The Mattock-The right tool for the job

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a run of photos on Twitter and Facebook of broken spades. People have tried using their garden spades to dig out established shrubs and trees or trying to break up hard landscaping. These were all cases of people using the wrong tool for the wrong job.

As mentioned in previous blogs I have lots of building work going on and I am having to remove a number of established shrubs to accommodate the changes. One of the hardest jobs has been removing the hebes from the front garden. I think these have been growing there for about a decade and were starting to die off and no longer flower. The ground was a solid mass of roots. There was almost no soil between the roots to depths of four to six inches. I removed the first one with shovel, loopers and weeding knife. While this got the plant out I knew these were the wrong tools for the job. I figured an axe might be a better tool for the job so did a bit of research and discovered the mattock. I asked around to see if anyone had one I could borrow for the job and had no luck. Pretty much no one even knew what a mattock is. This seems a great pity for such a useful versatile tool.

The term mattock is sometimes used interchangeably with a pickaxe. However, they are different tools. A mattock is a tool with a long handle and metal head. The head has two sides. On one side a narrow axe, then on the other an adze (a horizontal axe blade). The handle is usually wood or fibreglass. The axe head is not fixed on. It can be dismantled for transport. To put the head on it is slid down the handle. Then tapping the handle into a firm surface allows the weight of the head to secure it onto the handle. As such it isn’t designed to be swung up high as the blade can become loose. The mattock is lifted to just above waist height and the weight does much of the digging. The axe can smash apart roots. Then the adze can be used to scrape through. It works through mats of root and sod more easily than the shovel could. The weight adds force you would struggle to deliver with a spade even pushing with your foot. While still a hefty tool to use it is going to prove useful in my front garden where I have solid soil to break it up. This isn’t suitable for breaking up rock, a pickaxe would need using for that. But my ground is just compressed soil with lots of thick roots through.

Evidence for mattocks goes back to the Mesolithic period with mattocks made of antler. By the Bronze Age the mattock design we still use had been established. They have also been used to strip blubber from whales by the Inuit people and the Broch people in Scotland. It was used in agriculture to make planting trenches. Specific forms have been developed for different jobs such as the hop mattock with two forks instead of the axe. The shorter Japanese Ikagata has the same basic adze side combined with a three-pronged fork used for weeding. But the basic design of the mattock has remained the same signalling that this is a useful tool.

BBC-A history of the world-Matthew Bigg’s mattock

A hand mattock in the Hornsea Museum ca. 1840

Within Sumerian mythology the God Enlil created the mattock to give to the humans. It is described as an object of beauty made of pure gold and a head made from lapis lazuli. The tool gives the Sumerians the power to build their cities, subjugate the people and take up weeds. Enlil is an important God within Sumerian mythology separating Earth and Heaven making the world habitable for humans. He is seen as a patron god of agriculture. It’s interesting to read about a tool like this in mythology which has lost its significance in the modern world. But for much of human history, this tool has proved invaluable in digging the earth.

Mesopotamian daggers and mattock head ca. 1000 BCE

My mattock finished off the remaining four hebes in an afternoon. It had taken me an afternoon to remove one without. Whether it is a tool of the gods or not it has proved worth its cost. This might not be a tool you are going to use regularly but it will save time when it is employed for the right job. Which I suppose you can say about any garden tool. But it seems worth saving the lives of all those broken spades and forks and recommending you get a mattock for the serious business of removing roots.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my shout out for this humble and almost forgotten tool. In a day and age where most families will only have a spade, maybe a fork and a hand trowel it is worth looking back to think if you are using the right tool for the job. Is it worth struggling on or go and spend a tenner on a tool that will save you time and stress using the wrong tool? I know I’m thankful I bought my mattock.

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And as a bonus the mattock in poetry.

 SIMON LEE,

THE OLD HUNTSMAN,

With an Incident in which he was concerned.

In the sweet shire of Cardigan,
Not far from pleasant Ivor-hall,
An Old Man dwells, a little man,
I’ve heard he once was tall.
Of years he has upon his back,
No doubt, a burthen weighty;
He says he is three score and ten,
But others say he’s eighty.

A long blue livery-coat has he,
That’s fair behind, and fair before;
Yet, meet him where you will, you see
At once that he is poor.
Full five-and-twenty years he lived
A running Huntsman merry;
And, though he has but one eye left,
His cheek is like a cherry.

No man like him the horn could sound,
And no man was so full of glee;
To say the least, four counties round
Had heard of Simon Lee;
His Master’s dead, and no one now
Dwells in the hall of Ivor;
Men, Dogs, and Horses, all are dead;
He is the sole survivor.

And he is lean and he is sick,
His dwindled body’s half awry;
His ancles, too, are swoln and thick;
His legs are thin and dry.
When he was young he little knew
Of husbandry or tillage;
And now is forced to work, though weak,
—The weakest in the village.

He all the country could outrun,
Could leave both man and horse behind;
And often, ere the race was done,
He reeled and was stone-blind.
And still there’s something in the world
At which his heart rejoices;
For when the chiming hounds are out,
He dearly loves their voices!

His hunting feats have him bereft
Of his right eye, as you may see:
And then, what limbs those feats have left
To poor old Simon Lee!
He has no son, he has no child,
His Wife, an aged woman,
Lives with him, near the waterfall,
Upon the village Common.

Old Ruth works out of doors with him,
And does what Simon cannot do;
For she, not over stout of limb,
Is stouter of the two.
And, though you with your utmost skill
From labour could not wean them,
Alas! ’tis very little, all
Which they can do between them.

Beside their moss-grown hut of clay,
Not twenty paces from the door,
A scrap of land they have, but they
Are poorest of the poor.
This scrap of land he from the heath
Enclosed when he was stronger;
But what avails the land to them,
Which they can till no longer?

Few months of life has he in store,
As he to you will tell,
For still, the more he works, the more
Do his weak ancles swell.
My gentle Reader, I perceive
How patiently you’ve waited,
And I’m afraid that you expect
Some tale will be related.

O Reader! had you in your mind
Such stores as silent thought can bring,
O gentle Reader! you would find
A tale in every thing.
What more I have to say is short,
I hope you’ll kindly take it:
It is no tale; but, should you think,
Perhaps a tale you’ll make it.

One summer-day I chanced to see
This Old Man doing all he could
To unearth the root of an old tree,
A stump of rotten wood.
The mattock tottered in his hand;
So vain was his endeavour
That at the root of the old tree
He might have worked for ever.

“You’re overtasked, good Simon Lee,
Give me your tool,” to him I said;
And at the word right gladly he
Received my proffered aid.
I struck, and with a single blow
The tangled root I severed,
At which the poor Old Man so long
And vainly had endeavoured.

The tears into his eyes were brought,
And thanks and praises seemed to run
So fast out of his heart, I thought
They never would have done.
—I’ve heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
With coldness still returning.
Alas! the gratitude of men
Has oftener left me mourning.

William Wordsworth