The Perils of Trench B

As an undergraduate student I have never been on a field school before and I had no idea what to expect or what I was in for. Little did I know, when I was assigned to the A-team who (foolishly) put our hands up to excavate Trench B at Magpie Creek Ruin, that it sealed our collective fate for the rest of the week. In this case ‘B’ definitely did not stand for ‘best’. As we were later to find out, if any trench is to encounter difficulties during an excavation it will likely be Trench B (or so the cynics told me).

The starting point

The starting point

Trench B was covered in rocks. Not small rocks, but large ones which had to be moved before we could start excavating. In fact, as we progressed from removing the top layer of rock fall to beginning to remove the soil, it became clear that most of Trench B was rock and rubble, most likely as a result of a collapsed interior wall. There was so much of it in Trench B that it took us three days to remove Context 0001 – our first layer. A little daunting when our neighbours in Trench A had hit their seventh context and our friends in Trench E had finished their trench and made a start on Trench F. And we hadn’t even touched a trowel: it was still all mattocks over in Trench B.

It was not until day four that we finally succeeded in removing our first context and were greeted with three shiny new contexts! Actually, they were not shiny and they were definitely not new. But to our team, after three days of rubble, it was akin to finding gold. While the weather turned nasty, it was sunshine and smiles in our trench as we sieved what we believe to be the occupation layer which contained more finds than any other we had removed. It was also what would turn out to be our final layer before we hit the natural soil. Well, it was good while it lasted.

For all that Trench B presented us with a physical challenge for the week that we spent in it, it also revealed some interesting information. As the rubble was removed the structure of the exterior and interior walls was revealed to show that the walls shared common stones, indicating that the entire structure was most likely built in one stage, rather than having the interior walls added once the exterior was completed.

The finished product

The finished product

So, as we covered up all our hard work on the final day and reflected on our progress, it was clear that this Trench B had done its best to live up to the standards of those that had come before it. And while I may never again put my hand up when I hear the words “Trench B”, this particular Trench B has a special place in my memory.

Time Makes Fools Of Us All

Time has always been a major problem for humankind and its constraints can severely hinder progress or developments when you have a specific time period to work in. Whether this is an issue in the office or out in the field, time is a consistent enemy that can stop us in our tracks. The recent historical archaeology field school undertaken at the Magpie Creek Ruin gave me first hand experience of this issue, but left my team more confused about the evidence we were finding of human behaviour as time progressed.

A rocky  start to get through.

We already had a rocky start to get through.

As part of the excavation procedure at this site, my teammates and I were instructed to excavate part of a mid-19th century cottage and find any evidence of a wall that may have separated the largest of the two rooms in the building. The wall was indeed found within the five days that we spent on site, but what we uncovered led to more questions than answers. We managed to uncover a secondary collapsed wall that we didn’t expect to find and which left us puzzled as to its placement.

An unexpected surprise.

An unexpected surprise.

The rocks above this wall were lying horizontally with their sides facing upwards and must have fallen over from the section of the wall we had found, but the dimensions and length of the wall seemed different when compared to the rest of the building. With the amount of time we had in the field, we could not continue to focus on finding out how long it was or what purpose it really served. All we knew was that it must have been longer, as we could see other rocks on the surface that lined up with what we had already uncovered. Sadly, this will remain a mystery until another excavation starts back up but just goes to prove that uncovering the past can lead to more questions than answers.

The mystery continues...

The mystery continues…

Sifting through stereotypes in Australian archaeology

By Jacob Gwiazdzinski, Graduate Diploma of Archaeology and Heritage Management.

Having just been a part of an excavation in Adelaide’s outer suburbs and winding down into a quiet Friday retail shift, I was quite unprepared for the unique position I had stumbled into for revealing (and dispelling) some of the more unusual myths about archaeology in Australia. An interested young family provided the commentary:

‘Do you really need to study all that?’

Indeed, even more respectable representations of archaeology can tend to focus on the time we spend in the dirt, shrouding the immense academic cogs that make our jobs tick. As I was quick to explain, while a PhD does not an archaeologist make, the extra years of a higher degree can be essential to getting at the big(ger) money in archaeology (Ulm et al. 2013:40), and, as I had realised just that week, even the digging can take years to get to.

‘You’re too nice to be an archaeologist’

Perhaps most surprising, the comment does reflect the fractious relationship that archaeologists and communities have had, stymying the darker, earlier years of the profession.

Good communication skills are essential in archaeology.

Good communication skills are essential in archaeology.

Thankfully, as I was able to reassure them, those times have changed, with archaeologists and communities recognising the values in each other (Greer et al. 2002:283), as was demonstrated to great effect by those visitors who turned out and were happily welcomed by all to the little Magpie Creek site.


