Author Archives: scratchpaper

In stories lies human culture

By Helen Cronin, Master of Archaeology student

One of my colleagues died this afternoon. She’d sent an apology for this morning’s fortnightly meeting and said she’d probably be back next week. This afternoon we learned that Kay’s brother had found her dead. We all thought she just had the flu. Though I’m still in shock that she’s gone so unexpectedly, I realised that she’d left me a gift which resonates with the local memory theme I’ve been exploring during my Directed Study.

The gift of story

Archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf argues that storytelling, not empirical knowledge is the basis of human culture*. I moved to Bendigo in central Victoria (population 100,000) seven years ago. When I arrived I knew only that it had been a major gold mining town. For seven years I’ve been reading or listening to stories about the place – from people with strong family and professional connections to the Chinese history of Bendigo, from the mountain biking friends who showed me remnants of wooden water pipes and puddling machines out in the bush, from the bushwalkers who know all the water races and their history. After only seven years I feel a connection to the place that I never felt in Melbourne even though I grew up there.

Remains of puddling machine near Jackass Flat

Remains of puddling machine downstream and north-east of Jackass Flat Reservoir. This is about a half hour walk from where I live. These machines were much more efficient than hand puddling, but they needed huge amounts of water and the waste sludge was an environmental disaster. It clogged waterways and polluted water leaving inhabitants sick or thirsty. This whole landscape has literally been turned upside down.

Horse driven puddling machine in central Victoria in the 1880s.

Horse driven puddling machine in central Victoria in the 1880s. This is what the machine above would have looked like. Source: Victorian Dept of Primary Industry http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au

Story and local connections

Kay’s gift was some marvellous stories about her aunt who grew up in Bendigo in the early part of the 20th century. She knew where all the old mining camp sites were scattered around in the bush and could take her nieces and nephews on expeditions to places that are now fast disappearing under new housing estates.

Each story you hear adds to a sense of place. Each builds on the last to create a deeper experience of place. And if a newcomer like me can develop a connection through stories and knowledge of landscape, how much more so those whose relationship extends through generations – or thousands of years.

Interest is proportional to nearness in space and time

Hedley Swain suggests that people feel more excited about an archaeological find the closer they are to it in space and time. Two years ago, an commercial firm in Bendigo decided to rebuild its headquarters and an archaeological excavation was required. My directed study this semester involves assisting on an exhibition of artefacts from the dig. The site owner was sent a draft of the essay I’m working on for the exhibition catalogue and replied: “It is fascinating to think that all of the activity you write about happened on a site we now operate from.”

I’m a late comer to the study of archaeology. Though it fascinates me, I frequently question its relevance, especially when so much work only lives in unpublished technical site reports. But with the opportunity to contribute a layer to local memory here, I wonder if there isn’t some value in the discipline – especially for Aboriginal communities whose landscape of memory has been disrupted or destroyed in the last 200 years by the very activities I’ve been hearing stories about.

I agree with Holtorf – it’s in the storytelling that the real value of scholarship lies. Kay, who knew I love to listen to stories, might have agreed too.

Reference:
Holtorf 2005, cited in Hedley Swain 2007 An Introduction to Museum Archaeology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p55

What’s the value of contract archaeology?

By Helen Cronin, Master of Archaeology student. You can also read more of Helen’s work at her personal blog.

Portuguese archaeologist Leonor Medeiros’s contribution to the Day of Archaeology 2011 project was a lament.

I still feel tormented by the fact that, after you dig a site, and discover so much about it, that information is going to only a few people, and most of the sites are left to be destroyed or abandoned.

Her words echo my own feelings. The temporary exhibition I am working on asĀ  an intern will show Bendigo residents what was happening behind the fence two years ago before a new office building was constructed. But it is an unusual case. The archaeology associated with most development sites in Australia goes exactly the same way as Medeiros’s Portuguese sites. The consultant archaeologists write a report and hand it over to the developer or land owner. The artefacts disappear into a warehouse. The local paper might have carried a couple of stories about the excavation while it was happening, but that’s about it.

