On Trowels

I came across my 4” W.H.S. trowel again while rearranging my bookshelves yesterday. We’d taken all of our Donna Leon ‘Brunetti’ crime novels to our place in Italy, and there was a 16- book hole which needed filling. I’d bought the trowel when I’d (very briefly) participated in the astonishing Must Farm bronze age excavations at Whittlesey near Peterborough in 2012.[1] The trowel, I soon realised upon returning home, was uncategorisable – I had no idea where to store it so I left it on the edge of a bookshelf, near to the fictional Venetian detective. I used the trowel only on the three days I was at Must Farm. Tim Ingold briefly mentions trowels in his 2013 book, Making;

I suppose, architects and archaeologists could be regarded as procedurally equal but temporally opposed: after all the very same tool – the trowel – that the builder uses to fabricate the architectural forms of the future is used by the archaeologist, in the excavation of a site, to reveal the forms of the past.[2]

What are archaeologists and architects doing, and what do they believe they are doing, when they pick up a pen or pencil, or when they open a piece of C.A.D. software? What do their respective disciplines purport to be doing when their practitioners employ drawing practices? Do architects and archaeologists draw differently and do the instrumentalities implicit in their drawings stand opposed to one another as is often casually assumed – one future-facing and the other orientated towards the past? Tim Ingold, in the quotation above, illustrates one way of thinking about the tangled relationship of architecture and archaeology toward one-another. In fact I’m not so sure that architecture and archaeology are at all “procedurally equal.” It seems to me that they share instead a more nuanced relationship of procedural resemblance, and that, even more emphatically, they do not stand “temporally opposed.” I will post more about this on another occasion.

The architect’s encounter with the trowel, on the other hand, may extend no further than in the writing of clauses like this one in the National Building Specification (NBS);

R12                  DRAINAGE BELOW GROUND
–           Sealed access fitting(s): ______
Manufacturer and reference: ______
Sizes and integral branches to suit each manhole.
–           Make pipework connections and fit caps to unused branches. Lay component on base and bed in 1:3 cement: sand mortar. Form concrete benching, mix as specified under ‘Generally’, with 10% fall from manhole walls to component rim. Within 3 hours float with coat of 1:3 cement: sand mortar and finish smooth with steel trowel.


Fig.1: Jonathan Bateman, Trowel Biographies. 1997, Photograph. From: Lemke, Matt. 1997. ‘Give me WHS or give me death!’, Assemblage. Available from: http://bit.ly/1u4uFfP (accessed 31 December 2015).

Trowels have an almost mythical status amongst field archaeologists who can become very attached to particular ones (Fig. 1),[3] much as architects used to become attached to particular drawing pens or set-squares;

Some live for the flexibility of a Marshalltown and some enjoy the style personified in a French trowel. We say nothing is more elegant than a sturdy W.H.S.[4]


Field archaeologists often draw with their trowels (Fig. 2),[5] and of course, trowels are also a builders’ tool (recall Tim Ingold’s elision of architect and builder through the trowel above) – a tool for making; allying the archaeologist even more closely, perhaps, to the making of buildings than the abstracted distance of the architect. The trowel and my foam kneeling-pad (another pre-dig purchase) reminded me that field archaeology is a much more physical discipline than architecture – site visits for architects often involving no more than the ability to climb scaffold ladders and, on larger building sites, there are usually lifts providing access to most parts of the works.


Fig.2: An archaeologist draws with a trowel. From: Goodwin, Charles. 1994. ‘Professional Vision’, American Anthropologist, 96: 606-33. 610.