Greer, S., R. Harrison and S. McIntyre-Tamwoy 2002 Community-based archaeology in Australia. World Archaeology 34(2):265-287.

Ulm, S., S. Nichols and C. Dalley 2013 Australian archaeology in profile: A survey of Australian archaeologists. In J. Jameson and J. Eogan (eds), Training and Practice for Modern Day Archaeologists pp.31-51. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Magpie Creek Ruin: Apocalypse? Maybe not.

By Rhys Jones, Graduate Diploma Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Management.

April 2015, Magpie Creek Ruin, Sturt Gorge Recreation Park.  I found myself eager to be a part of my first ever field school, run by Flinders University archaeology department. The field school started off as any other, we arrived on location and were assigned a groups and trenches. We were assigned trench E and F, as budding archaeologists we were excited to be assigned two trenches, but little did we know what we would discover…

Day 2, Trench E. This trench was excavated in one day, its purpose was to find a doorway into one of the rooms of the building that once stood here. We believe we found this doorway, as on both sides of the trench you can clearly identify a gap in the wall consistent with what you would expect from a doorway. The find in this trench were the usual glass, ceramics, and nails, with one notable acceptation; 15+ .22 caliber bullet casing. An interesting development, why would there be so many bullet casings in a doorway? What happened here? It just didn’t add up…. Until we opened trenched E.

Trench E, Day 2 - Close

Trench E, Day 2 – Close

Day 3, Trench F. We excavated a stone feature that had been identified, about 10 meters from Trench D. As we progressed through the day, we found that the feature had 3 walls, contained bits of barbed wire, nails, ceramics, buttons, various metal items, clay pipes, and a skeleton…

Trench F, Day 3 – Uncovering of Skeleton

Trench F, Day 3 – Uncovering of Skeleton

Day 4, Trench F. What was really going on here? What had we stumbled across? All these questions running through my mind, but why? What had we uncovered that would have me so perplexed? During the day we had gradually uncovered more and more of the skeleton which may have been from a horse, the way it was positioned was of particular interest to me. The skeleton was split in half, with the lower half of the skeleton aligned in the opposite direction to that of the first half, facing inwards to the stone walls, whereas the upper half was at the other end, facing towards the gully in a position that looked like it might have been trying to crawl away… It all makes sense now, the bullet casings at the door, and the weird placement of the skeleton… Zombie Horse!!, The family in the cottage had tried to defend itself from this zombie invasion, but when they realized they couldn’t kill it they affixed barb wire to it to hold it down and proceeded to cover it with dirt and rubble and vacated the area.

Trench F, Day 4 – More Skeleton Revealed, Trench Closed

Trench F, Day 4 – More Skeleton Revealed, Trench Closed

This was my favorite interpretation I had during the week, although the possibility is near impossible, more excavation does need to be undertaken to fully understand what this feature was, its relation to the cottage and why there was a horse skeleton contained within it. I enjoyed myself incredibly in this field school and gained a lot of experience and got to meet a lot of great people.


What lies beneath us?

The Historical Archaeology Field School of 2015 was held at Magpie Gully Ruin, located in the Sturt Gorge Recreation Park. The purpose of this field school was to learn more about the site and to have the opportunity to practice our archaeological skills, some of which were new to us. Students had a total of 5 days, working 9 till 5, measuring, recording excavating and photographing, as well as cleaning. Our group had the task of excavating Trench A, which was home to fire ants, spiders and the occasional scorpion.

Trench A before the rubble was removed

Trench A before the rubble was removed (photo 1)

While removing the rubble and large rocks from our trenches, we decided that over the years the walls and chimney had collapsed. Evidence of structural damage was observed and noted.

Trench A after rubble was cleared away

Trench A after rubble was cleared away (photo 2)

photo 2

Trench A during excavation (photo 3)

In the photos you can clearly see the difference in the level of soil that was removed and sieved in photos 2 and 3. In photos 3 and 4, there is a faint visible line on the interior of the stone wall showing how much soil was removed from Trench A. Once we had removed the rocks and cleared away the dirt we were surprised by what we had uncovered below the surface.

original brickwork flooring

Original brickwork flooring (photo 4)

Our group had uncovered brickwork flooring underneath the layers of rubble. We believed this to be the base layer of the original floor of the cottage. However, as shown in the photograph (4), the brickwork did not continue across the trench. It appeared that several bricks had been removed or broken off. Our group wondered whether other people living in the area may have needed supplies and possibly removed some of the bricks to use in their own home.

It would have been interesting if we were able to continue excavating to see if the original brickwork flooring extended across to the entrance of the cottage, rather than just around the fireplace.