Unterseen IV: Do you dig with a trowel or gräbst Du mit einer Kelle?

It was almost a rite of passage. Sometime during the first year of my archaeology degree in the UK, we were told to get a trowel. It all sounded quite mysterious to a young foreign student: a WHS 3 or 4 inch pointing trowel. I barely knew how many cm an inch was. So, I went to the small hardware store in the village near the halls of residence where I lived and bought a 4 inch WHS trowel. I remember thinking it was really rather small but it felt great in my hand. I was quite proud, it felt like the beginning of something. And now, more than a decade later it still lies snugly in my hand.

Kellen/Trowels at Unterseen-Untere Grabe

A selection of trowels at the Unterseen/Kreuzgasse-Untere Grabe excavation.

I have moved on now and have worked a lot in the Netherlands and in Switzerland. For many archaeologists in the English-speaking world their trowel is the symbol of their professional pride. It was thus a surprise when starting to work in the Netherlands, that there were hardly, sometimes even no trowels at all on site!

I worked mostly in the southeast of the country where the soils consist mostly of pure sand (most æolian) or perhaps some fluvial silts and clays. Whole trenches were cleaned with sharpened shovels. No stones, you know, no stones! Archaeologists all had their favourite shovels. Many had a personal shovel, and like with trowels in the UK, they were proud of the extent to which these shovels had worn off.

Switzerland is full of stones. And sometimes I miss those beautiful smooth Dutch trenches. Here the preferred excavation tool is the trowel, or Kelle. However, we also use so-called Langstiel-Kratzer. They are not bad for a rough clean, but hard work and not ideal for your back. (The fact that we use industrial vacuum cleaners on site might be worth another post one day.)

My hairdresser told me last week she has new scissors. So we chatted a bit about favourite tools and how they tend to set to your hand and about what they might stand for. Working with different scissors is different, she said. On the other hand, they are all scissors. Although some hairdressers are apparently more picky than others.

I might be of the picky type, then. Because, so far I have not managed to befriend Swiss trowels. First, many are not forged and as such are not worth discussing. Then, I have not yet found a handle that works better for me then the WHS. Thirdly, the blades do not really suite me either: most of them are too thin. Perhaps it is a question of getting used to them. Which might of course also be the case with their shapes. The two most common shapes are the leaf-shaped trowel (Zungenkelle) and the triangular ones. I find the Zungenkelle too long and far too floppy. Whereas the triangular trowels have too sharp corners and the blade edge/handle-angle is wrong for me. Although one of the best field archaeologist I know, says she likes them when they are extremely worn down.   (For more tool-geekery read these posts by  C. Morgan and J. Roby.)

The surprising thing is, that Swiss archaeologists and excavators seem so little attached to their excavation tools. They are more likely to have their own drawing kit and are quite attached to that. I wonder if this may partly be the result of the way Swiss archaeology works. We have very few archaeologists on site. Digs are lead by archaeologists or field-technicians, who have not studied archaeology and come from other professions (we get, for example, many architectural draughtspersons). Besides, many archaeologists are trained by field-technicians, as many professors have limited field experience and because many students work on excavations run by cantonal units during their degree.

Perhaps as a result of this, on excavations here, the craft aspect tends to dominate over the intellectual and reflexive side of it. Digging has its set procedures and tends to be seen as a way to get to a documentation that is made according to the rules, and aims less to interpret. I do not mean to say, though, that Swiss archaeological fieldwork is of a bad quality or that reflexivity and interpretation have no place here! It is also not my aim to go into the ethnography of Swiss archaeology here, though, and I might write some more about that some other time, as I find it very interesting. But it seems to me these traditions play a large role in the way Swiss archaeology (in the field and beyond) is executed and the way archaeological remains are interpreted. And this is reflected in the relationship between the excavator and his or her tools. Drawing and photography seem to be the elements of the craft of excavation that people take most pride in. This is a little bit strange to me. Excavating is such a tactile activity and are excavating, interpretation and documentation not somehow inseparable? Or at least should they not be, even if that is impossible on so many rescue archaeological excavations?

Who has read the excellent book Cognition and tool use: the blacksmith at work by Keller and Keller (1996) should understand something of the very close relationship that craftsmen/women develop with his or her tools. Recent (neuro-) anthropological and philosophical work has confirmed how deep the relationships between tools and our bodies and brains go (e.g. Clark and Chalmers 1998, Coward and Gamble 2008, Malafouris 2004). These works are some of those which have been very important in shaping my understanding of tool use and will play a large role in my PhD research. It is, however, the relationship between me and my trowel that made the concepts in them tangible to me.

I like to draw, although I am not a natural talent. I find the process of photography and the way it documents archaeology fascinating. I also enjoy describing, as here natural science, craft and interpretation meet. But it is the digging that got me going as a young student. So, even if the WHS blades are a bit thick and need to be sharpened in silty and clayey soils at times, I will stick with my trusted old fellow bought so long ago in that small hardware store!


Clark, A. & Chalmers, D., J. 1998. The extended mind, In Analysis, 58, 1, 10-23.

Coward, F. & Gamble, C. 2008. Big brains, small worlds: material culture and the evolution of the mind. In: Renfrew, C., Frith, C. & Malafouris, L. (eds.) The sapient mind: archaeology meets neuroscience. Philosophical Transitions of the Royal Society, Series B, London, 1969-1980.

Keller, C. M. & Keller, J. D. 1996. Cognition and tool use: the blacksmith at work, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Malafouris, L. 2004. The cognitive basis of material engagement: where brain, body and culture conflate. In: Demarrais, E., Gosden, C. & Renfrew, C. (eds.) Rethinking materiality: the engagement of mind with the material world, Cambridge: The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 298-302.

2 responses to “Unterseen IV: Do you dig with a trowel or gräbst Du mit einer Kelle?

  1. Very well and sensitively written. However I *do* want to see and hear more about the industrial vacuum cleaners! 🙂 Can one get as attached to them as one’s WHS? I just bought a new trowel and had forgotten how cumbersome they are in the first five years of their life. If I lost the old one (he’s aged thirty) I’m not sure life would retain any meaning. Cheers, Microburin

  2. Phew – glad to hear you still hold to the WHS. 🙂 As BAJR and the person who helped shape the new design, when it all went thin and snappable back in 2006 I am damn proud of WHS… My wife now sells them and only WHS on Past Horizons Tools . and I have also created a series of WHS Trowel Movie Posters. – if you want I can send you the links

    Loved the post…

    Keep on troweling!

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