Tools of the Trade

Lydia Pyne


On 27 October 1964, Dr. Emil Haury threw an engraved trowel in the air amid great fanfare from his students, field crew, and fellow archaeologists. Where the trowel struck dirt, Dr. Haury had Jones Williams, a 72-year-old Akimel O’ohham worker, turn over the first shovelful of sediment, inaugurating a new field season at the Hohokam site of Snaketown, Arizona, thirty years after the site was first excavated.[1]

Dr. Emile Haury inaugurating the 1964 Snaketown field season with a Marshalltown trowel. 27 October 1964. Photographer Uncredited. Image c Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

Dr. Emile Haury inaugurating the 1964 Snaketown field season with a Marshalltown trowel. 27 October 1964. Photographer Uncredited. Image © Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

Dr. Haury’s trowel wasn’t just any trowel and the gesture was more than just one of whimsy.  The trowel was an icon of Marshalltown and a gift from his seminar class at the University of Arizona as a “good-digging token” for the new Snaketown excavations.  Haury carefully kept his trowel in its own box unmarred by actual excavation, and the tool was inscribed with a quote from Julius Caesar.  (“You are not wood, you are not stones, but men.”)  That sunny Tuesday afternoon thirty miles south of Phoenix, Haury showed off the tool to his admiring audience and then hurled it into the air.  In a bit of irony, he later commented, “[The place it struck] proved to be the least productive spot in the whole village! I have up the business of magic and went back to the hard-headed work of excavation.”[2]

Dr. Haury’s trowel toss does more than mark where excavations were to re-commence at Snaketown. It gives an example – an allegory almost – of how a modern material object is necessary to know things about other objects from the past and the ‘Marshalltown’ is archetypical of the tools that we use to construct this kind of knowledge.  Collecting, studying, and storing material culture of the past necessitates a strata of its own modern artefacts – from museum curation with its drawers and boxes to field collections with their brown paper bags and tags; the categorization of artefacts depends on the materials we use to construct it.

The archaeological record is nothing if not chock-full of material culture. Much of archaeology’s history of method and theory rests on evaluating material objects, whether these objects are manufactured artefacts or naturally-occurring biofacts; all of the objects can be folded broadly into a category of material culture.  In short, material culture is all about stuff.  It’s the stuff we make, the stuff we save, the stuff we discard, and the stuff we value.  The relationship between people and their objects – their stuff writ large – is complex and ever-evolving.  It’s a relationship that creates and requires its own set of objects to negotiate.

Evaluating material culture is an iterative process. Although broader theories about interpreting material culture have changed drastically over the last hundred years or so of archaeology, the discipline’s methods for excavating artefacts have remained much the same.  The tools of the archaeological trade?  Objects like shovels, screens, and trowels that are used to obtain the tangible bits of the archaeological record?  Philosopher-anthropologists Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi-Strauss would argue that objects like the trowel are integral parts of the material manifestations of one culture of studying other cultures.[3]  And none more so than the Marshalltown trowel.

Sam Cunningham excavating at Yellow Jacket site, with her Marshalltown trowel, 1982. Image c Sam Cunningham, personal collection - photographer, Joe Ben Wheat.

Sam Cunningham excavating at Yellow Jacket site, with her Marshalltown trowel, 1982. Photographer Joe Ben Wheat. Image © Sam Cunningham, personal collection.

For most archaeologists, their first real introduction to archaeological excavation is met with a trowel. “An object,” claims archaeologist David Hurst Thomas, “dear to the heart of field archaeologists.”[4] A trowel for archaeology, however, is not just any trowel.  It is a specialised trowel – most commonly, an iconic Marshalltown trowel, a highly prized tool among excavators.  ‘Marshalltowns’ have high-quality steel edges and welded handles that don’t work themselves loose from the shaft.  Savvy seasoned excavators carry their ‘Marshalltowns’ in their back hip pockets.

So what is a Marshalltown trowel used for? From one standpoint, it’s obvious.  The Marshalltown trowel is used for troweling – to systematically remove dirt from an area of excavation, paring away sediments to expose objects underneath.  The ‘Marshalltown’ is an object that makes other objects visible.  Although excavation tools can range from tweezers to backhoes, the ‘Marshalltown’ is practically ubiquitous thanks to its size, construction, and versatility.

Marshalltown trowel as scale marker for archaeological profile.  1934. Photographer Uncredited. Image c Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

Marshalltown trowel as scale marker for archaeological profile.  1934. Photographer Uncredited. Image © Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona.