If related disciplines – drawing-centered or drawing-engaged[6] – design, albeit not exclusively, through drawing practices, then the drawing instruments used in those practices, broadly must resemble one another. But archaeology also uses other kinds of tool which are not so readily mappable on to architectural equivalents. These are some which I have encountered whilst navigating from architecture towards archaeology: trowels are indirectly associated with architecture through their almost ubiquitous use on building sites but they are also used by archaeologists as drawing instruments; sieves are used to separate artefacts from their surrounding matrix where ‘matrix’ is defined as, “the material or sediment in which cultural debris is contained; the surrounding deposit in which archaeological finds are situated;”[7] Munsell Color Charts are used to describe, in relation to objective standards, the colour of the matrix surrounding excavated artefacts; radius charts are sheets of, often, laminated paper printed with a series of concentric arcs of known radii on which to lay rim or base potsherd as a ready reckoner of the size of the original vessel; profile gauges are used in both architecture and archaeology (though less in architecture) to accurately measure small mouldings and other forms through their duplication. The gauge is usually a block through which pass a number of thin rods which, when pressed against a form, depress to retain the profile of that form.

Although I have argued elsewhere[8] that the tools and techniques of a discipline are inextricably linked with the practices and products of that discipline, there would seem to be few disciplines which have exclusive ownership over specific tools (even if, as I have argued in the same place, the practitioners of some disciplines would like to claim such ownership) – I have not, for example, encountered any tools which are used by architects and architects alone. If you can think of any let me know!

The archaeological tools outlined above are used extensively in archaeological practice, [9] – especially field archaeology – but, with the exception of the radius chart, their use is not confined to it. However, taken as a sample of non-architecture-related tools they begin, I would argue, to outline an archaeology which has definitively diverged from architecture and, in particular, architecture’s last common ancestor with archaeology; antiquarianism. They are tools which mediate between the hand of the archaeologist and the object of that archaeologist’s attention; the trowel moves soil whilst the colour chart is placed directly against that soil – the potsherd is offered-up to the radius chart and the profile gauge is pushed against that potsherd or other shaped artefact. From looking intently at artefacts, through touching and pushing them, to shifting the matrix which surrounds them, there is an immediacy about the wielding of these tools.


Darvill, Timothy. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. 2nd ed.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Drewett, Peter. Field Archaeology: An Introduction.  London: UCL Press, 1999.

Goodwin, Charles. “Professional Vision.” American Anthropologist 96, no. 3 (1994): 606-33.

Ingold, Tim. Making : Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. 2013.

Lemke, Matt. “Give Me Whs or Give Me Death!”. Assemblage, no. 2 (2nd May 1997).

RIBA Enterprises Ltd. National Building Specification, 2016

Richardson, Lorna. “Prescot Street: What Tools Do Archaeologists Use?” L-P Archaeology.

Tyers, P. A. “Potsherd:Atlas of Roman Pottery.”  http://potsherd.net/atlas/topics/tools.

Zambelli, Alessandro. “Scandalous Artifacts: Practice between Archaeology and Architecture.” Architecture and Culture 1, no. 1-2 (2013): 182-201.


[1] In the summer of 2012 I was invited by Lesley McFadyen of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology to participate in their Fieldschool module. The excavations were run on a day to day basis by Cambridge Archaeological Unit; Knight and two colleagues Lizzy Middleton and Leane Zeki. Birkbeck Fieldschool Director McFadyen was in charge of the students.

[2] Tim Ingold, Making : Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture  (2013), 10.

[3] Matt Lemke, “Give Me Whs or Give Me Death!,” Assemblage, no. 2 (1997).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Charles Goodwin, “Professional Vision,” American Anthropologist 96, no. 3 (1994): 610.

[6] A difference I may post about on another occasion.

[7] Timothy Darvill, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 251.

[8] Alessandro Zambelli, “Scandalous Artifacts: Practice between Archaeology and Architecture,” Architecture and Culture 1, no. 1-2 (2013).

[9] See for example: Peter Drewett, Field Archaeology: An Introduction  (London: UCL Press, 1999)., P. A. Tyers, “Potsherd:Atlas of Roman Pottery,”  http://potsherd.net/atlas/topics/tools. or, Lorna Richardson, “Prescot Street: What Tools Do Archaeologists Use?,” L-P Archaeology.

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