle it one way, and you can move a surprising amount of dirt. Handle it another, and you can shave off darn near individual grains. You can scrape the floor of an excavation unit flat, make trench walls nearly vertical, and cut pretty close to 90-degree corners.
After enough use, the trowel comes to fit your excavation style – or more accurately, it becomes accustomed to your excavation style through use-wear. If you look back at the photo, you’ll notice a couple of things about mine. First of all, you might be able to tell that the corner of the blade toward the top of the photo is much more rounded and worn in the direction of the “back” of the blade. That’s because I’m right-handed, and I tend to trowel toward my body, with that side of the blade acting as the leading edge. Second, you might notice that the metal where the handle meets the blade is much more shiny than the rest of metal. When I trowel, I have a high grip, so my thumb is constantly rubbing high on the handle, polishing it to a gloss. It’s a strange feeling to borrow someone else’s trowel, as the motion and balance just seem wrong. Of course, for the person who uses it most, it’s just right.
I’m kicking myself because (as many of you probably realized right away) the break is my own fault. You never, never, never use a trowel to dig vertically, point-down. It’s a rookie mistake. The troweling motion is horizontal – you’re actually loosening dirt a fraction of a centimeter at a time, which you then scrape up and pass through a screen. In the almost 8 years I’ve been using this trowel, I’ve troweled vertically many times before, thinking I was experienced enough to “run with scissors” just this one time, and that rock just HAD to come up. The lesson here: Don’t trowel vertically!
I said “the end” of a relationship, but that’s not quite correct. It’s the beginning of a different sort of relationship between me and this bit of material culture that has been both a tool of my professional life, and an object through which I practiced and created that identification. Now it’s a talisman. Not in the strict anthropological sense that it contains good or evil spirits, but in the sense that it triggers memories of my work to date – chasing sandstone walls in a western New Mexico pueblo, defining features in a contact-period Iroquois village in the Finger Lakes, and scraping sheet middens in a 19th century farmstead in northeastern Pennsylvania – and those memories in turn help define my present.