Dig Diary Sunday 9th July 2017: trowelling the beach

Updated: Apr 16, 2018

Normally when you go to for a day out at the beach you take your towel: here at Swandro you take your trowel! Today the new students taking part in the Swandro field school were shown how we use the WHS 4inch trowel, the most important part of an archaeologists tool kit. We don’t let them loose on the archaeology until they can trowel the beach to perfection...


We use the beach to hone trowelling skills and team work, since uniform trowelling is important to define layers and the boundaries between layers. Most of our archaeological deposits have mottling of ash and carbon and the trowel gives a crisp surface so we can understand the material we are excavating and changes between layers.


Ah... that takes me back – I well remember my very first trowel: I was 17 and about to go off on my very first dig all bright eyed and bushy tailed. A 4 inch WHS was really expensive back in those days, and anyway there was nowhere to buy one even if I could’ve afforded one. My dad solved the problem: he ‘borrowed’ a full sized mason’s trowel from his work and cut it down to 4 inch for me – talk about a solid bit of kit – you could’ve stopped a charging rhino with it! Although actually my first dig was Mesolithic and we tended to do a lot of the digging with leafs (a thingy that painters & sculptors use): couldn’t afford one again so pinched one of my mum’s solid 1950s teaspoons and filed it down - still don’t think she knows where it went...

If you’re not an archaeologist (or a mason) you probably don’t know what a 4-inch WHS looks like (don’t worry, you’re not alone – it has been known for a volunteer to turn up with a gardeners trowel) so here’s one being modelled by my glamorous assistant:


It used to be a bit a badge of honour to have a well-worn trowel, back in the day – proved you’d been on the digging circuit for a while & weren’t just a newbie. Some folk took it to extremes and kept their trowels so they were so worn down they weren’t really any use anymore. I remember one guy mounted all his old trowels on his wall at home like those old pottery ducks you used to get back in the 1960s - he was a bit odd though...

10 views
  • Follow us on Facebook
  • Follow us on Twitter
  • Visit our YouTube channel
  • Follow us on Instagram

Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation No: SC047002 

Patron: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay

Registered office: Bayview Birsay Orkney KW17 2LR   email: info@swandro.co.uk