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  • Photo: Alexander Langlands

The beauty behind digging

Crafts next Book Club speaker Alexander Langlands discusses the mattock 

I have long pondered on whether archaeological excavation should be considered a craft. Ideally it would be a science, where technicians explore the contextual relationships between stratigraphic deposits in strict laboratory conditions. But more often than not, finding myself in a field in the driving rain, battling with the elements to ‘read’ the archaeology, I’ve felt more like a hedger, a dry-stone waller or, more pertinently, a ditch-digger.

For many, the archetypal image of an archaeologist is of a highly skilled practitioner delicately poised over skeletal remains, leaf-trowelling back the overlying grave fill, brushing away the finer silts and lightly sponging down the freshly exposed bones. But to get to that point, in the most time-efficient manner, you need a mattock. And so, for most of the seasoned archaeologists I knew, not only did they have their own dedicated kit of fine excavation tools, but also their favoured large digging implements: shovel, spade, hoe and mattock.

When, as a commercial archaeologist, I was moving from excavation to excavation, I kept my own favourites close at hand. I had levelled off the blade of a spade so that it was dead flat and, calling it the ‘cheese-cutter’, I used it to cut beautiful vertical sections as if slicing an Edam. I had a short- and long-handled shovel and a beautiful swan-neck gardening hoe. My mattock was wide-bladed with a long shock-resistant shaft and rubberised handle. It was a butch tool. I could knock out numerous metric tonnes of earth in a day. Suffice to say, as I entered my late 20s, my lower back didn’t appreciate my somewhat macho choice of tool. I now prefer a smaller-bladed, wooden-handled implement which I tend to yield in a much more judicial manner.

More broadly, however, I’d like to pose the question about the craft of digging. Almost for as long as we have made beautiful objects we have been diggers – carvers of the earth. In prehistory, one of the best ways to demonstrate one’s power and influence was to illustrate how you could coerce your people into vast soil-shifting exercises: vestiges such as long barrows, hill forts and enormous linear dykes still adorn the landscape of today.

Expansive field systems too, from the Bronze Age onwards are all really the product of a form of digging. The plough, in its crudest form, is as much a horse-drawn mattock as it is a tool in its own right. Irrigation systems and the annual re-cutting of drainage channels were crucial to pastoral farming on the lowlands from at least the mediaeval period onwards and the Industrial Age saw the acceleration of our digging skills where canals, railway embankments, tunnels and cuttings were all undertaken by hand – to say nothing of the billions of tonnes of metal ores and coal that we have hewn from the rocks beneath our feet.

All digging – with the exception of archaeology – is mechanised now. But when you have to move earth by hand you think about it – you take the less-is-more approach to any job. And there are implications, in a rural setting at least, that go beyond the physical. The Anglo-Saxons had a phrase for breaking ground, conveyed through the shared etymological root between the Old English scearu (a scar or cutting), scear (ploughshare) and landscearu or landscar (land boundary). There’s a recognition here that cutting the earth, like scars to the human body, can bring about infection and fester in a traditional farming landscape where they can become infested with the most invasive of plant species. To a world that thinks nothing of recourse to the mechanical digger, chemical weed-killer and manufactured grass-seed mix can reverse the ills of liberally up-cast soil. But before these ‘innovations’, breaking ground had consequences.

Critically, to the craft-conscious, does digging produce things of beauty? One rarely steps back and admires the shape and form of a well-executed cesspit or drainage channel, but pick a vantage point from any in the National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Beauty that arrest the sprawling conurbations of Britain, and what you will gaze upon is a celebrated landscape underpinned by human endeavour, a feat within which the mattock – and the craft of digging – played a fundamental role.

For our special Christmas Crafts Book Club we’ve invited archaeologist, historian and TV presenter Alexander Langlands to discuss his new book 'Craeft: How traditional crafts are about more than just making' at Moroso and FontanaArte Showroom, London EC1R 4SP

Doors for the event open at 6.30pm and the talk will start at 6.45pm.

After the discussion there will be time for questions from the audience, a signing session, and a free drink or two.


We aim to ensure that everyone has equal access to our events. If you have any access needs, please email e_penny@craftscouncil.org.uk by 30th November so that arrangements can be made. The talk will be held at the Moroso and Fontana Arte showroom which has a lift to the basement.

More event details