Trowels are one of the favourite tools of the archaeologist. They’re routinely used for excavating, prying, and shaping trenches and pits. But a trowel’s a trowel, right? Nope, not when it comes to archaeology. Like geological hammers, trowels come in all different shapes and sizes. From brick trowels to plaster trowels, both of these are designed for completely different jobs. For the working archaeologist, exactly the same thing goes – there are trowels designed especially for you.
There are a few different archaeology trowel manufacturers out there, principally WHS (made in the UK), Marshalltown (made in the USA), and Battiferro (made in Italy). Hands down, they all make some really great trowels. There’s not a huge difference between them to be fair; most users that we know tend to choose their preferred model simply on the basis of geography! That is, if you're British, you can't go past the good ol' Sheffield steel of a WHS; if your American, the Marshalltown is always top-dog; and if you're from the Continent, you'll love the Battiferro. Dig It Up retails a wide variety of WHS, Marshalltown and Battiferro archaeology trowels.
Firstly, the advantage of using a genuine archaeologist’s trowel, rather than a brick or plaster trowel, comes down to function. The archaeology trowel is typically smaller than other trowels, but are heavy-duty and come with thicker blades. The advantage of a thick blade not only means that they are less-susceptible to bending and breakage, but you can also sharpen them (this is like ‘tuning’ a trowel for maximum function- it makes them perfect for cutting through soils; see below for tips on how to sharpen your trowel). Archaeology trowels generally have a higher action than many other types of trowels (i.e., greater space between the handle and plane of the blade) which makes them a lot more comfortable to use
Two main types of archaeology trowels are available- margin trowels and pointing trowels. Margin trowels are generally used for shaping and squaring up your excavations; pointing trowels are typically used for normal digging and fine work. The pointing trowels come in two designs- the London and Philadelphia blades. To be frank, they are both quite similar, so the choice is yours. The London-style trowels are a bit finer, so are better for close-up work; the Philadelphia-style have a broader blade and make for more efficient soil removal. Overall, I think that it’s best to have two different types of trowels at your disposal- at least a margin and a pointing trowel. This way, it gives you the best of both worlds.
Sharpening your trowel is not always necessary, but it can make quite a difference when excavating and cutting through sediment. The ultimate goal is a blade with a fairly shallow but sharp edge. The best way to sharpen the blade of your trowel is to use a bench grinder. If you haven’t got one, then use an angle grinder. And if you haven’t got one of those either, then it’s the trusty rasp or bastard file that will do the trick. For file work, don’t scrub it in a forwards and backwards motion. Rather, push the file across the long edges of the blade of the trowel, moving it away from your body in a single motion. Generally begin in the centre of the trowel and move outwards. A safety tip- don’t waste your time trying to sharpen the two shortest edges of the blade- this is just useless during excavation, plus it can be dangerous if the trowel slips during usage. And finally, if you are going to use a sharpened blade in the field, for safety, I strongly recommend carrying it around at all times in a purpose-designed sheath.