Thursday, July 03, 2008

How to be an Archaeologist: Trowelling Techniques

Some of the more eagle eyed amongst our readers will have already realised that we’ve covered this particular subject over at the forum, and, to be honest, we’ve lifted this article (originally compiled by Fiona Birchall and then retranslated by myself) almost verbatim from my ‘new and improved’ version. However, considering that only three and a half people actually bothered to read the original (don’t ask me where the half comes from…I can only assume the counter’s broken again) we thought it worth repeating here. (Who knows…the other half a human being might read it now and round the figures up.)
Anyhow, trowelling techniques on the face of it probably seem obvious enough (the expression concerning ‘grandmothers’, ‘eggs’ and ‘sucking’ springs to mind), but they’re actually very important. A lot of the more inexperienced excavators might have missed some of the basics (let’s be honest, we all have a tendency to overlook the wood for the trees from time to time) so a quick wash and brush up wouldn’t go amiss.
And just to make this article a bit more interesting, I’ve added a few illustrations. Pay close attention. There might be a quiz at the end.

Before we start this exercise, you will require some dirt (by which we’re not referring to the sort of dirt you'd find in a cat's litter tray, but a bucket of soil…everything’s so damned Americanised these days) and a 4-inch pointing
trowel (which is a trowel used for 'pointing brickwork'...not a trowel that’s pointing at something.)

One. Always trowel in the same direction (i.e. the direction in which you started trowelling when the trench was first opened…or to put it another way, don’t change course in midstream. Obviously this doesn’t mean that you have to remember the direction you were trowelling several trenches previously…just trowel in one direction throughout the current trench unless otherwise directed.)

Two. Use the flat edge of the trowel rather than the corner. Using the corner results in grooves being left. (Don’t forget, I'm in charge of all Wyre Archaeology excavations and I take a ruthless stance. Anybody found using the corner of their trowel and making grooves in important stratigraphy on one of my digs will be belted round the back of the head with a mattock.)

Three. Trowel at an angle of 35 degrees from the ground. (Again, take note. Anybody found trowelling at 36 degrees or 34 degrees will, it goes without saying, be severely punished.)

Four. Always trowel with a sweeping action of the arm rather than the emphasis being on your wrist. (There is actually a good reason for this. Constant and repetitive flicking of the wrist can result in RSI and, as comprehensive as Wyre Archaeology's insurance is, you can bet your life we won't be paying out compensation on that one.)
Five. Make sure that you don't create or leave any smudge marks. (So if you’re going to eat a cheese and pickle butty, please leave the trench first.)

Six. In a trench containing more than one person, ensure that the foremost individual trowels a meter span in front of the other. (Sharp trowel points accidentally jabbing you up the backside can be painful.)

Seven. Be careful not to miss any areas when several people are trowelling at once. Also check that you haven't left any ridges between the areas already trowelled. (Especially if you’ve been using them as a makeshift seat.)

Eight. Trowelling allows the trench to be cleaned, thus helping define any features. It also improves feature and strata clarity for the photographs and other methods of recording (which we’ll be covering in another article because it’s about time you lot started filling in some paperwork).

Nine. Depending on the thickness of the blade, trowelling should always be conducted as a slicing action and not a digging one. If we wanted a trench to be dug out using trowels we’d employ smurfs.

Okay...if you weren’t already completely familiar with these trowelling techniques, then it might be an idea to procure yourself a plant pot/small plot of garden and have a few practice swings before starting on any future excavation work. Alternatively, take your trowel along to the nearest park and set about practicing on the flowerbeds. Park keepers are always very interested in archaeology and will no doubt lend you a friendly hand to perfect your technique.


Dysthymiac said...

the 4" pointing trowel roll-forged in Sheffield from a single sheet of steel of course ...

Brian Hughes said...


"Along with a (small) hoard of Roman coins (bought just in case I never managed to dig any up myself), my Dad had purchased a sparkling new four inch WHS pointing trowel, after much discussion with the man in the shop about the 'right' sort of trowel to use to find ship burials, coin hoards and the odd votive deposit."

I bought mine from Supershopper on North Albert Street in Fleetwood. It cost me fifty two pence and has never let me down yet.

Dysthymiac said...

"... and here's an archaeILLological find I prepared earlier ... "

Brian Hughes said...

"It does, however, have the honour of having trashed a number of interesting finds and features, including removing a chunk of the head of a very nice Gallo-Roman baby burial in the Auvergne."

Great testimonial that...both to WHS trowels and Sheffield University Archaeological Unit. (And we were supposed to be inviting this lot down to practice on Bourne Hill.)

Jayne said...

So thats what I have to do.

Feral Beast said...

sorry, I was singed in as mum.

Brian Hughes said...

Mr. Beast,

It's an easy mistake to make. I've been accidentally claiming my mum's pension for several years now.

Jayne said...

Ah-ha! So that's what happens when I stop nagging him to sign me out properly!

Brian Hughes said...


Just so long as he's not signing himself in under the name of Robbert...

JahTeh said...

All these rules and I see TimeTeam slashing about like gladiators in a feeding frenzy.

Brian Hughes said...

That's because Time Team are rubbish.

Ozfemme said...

I've been practising the trowel techniques and my makeup looks perfect!

You're right. Time Team are rubbish.

If I can scare up funds, I'm coming over to make a documentary on you lot.

Minus the cows.

Brian Hughes said...

A documentary about us? expose on corruption, scandal and depravity amongst geriatrics. A bit like 'The House of Lords Today' but without the £1,000,000 per annum second home allowance.