Dinosaurs are not Archaeology, but what is?


I had tinkered with different ideas for this post, but seeing as it was my first ever blog, where better to look for an idea than my first ever dig! Where I learned (finally) what archaeology really is.


Whenever I reply to the question, “what do you do?” with the answer “archaeology”, I am often met with the same misinformed replies of “dinosaurs’!” or “oh, like Indiana Jones?” As a result I am repeatedly forced to attempt to correct their presumptions. “Archaeology is the study of the human past through the analysis of material remains” I say, paraphrasing dry academic quotations from university textbooks, and, while such phrases have relevance to me, I can see most people’s eyes glaze over at this point.

This left me to wonder, why? To me, archaeology is fascinating and exciting, but I could never seem to translate that into words well enough to convince people. Then I had the opportunity to be part of the Advanced Archaeology Field School. I had the chance to excavate the Magpie Creek Ruin in Sturt Gorge. I had the privilege to pull up my sleeves, get down on my knees and dig. To see history literally coming out of the ground before my very eyes, to sieve artefacts from seemingly innocuous dirt, to turn an overgrown pile of rubble into a near complete horse skeleton! To see firsthand the magic of archaeology.


And then I realized something. The reason I couldn’t fully explain archaeology before this point was because I hadn’t lived it yet. I had read about it, watched it, learned it, but never lived it. Well now I have, and I finally understand why I couldn’t convince others of how amazing archaeology really is. It’s because they haven’t lived it yet either. So, if ever you walk past a dig or know of one in your area, I encourage you to pop along, ask a few questions and see for yourselves just what archaeology is. Who knows, you might love it as much as I do.

Archaeology 101: Surviving Your First Time on Site

by Anthea Vella, Bachelor of Archaeology student.

Anthea’s archaeology tip number one: Be prepared. Be very prepared. 

For your first time on site you will need:

1 x trusty field journal

LOTS of pens and pencils and erasers

LOTS of snacks (you work up a big appetite being on site)

PLENTY of old shirts and pants

1 x raincoat

1 x pair of trusty and worn in boots

And anything else you might think will make you look like your a seasoned pro.

The Historical Field School (ARCH3308), at Magpie Creek Ruin was my first time on site, and my first time excavating. It was an exciting week, and I wish I was still out there! Spending everyday outside in the scrub and getting in the dirt was great fun and really insightful. Finding glass shards, and metal nails out in the field was really exciting, and a small jaw fragment from a likely lizard topped it off.

Anthea’s archaeology tip number two: Have a go at everything.

One of the more unforeseen events of the week was getting to use an axe to remove a massive olive tree root, which ran right through our trench. It was removed with absolute enthusiasm, as it hindered our progress and interfered with our trench contexts.

The root of all problems

The root of all problems

Getting to use the trowel, brush and sieving was good fun too. Learning these basic techniques aided in understanding how patient an archaeologist can be, and how vital they are to working on site.


Sieving fun

Anthea’s archaeology tip number three: Have fun and appreciate what you’re doing.

This is what I learned from my first week on site. You will be tired. You will be sore absolutely everywhere, in places you never knew you could be sore. You will want to sleep and eat forever. But you will have a great sense of accomplishment and achievement, because you have seen something that hasn’t been seen for a long time.

And that is how you survive your first time on site.

The Magpie Creek Ruin: An Unexpected discovery

By Daniel Hartwell, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

In April 2015, the Flinders University archaeology department ran a field school at the Magpie Creek Ruin in the Sturt Gorge Recreation Park. During that field school a group of students (including the author) were asked to excavate a feature that was thought to be a well. What those students discovered as they dug was totally unexpected …


The feature prior to excavation, square and with two distinct walls. It seemed likely to be a well.

The excavation started as expected, lots of broken ceramics were found within the feature and surrounding it. However, mid-way through the field school the group noted a strange smell as they went down and the soil got darker and more organic. Shards of bone began to show up in the trench, which prompted the group to switch to some finer tools so as not to accidentally destroy anything interesting. Soon enough an articulated spine, complete with ribs, was uncovered.


Part of a butchered carcass that the residents ate for lunch one day perhaps?