Archaeology for the sake of it

Why do we bother? It seems a pointless exercise to investigate archaeological sites simply for the sake of it. The Victorian Heritage Act 1995 (which does not apply to Aboriginal cultural heritage) only states that its purpose is:

to provide for the protection and conservation of places and objects of cultural heritage significance and the registration of such places and objects

It is not in the nature of legislation to question its own existence, but to what end are we protecting and conserving cultural heritage if no-one knows about it? Why excavate a site if the locals who would be most interested by dint of their connections to the place never hear the story of the site? What is the point of heritage if it doesn’t contribute to people’s sense of themselves as a part of a place because they know more of its history.

Contract archaeology is driven by funding imperatives. The developer funds the excavation reluctantly; the archaeologist must get the work done in a limited time frame and has no budget for the niceties of interpretation for a non-specialist audience. But just for a moment, put aside all those funding and resource constraints and imagine what archaeology with a purpose beyond fulfilling legislative requirements might look like.

Children working in an archaeological trench with a father leaning over the edge looking on.

Both kids and adults are fascinated by archaeology as the Port Arthur Kids Dig program demonstrates. Photo A. Kinsela

Imagine

  • There would be real community involvement.
    Instead of peering through a cyclone wire fence as they walk past, people could volunteer to help – anyone from primary school kids to retirees. People are fascinated by archaeology. Getting your hands dirty is a great way to connect with your local history. And connecting with your local history generally means you’re more willing and interested in protecting and conserving it because it means something to you. (See the Council for British Archaeology, which welcomes volunteers, for example.)
  • There would be broader and more direct communications.
    Podcasts from the archaeologists, blog entries, Facebook pages, YouTube posts, Tweets, a display at the library or council offices. This would give a much better sense of how archaeology is done and how stories emerge and change as the work goes on.
  • The reports would contain at least a summary targetted at a non-specialist audience and copies would be lodged with the local library. (See Tales of the Vasco, for example which was part of a final report and tells stories about the site based on the archaeological evidence.)

Yes, it’s probably fanciful. But nothing really changes if you don’t have a vision first, does it?

Archaeology and local memory in Bendigo

By Helen Cronin, Master of Archaeology student

As part of the research for my directed study working on an exhibition of local archaeology, I visited the ceramics consultant who had been at the excavation. The visit revealed the intimate connections between what comes out of the ground and what people remember.

Dennis O’Hoy has long been a champion of local heritage in Bendigo winning the inaugural Ray Tonkin award from Heritage Victoria for volunteer contributions to heritage earlier this year. Now retired, the former Principal Lecturer in ceramics and Head of the Department of Visual Arts at La Trobe University in Bendigo has an encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese, Bendigo Pottery and general ceramics.

It was like asking a child to show you his prized Transformers collection. He showed me photos of the Forest Street excavation (that hadn’t made it into the final report) and DVDs about various digs he’s worked on. Dennis plays a major part in the DVD about the Chinese kiln dig in 2005/6 talking about the Chinese ceramics found on the site. His back shed is crammed with shelves lined with samples of bottles, jars, Chinese and European ceramics – all stored in chronological order, all provenanced, all recorded on a database. It used to be his teaching collection. I thought back to the lab at Port Arthur in January where we were looking at shards of this sort of thing and trying to identify what they were from texts and the lab manager’s extensive knowledge. Dennis has complete samples.

I asked where the ceramics from the Forest Street site were likely to have come from. “Oh, they would have bought them here,” he said, and pulled out a copy of An American on the Goldfields. The book reproduces photos taken by American photographer Benjamin Batchelder during the early 1860s, which are now held by the State Library of Victoria.