With its flat, steely five-inch blade, the ‘Marshalltown’ can trowel through tough sediments like desert caliche and its sharp edge can be used to hack through stubborn roots that creep into an excavation unit. In the 1980s, Southwestern archaeologists Bill Rathje and Mike Schiffer completed a detailed rather tongue-in-cheek analysis of how archaeologists used their own Marshalltown trowels, measuring and describing the wear-patterns present on the trowels after seasons of use.  (This provided a fantastic bit of recursive analysis as the same methods of use-wear analysis were being applied to the archaeological artefacts Rathje and Schiffer were studying and archaeologists were excavating with the ‘Marshalltowns’.)  Rathje and Schiffer’s analysis was able to determine the handed-ness of an excavator and how an excavator handled a trowel.  They also noted the tendency for personalization and adornment of one’s trowel.[5]  Like a fingerprint, the use-wear and decoration of a trowel is unique and specific to its excavator.

My own Marshalltown trowel with my name carved on the handle. Image c Lydia Pyne, 2014.

My own Marshalltown trowel with my name carved on the handle. Image © Lydia Pyne, 2014.

In addition to actually moving soil, ‘Marshalltowns’ show up in a number of excavation contexts. They can mark scale, giving a sense of a geomorphic profile’s length or the size of an archaeological feature, the same way geologists use a rock hammer in photographs.  They can be used as north arrows to indicate directionality of a feature’s orientation when documenting a site.  They are constantly repurposed for just about any use – archaeologists use their ‘Marshalltowns’ to scratch hard-to-reach places on their backs and to peel cucumbers for their lunches.  The day-to-day “doing” of excavation creates a metaphysical strata that overlays the tool’s original purpose.

Dr. Haury’s inscribed Marshalltown was indeed a “good-digging token” for the 1964-1965 Snaketown field season. But the Marshalltown trowel as a tool type is a great deal more interesting than a mere McGuffin-like prop.  The Marshalltown trowel carries a particular cultural cachet.  It’s more than a tool – it’s an identity.  It’s more than an excavation method – it’s how narratives are excavated and constructed within the discipline of archaeology.  Any archaeologist that carried a Home Depot trowel to an excavation would be laughed out of the field.  It represents a legitimacy and expectation about professionalism and craft.  Perhaps more than any other tool in the archaeological trade, the Marshalltown trowel has its own cultural life.  It is a piece of material culture used in the excavation of other pieces of material culture.  It’s a meta-artefact of artefacts.




[1] Snaketown is an archaeological settlement by the Hohokam people, located near Sacaton, Arizona, about 30 miles south of Phoenix. Snaketown was occupied between 300 BCE to 1100 CE and between 1150 CE – 1400/1450. The first excavations were undertaken in 1934 and Dr. Emil Haury’s extensive excavations were undertaken in 1964-1965.

[2]David Hurst Thomas, Archaeology 3rd Edition (Wadsworth Publishing, 1997), pp. 171. Photographs, 27 October 1964, and 1964 Snaketown Field Season, Arizona State Museum Collection, Tucson, Arizona.

[3]Emile Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method (New York: Free Press, 1982); Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, New Ed edition (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

[4]Hurst Thomas, Archaeology 3rd Edition.

[5]Kent V. Flannery, “The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s,” American Anthropologist 84, no. 2 (June 1, 1982): 265–78, doi:10.1525/aa.1982.84.2.02a00010; William Rathje and Michael Schiffer, Archaeology (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982).



Arizona State Museum, Snaketown Collection. University of Arizona, Tucson.

Hurst Thomas, David. Archaeology 3rd Edition. Wadsworth Publishing, 1997.

Durkheim, Emile. Rules of Sociological Method. New York: Free Press, 1982.

Flannery, Kent V. “The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s.” American Anthropologist 84, no. 2 (June 1, 1982): 265–78. doi:10.1525/aa.1982.84.2.02a00010.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. New Ed edition. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Rathje, William, and Michael Schiffer. Archaeology. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.


Lydia Pyne – 

Lydia Pyne is a writer and historian based in Austin, TX.  Trained as both an archaeologist and a historian of science, her research and writing interests focus on the history of paleoanthropology and archaeology.  Her fieldwork, archival research, and writing projects have ranged from South Africa, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and Iran as well as the American Southwest.

Pyne’s current book project, Famous Fossils, Hidden Histories, traces one hundred years of fossil hominin discoveries – sketching the stories of the fossils as they move from scientific circles to iconic cultural symbols.  This book project follows up her previous co-authored book, The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene  (Viking, 2012).

Pyne also reviews history, anthropology, and other literary nonfiction through NewPages and The New York Journal of Books and is a contributing editor for The Appendix: A Journal of Experimental and Narrative History.


© Lydia Pyne, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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