The 5 Stages Of An Archaeologists Grief After Losing Their First Trowel

The ShovelBums version of the Kübler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief when losing/breaking your first trowel

My long time friend Penny DuFoe Minturn posted today that she had lost her first trowel - which she mentioned has been around since a project we were together in '88 at Pueblo Grande - which is where my First Trowel actually broke (but that's another story). So I wrote this for her (see the bottom for a link to another 5 stages of grief on Trowel loss that has been pointed out to me).

First Trowel



Just as the Chinese philosopher Laozi (c 604 bc - c 531 bc) said in the Tao Te Ching (Laozi 581 bc)  "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" every archaeologist begins their career with their First Trowel. In the US it is often a Marshalltown, while a few outliers favor Goldblatt and in the UK the WHS is always popular. Regardless of the make, the bottom line it is your First Trowel. 

Most trowels start out similar, a clean piece of wood attached to an unblemished and  slightly shiny steel blade. The most common size is the 45/6 - a 6" x 2 3/4" pointing trowel. And a dull edge. An early right of passage is sitting down one of your first days in the field with a hopefully somewhat new bastar d file and starting the process of working down the edge of the trowel to a fine edge. It is slow and laborious, and if new to the technique you might have a bloodied finger or two. But at the end of the day, there it is in your hand - a thing of beauty. 

And your career progresses. From field school, to volunteer work, to your first paid job on up through whatever adventures your career takes you on. And while a variety of tools might pass through your hands for different excavations, there is one constant - your first trowel. That special piece of equipment you are bonded to that you pull out for those special excavations or just when you need the comfort of an old friend.

One day you look down and you realize what was once a 6" pointer is not more like a 3 and you realize - you have both been at this a long time. And your First Trowel is a touchstone for the memories of your career, good and bad.

But sometimes bad things happens - a trowel can snap. Maybe it was a hidden micro-crack from that piece of large FCR you were trying to wedge out of the pile or that metate that you needed to pop up the corner off. But there is is - laying in two silent pieces. My first trowel, which first touched soil on the top of the Temple of Hieroglyphic Stairway, in Copan Honduras broke in Pueblo Grande, Arizona. What made it even more painful was it was not even by my hand. My crew chief Jamie Merriweather had just picked it up to check a feature I was working on and it gave a final last “ting” on the caliche and then the sound of sliding metal and there the blade lay in the bottom of my pit with me staring speechless at it. I moved on, but I never forgot my first trowel.

But sometimes something worse happens:

You don't even realize it at first. You don't think much of it.

It often starts with you reaching for your back pocket to grab at your trowel.

Or putting your hand into your dig kit to pull out your trowel.

And your hand comes up empty. So you reach for your other pocket.

You rummage around in your bag more.

And again. Your hand it empty.

You start thinking "Where did I put it? It is always in it's place.".

So you repeat the steps above again. And sometimes a third time.

But it is gone. Your First Trowel is gone.

And so begins the Kübler-Ross (1969) 5 stages of Trowel Loss Grief. DABDA: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance


Denial — The first stage is denial, wherein the Archaeolgloist imagines a false, preferable reality. 

It must be back in the field vehicle.

I am sure it is in the hotel.

Dr. Rachael must have snagged it again. She is always stealing it because she loves the balance

Anger — Within hours, rarely longer the archaeologist recognizes that denial cannot continue and the second stage begins. And this is an ugly ugly stage. They become frustrated, especially at nearby crew members. The lower one is on the totem pole the more likely they are to incur the wrath of the increasingly despondent archaeologist. Archaeologists undergo typical psychological responses at this point: "WTF?", "Who, not me of course, caused this tragedy?", "Why does Chac hate me?".

Bargaining — The third stage involves the archaeologist desperately seeking consolation by any means. This often results in them bribing fellow crew members with promises of many fine cold drinks and letting others have the nicer field vehicle in exchange of them aiding in retracing the steps trying to find the lost trowel. Often the bargain is disproportionately large as the archaeologist is also trying to make amends for having called the crew a bunch of lazy, ignorant, and incompetent fucktards during the second stage.

Depression — The fourth stage is the saddest. The archaeologist enters a state of depression. During this stage the archaeologist becomes sad as they reflect on their own mortality and the adventures their First Trowel and they had:

That time they used their First Trowel scraping their best friends puke out of a feature after a hard night in a bar in Gallup. 

That epic toss the archaeologist made with their First Trowel and that satisfying "shhthunk" noise it made sinking it in the bullseye on the back-dirt the day the crew had an "Unemployed Olympics". That was the day when they found out on the local radio that the pipeline they were on had just been shut down and they were all suddenly unemployed at the end of a 10 day and at the end of their per-diem.

When Nat Geo came on to their project and you and your First Trowel made an issue with you excavating that royal burial.

That time the archaeologist hooked up with that crazy student fresh out of field school who was into

The bottom line? Depression is a bummer - and it can last awhile. It almost always ends with the grieving archaeologists retelling tales of their adventures with their First Trowel over and over again after copious amounts of drinking.

Acceptance — To the great relief of all of the other crew members the archaeologist finally enters the last stage of grieving. They finally say to themselves "It's going to be okay, I still have #2 - and that was always a great trowel too".

In this last stage, archaeologists finally embrace the irony that part of their material culture is now part of the archaeological record. They just hope that maybe, just maybe, their trowel had ended up in an anaerobic environment and somehow will be excavated by a future archaeologist millennia from now who will lift the trowel and high and recognize they are connected. And the archaeologist moves on - and they continue excavating. But they never forget their First Trowel.


References Cited


Kübler-Ross, E.

1969 On Death and Dying, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-04015-9


Kübler-Ross, E.

2005 On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, Simon & Schuster Ltd, ISBN 0-7432-6344-8


581 bc Tao Te Ching (Large Print Edition). Zhou dynasty court publishing, 


See Also:

I found out DigVentures Also has a humorous version of a 5 stages of Grief of Trowel loss. Which goes to show, you are not alone in your grief!

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