Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hands Off: Tools As Artifacts at the Archaeological Dig

From the beginning of its existence as a discipline, archaeology has been about objects. While its true that for many projects the dirt itself is starting to get the same respect as the items that are uncovered in it, archaeologists cannot help but remain object-oriented. All day you look for artifacts in the soil- tiles, pottery, worked stone, metals, weaving implements, tools. Your day is centered around 'things.' Your hands are constantly touching and feeling objects to help in their identification - is this ceramic or is it a rock? Your eyes and your body are constantly on tippy-toe, waiting, hanging on the potential appearance of 'things' with every passing clod of earth.

But of course, modern 'things' are just as important as the ancient ones in an archaeologist's daily life; they can receive the same sort of intense focus, adulation and worship as the ancient treasures themselves. I'm talking about tools.

Everyone knows what its like to have a work utensil that's used day after day. It's quite easy to develop a relationship with it, whether it's a crappy keyboard that you grow to loathe or a favorite pen that you jealously guard. It can be a major bummer if your favorite item gets lost, or breaks, or is stolen by a co-worker. It's the same way with an archaeologist's tools. At most excavations, there's often a morning rush as everyone tries to grab their favorite things before someone else does. There's a race for handpicks, for dustpans, for bristle brushes, for the lightest shovel and the sturdiest bucket. These tools can cause a lot of unacknowledged jostling, secret irritation, silent glowering and intense satisfaction.

I myself have become quite fond of the old rounded trowel I found in the tool shed this summer. I bet every person on the Poggio Colla excavation has their own secret attachment. Some of those human-tool relationships are a bit more obvious.

Take PC 42's student-digger Morgan, for example, who has a tool with a story. And a name - Tiger. Most of the students went off to Home Depot or Lowes to buy their trowels before they came to Italy, which means that most of the trowels look pretty much the same. But Morgan found one at her own house. It turns out that her parents once built a deli and her dad was tiling the interior. He shaped his trowel to make it more useful for laying tile, in contrast to the flat brick-laying trowel. And so Morgan decided to adopt her Dad's tool, which he had created and inadvertently imbued with sentiment.

Sure, you can only use it with one hand because if you flip the blade you'll destroy everything in its path. It's a vicious weapon and can bite the hand that wields it; it's a trowel that demands respect. But it's master is Morgan.

Some of the tools are a little more serious. There are even a few that only staff members are allowed to use, for obvious insurance reasons. Like the ax.

PC 42, the ax in use. As it turns out, trench supervisor Kyle used to be a competitive lumber jack. Be gone, tree stump!
And when these really serious tools break, waiting for their replacements can leave everyone on edge. The recent shattering of the ax-handle was just such an affair. At least now we've got it back, and rotten tree stumps are once more flying off the side of the hill.
But besides being mean, lean, archaeological-context-destruction machines, our tools can be an endless source of entertainment as well. They can make a person happy, when not giving blisters and callouses or accidentally stabbing you.

PC 42 student-digger Jack displays the proper way to double-fist the handpick.
While our focus on the ancient objects may be well-recognized, the archaeologist's daily obsession with modern tools is, I think, just as great. Um, unless it's just me.
Keep your paws off my trowel.


Maulwurf said...

why is it that our british and american colleagues are so obsessed with their trowels ? ;-)

Katie Rask said...

Because trowels are awesome!