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Requiem for a trowel

April 16, 2012

My pointing trowel, 2004-2012

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    April 16, 2012 9:25 am

    My condolences. Might I suggest you read Kent Flannerys article ‘The Golden Marshalltown”, to help you through this traumatic period?
    Also- and I’m sure you allready are familiar with this- I have a bag of alternate tools- spreaders and knives and spatulas and dental picks and a couple of larger trowels, to give a variety of shapes and strenghts for excavating.
    Go pick up a new Marshalltown, sharpen it, and enjoy breaking it in!

  2. April 19, 2012 2:18 am

    I opened this post and actually gasped at the picture… while thinking oh, no… what if this had been my marshalltown trowel. My condolences! Long live the memories of your old friend and think of the upcoming adventures with your new trowel!

  3. bobkincaid permalink
    April 22, 2012 5:21 pm

    Talismanic, totemic? Whatever view one takes, this Marshalltown’s objecthood has been transformed, but was transforming you long before.

    The “running with scissors” metaphor was perfect. I experienced the same with a japanese ceramic knife. As sharp as obsidian, it would easily shave. It wasn’t, however, worth a tinker’s dam as a screwdriver. Now it sits in our knife drawer, it’s pieces a Tolkienesque reminder of past onion-slicing glories and one misspent moment in the world of torque.


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