Ask Greg: Shovels


Team Insights


Greg Speed

Tricks of the trade 1 - Shovels

Since we’re all being forced to hunker down at home at the moment, my access to the archives is limited so I’ve decided to write something more general about archaeology. Being one of the older generation of still-functioning professional diggers (although these days I try as far as possible just to point at stuff) I thought that I’d take the opportunity to pass on some of that ‘old lag’ practical knowledge

One of my biggest bugbears over the years has been hand tools – pretty fundamental kit if you’re planning to make a big hole. Back before commercial archaeology (i.e pre-1990) and ‘proper’ wages, diggers were in relative terms a lot cheaper than mechanical plant, so we spent a lot more time shovelling! Unfortunately, as a result I’m a shovel nerd (not many of us left), but luckily I have a kindred spirit at our tool supplier, which means I always get personal service.

Rule no. 1: learn the difference between a spade and a shovel! It’s surprising how many archaeologists are unaware that a spade is for digging and a shovel is for removing the spoil. They have different head (spades are flatter and more robust) and the handles are set at a different angle, which is why they always fall over when leant against each other in the tool shed. Shovelling with a spade leads to lots of dropped spoil and a bad back from bending down too far, while digging with a shovel isn’t very effective and ruins the blade. Apart from the health and efficiency benefits, learning the difference avoids ridicule further down the line when your colleagues find out (we all had to learn sometime!).

There are lots of types of shovels out there, with different shapes and sizes of head, different handle lengths. They could be wooden or steel items or, these days, plastic electrically insulated ones which at least come in cheerful colours (usually yellow or orange so you can’t lose them). Sadly, the choice at most suppliers is gradually diminishing because the construction industry (which was always the target customer) barely uses shovels any more due to the invention of the mini-digger, and mostly issues one-type-fits-all cheap varieties. Off the back of that, rule no. 2 is: don’t leave your decent shovel unattended on any large construction site or you won’t see it again!

Rule no. 3: get a shovel that suits you. Different people are different heights/strengths etc. Many professional field archaeologists spend a lot of time shovelling, and your body will thank you in the long run if you choose the right shovel. If you only have access to what’s in the tool store on site, and there’s one you like, you’ll need to be front of the queue every morning. Or buy your own, it’s a good investment. There’s a reason Phil Harding always had his special shovel on Time Team – I’ve got three of them! Although they are the ‘normal’ T shape, the longer handle equals less bending down, much easier digging and, as a bonus, you can impress people by chucking spoil into a wheelbarrow 5m away with little effort. The trick is to persuade your employer that it’s worth spending the extra tenner per shovel for a few extra centimetres of handle. Those pointy shovels with the long handle and no crossbar are useful too, although it often takes a while to persuade people to try them. 

Rule no. 4: Look after yourself. No one teaches people how to shovel and that results in a variety of alarming styles. An acquaintance of mine has a curious approach which consists of filling the shovel and then doing a weird flick in his lower back which propels the spoil in the general direction of the barrow – no other part of the body is involved! That can’t be healthy and, to be fair, I’ve never seen him last more than five minutes before having to go and make an ‘urgent’ phone call. Good shovelling shouldn’t put undue strain on any single part of the body. I aim to use the whole body from the ankles up in a smooth rotation, and normally have the wheelbarrow behind me and at the correct distance (which can actually be quite a long way). That approach seems to have worked, as I’ve (just about) lasted on site for 40 years and counting. It’s worth learning to work both right and left handed as it evens out wear and tear on the body. However, that’s one area where I haven’t been entirely successful, as I now have a wrecked left shoulder and elbow (if you shovel right-handed all the strain is through your left arm, the right hand merely steers).

Avoid any shovels with great big heads. There’s always a bodybuilder on site who grabs one, uses it like a bulldozer for five minutes and then spends the rest of the day ‘doing paperwork’ in the cabin. I’d rather have people on site who can keep going all day, five days a week without injury, so leave the giant shovels to the show-offs and pick one with a smaller blade. Don’t fill it up on every shovel-full, you’re there for the long game and, hopefully, with enough energy afterwards to walk to the pub (when they reopen). If the spoil is wet sticky clay then really, really don’t fill your shovel; the number of torn muscles I’ve seen (and experienced) from those moments when you’ve swung the shovel and 10 kilos of wet clay remains unexpectedly and resolutely stuck to it…

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