Ode to the “Marshalltown”

One of the most important tools of the modern archaeologist is the trusty pointed trowel (“don’t leave home without it!”), which is used for various dig-related activities, such as digging, scraping, leveling, straightening balks, collecting loose earth, picking up delicate finds, etc.. At times, it can even be used for cutting a watermelon, doodling in the sand, and other less-proffessionally-oriented activities. In recent decades, the most popular trowel among archaeologists in many countries is the “Marshalltown” trowel, a US made brand.

 Marshalltown with holster.jpgA Marshalltown trowel and “holster”

The Marshalltown trowel comes in various sizes (personally, I prefer the 4.5″ one, although other colleagues prefer the 5.5″ ones), and is extremely durable (almost never breaks), can be continuously sharpened, and, most importantly, has a sufficient amount of “spring” in the blade, which enable an experienced excavator to use it with astonishing accuracy. Basically, most of the digging that is done during the excavation (save for the use of large tools for large amount of earth) can be done with the Marshalltown trowel.

In the archaeological world, the Marshalltown trowel has become sort of an icon, as the extremely humorous piece by Kent Flannery, “The Golden Marshalltown” clearly demonstrates (American Anthropologist 84 (1982): 265-278 – required reading for any one interested in archaeology!).

For the sake of any Brits reading this piece, it should be stated that archaeologists in the UK swear by the WHS trowel, and I have witnessed a British and an American archaeologist arguing about the pros and cons of these two types, for close to an hour …

In the Near East, the Marshalltown trowel has only become popular in the last two decades, and in most cases, a good indication of the quality of an excavation is the amount of such trowels that used in the day-to-day excavations (sort of like the old joke that the best way to measure the level of culture in a society, is the amount of soap that is consumed …).

Needless to say (;-), the Marshalltown trowel is a very common tool, and is extensively used, in the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavations. In fact, we require all volunteers to bring their own to the excavations (they can be purchased online at the link above), and if they are willing, to leave them with the dig at the end of the season. When volunteers try to bring other brands, in most cases these “inferior” trowels cannot match up to the “real McCoy” …

rona digging with marshalltown.JPG Rona and a student digging with their trusty Marshalltowns …

So, if any of you want to become a serious archaeologist, and/or want to be considered one, you must have a Marshalltown trowel on your belt. In fact, it is even more important than a whip or a revolver! (move over Indy!).

 aren_2004_on_site1.jpg That’s me! Notice the Marshalltown on my belt (instead of a whip), along with about a hundred other necessary and unnecessary things …


12 thoughts on “Ode to the “Marshalltown”

  1. I would say the same of the pick-ax, wich can also be used to do all of the digging activities in all situations, and which is much bigger (after all – size does count!!!)


  2. ian

    Its the WHS trowel for me all the way! Especialy as they are rebuilding it specifically for archaeologists – watch this space.


  3. arenmaeir

    Ian – as I said! There are strong opinions on these pros and cons of the two “contenders” …



  4. BJ

    Aren, I stumbled accross your little blog here because i was surfing/searching for a trowel as a gift for my brother-in- law , an italian archaeologist. Your opinion on the Marshalltown seems to be the general opinion. After reading your piece here I went to the marshalltown website and found many different trowels, there is a line of trowels that is identical, but instead of a wooden handle, they sport a rubber grip of some kind, which seems like it may be more comfortable. In your opinion is there any reason, archealogical or otherwise, why I shouldnt gift him one of those as opposed to the wooden handled version that is labeled “archaeological”? Thank you for your response. -BJW


  5. arenmaeir

    Hi! Personally, I like the “old-fashioned” wooden handle, perhaps since I am used to it. It looks nices, feels nicer, etc.
    Other, younger colleagues who use the rubber handle are though satisfied with them.


  6. Keith Aitken

    I have always used Marshalltown but decided that I should try some alternatives. The above link to getatrowel.co.uk shows that the company has closed down. I just got one to try out from the folks at archaeologytools.co.uk – WHS 4″ Archaeologists Pointing Trowel. Delivery to the US took 5 days. On first impressions it is a nice looking solid trowel, I will update once I have had a chance to use it.


  7. Justin Lev-Tov

    There is a French company which specializes in making, selling and renting archaeological equipment, strati-concept, which sells WHS-like trowels as well as actual WHS trowels in a couple of different sizes. Their website is http://www.strati-concept.com/. I’ve long used a Marshalltown 45-5 (now worn down to a 45-4 or so), and I appreciate the blade’s flexibility. But for some tasks, like cutting sidewalls straight for profiles, the hard and inflexible WHS blade is better. The Marshalltown is good for general digging, esp. if you need to feel soil differences, pits or mudbrick, etc.


    1. arenmaeir

      Actually, I am not familiar with this make – thank you for bringing it to my attention. If you would like me to consider this brand for use in our excavation, and to make an assessment of them (in comparison to the popular Marshalltown) please send a sample to me at BIU. Once received, I promise to give it a “trial by fire” test.


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