Pall Mall Bendigo looking north from fountain sometime 1890-1901

Pall Mall Bendigo sometime between 1890 and 1901. The fountain is about a two minute walk from the Forest Street site. The photo is taken around the time of the richest artefact desposits on the site. Source: State Library of Victoria

Dennis took me for a “walk” through Bendigo’s shops. It’s something you can do when you’re both familiar with all the streets and some of the buildings still exist. He showed me where I could buy everything from dinner sets to clothes, fabric and horse gear. We also strolled into the Chinese district where he pointed out the room in building where he was born. It’s no longer there; the buildings were all knocked down in the 1970s and eventually the area become the Chinese (tourist) precinct where the Golden Dragon museum now stands.

“Remember the DVD about the Chinese kiln where I’m talking about the bowl?” he asked. Yes – he’s showing the base of a green glazed bowl excavated from the site and explaining about the trade in Chinese ceramics in the 19th century. On the base of the inside you can see a pink and green flower. On what remains of the outside of the bowl, you can see enough of the design to guess that it decorated the outside as well.

Dennis knelt down and opened a door in an old cabinet in his living room and pulled out a whole sample of the same bowl, complete with small chips on the rim apparently from everyday use. “It came from my grandfather’s shop.”

Chronicle of an exhibition

By Helen Cronin, Master of Archaeology Student
(With apologies to Carmel Schrire )

This semester I’m doing an internship with the Bendigo Art Gallery which is preparing an exhibition of artefacts from an excavation that took place here in Bendigo a couple of years ago. The internship is part of a Directed Study I’m doing as part of the coursework component of my masters.

The excavation
For around five weeks in 2009, every lunchtime I walked past an excavation going on just down the road from where I worked. I stood on one side of the cyclone wire fence watching the archaeologists working diligently on the other side. Forest Street, Bendigo turned out to be of “considerable significance” to both Bendigo and the state according to the DIG International report.

Archaeologist standing in a trench holding a bottle.

All the artefacts were packed up and disappeared into the Heritage Victoria warehouse in Melbourne, and the developer constructed a new commercial building on the site.

The exhibition
I’d met a local archaeologist who had been involved with the project and was passionate that such stories should be told locally. I agreed. When the new building opened earlier this year, the local newspaper published a supplement that included a spread about the “treasures” that had been unearthed. So I wrote to the paper suggesting that it was a shame the story wasn’t being told here in Bendigo.

Bendigo doesn’t have a dedicated European history museum (a subject of some interesting debate here), but we do have the Post Office Gallery – a satellite space of the Bendigo Art Gallery – that hosts temporary social history exhibitions. And they announced shortly after I wrote to the paper that they were planning an exhibition of archaeology from the Forest Street site.

I begged the curator to let me be involved somehow. So this semester I’m undertaking an internship with the Bendigo Art Gallery for my Directed Study. I’ll be doing the research for and writing the labels that will accompany the items.

In addition, I’ll be setting that in a theoretical context of museum archaeology. The challenge with any museum exhibition of archaeology is to somehow provide a context for an object whose main value inheres in the original context from which it has been removed. Add to that postmodern concerns about “curatorial authority” and representation/construction of the past and this should be fun.

The artefacts
Last Friday, I visited the Heritage Victoria warehouse into which the Bendigo “treasures” disappeared. Annie, the very generous Curatorial Officer, showed me boxes and boxes from all sorts of sites around Bendigo and let me go through all the artefacts that have been selected for the exhibition. It’s a strange feeling looking at the names on the boxes and knowing I ride my bike past them regularly.

Hedley Swain in An Introduction to Museum Archaeology observes that people are more excited about a find the closer they are to its source in time and space. “Being shown a relatively unimportant find that was found on their street yesterday becomes as important as a famous ancient treasure found hundreds of years ago in another country.”(p 270) I have to agree. I think I was more excited handling tea cups and figurines that came from the down the road from where I worked than if they’d let me handle Tutankhamun’s crown.

I have another day booked at the lab in early September and a lot of work to do on what I’ve gathered so far.

(Annie also suggested that there was plenty of work to be done on Bendigo assemblages fit for a masters or PhD thesis. And she was happy to help with research topics.)