It was decided to excavate the remains to find out if was part of a butchered carcass that the residents had eaten then disposed of. However, the more the group excavated the more bones they found, in fact the skeleton filled the entire trench. One member of the group with a background in the archaeology of animal bones concluded that the legs and ribs were too long and robust to belong to a sheep or cow. The most likely candidate was a small horse but … The animal appeared to have been chopped in half, with the two halves thrown into a pit on top of each other. Further investigation led the group to conclude that the chopping was done to get the animal to fit in the pit and that rubble had been placed on top. Given how shallow the feature turned out to be (less than 60cm) this was unlikely to have been done by anyone living in the cottage, as the smell would have been overwhelming!


The excavated skeleton at the end of the dig, note the articulation of the bones but why are there two spines with two sets of ribs?

Who buried the animal and when? Was the animal buried after the cottage went out of use and the feature was used for convenience sake? Or did the animal belong to those living in the cottage and they just buried it in the feature and simply put up with the smell? These mysteries may be solved through a second excavation at a later time.

Alas, the rain on the fourth day and the lack of time remaining meant the group was unable to find and excavate the skull, which would have conclusively identified the species of animal. But the experience of excavating something so unusual and unexpected was very instructive and a lot of fun.

Trench Warfare

Archaeological excavation is not the most delicate practice, a fact that became abundantly clear after excavating Trench C at the Magpie Creek Ruin. The surface of the site consisted primarily of rubble; a little tricky to get through, but not a major problem. The first day or so of excavation went by with little difficulty, until we hit this thing:

The root of the problem

Not what I signed up for.

Heavy lifting and manual labor are no strangers to an archaeologist in the field and bruised knees, aching wrists and a stiff back are expected. What is generally not expected is a thick wooden infestation spanning the entire length of the trench. Not only was this troublesome timber blocking our access to the context below it, but it had grown through and partially destroyed the foundations of the wall that we had been searching for.

This was where our painstakingly careful excavation took a turn for the ruthless as the scourge had to be dealt with. None of us at Trench C were particularly proficient with an axe, so it took us the better part of half an hour to get through it so we could continue excavating.

Not what I signed up for.

The root of the problem.

The liberating feeling of having a root-free trench was short lived, however, as we were soon instructed to extend the trench another twenty centimeters towards the stump from whence the nuisance had come. A much shorter bout of chopping later, we had learned a valuable lesson: archaeology is the science of delicate brushwork, careful cataloguing, and occasionally hefting out a hand axe and showing nature who’s boss.

In hindsight, we probably should have seen it coming.

In hindsight, we probably should have expected it.

Who Needs Lost Cities?

By Simon Munt, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

OK, we didn’t find lost cities, the Holy Grail or Don Bradman’s first cricket bat. But on our April 2015 field school at the Magpie Creek ruin in Sturt Gorge Recreation Park, South Australia, we learned a lot of new skills about archaeological excavation!

One essential skill was that at sites such as this we would need to excavate not in arbitrary spits, but according to the natural stratigraphy. Given that our main research aims concerned the spatial arrangements of this historical cottage and how people lived in it, we used the ‘context system’, which emphasises horizontal excavation. Deeper, more vertical methods would be more useful for projects requiring a finer chronological resolution.

So this meant that we had to be on constant look-out for new ‘contexts’. An archaeological context is any discrete entity e.g. a change in the nature of the soil; a new stratigraphic layer; a pit feature; a wall; a post-hole etc. Several contexts can exist in one layer.

Our group was lucky enough to spread our anticipation of our first subterranean context over an entire day of bicep-building rock clearing! We then gained some vital skills and understandings:

  1. To pay particular attention to soil changes and to then test these appropriately
  2. To avoid digging into new contexts before completing and recording previous ones
  3. To keep all information from each context completely separate from others and fully and accurately labelled.

Eventually we found 6 contexts in our 1 m (width) x 2.23 m (length) x approx. 1 m (depth) trench. These included:

  • The surface layer of rubble (Figure 1) and
  • The brick floor of the chimney/ fireplace (Figure 2) (prior to reaching bricks this had been a different context, consisting of soil)
  • A mortar layer (Figure 2)
  • A ‘living floor,’ where most artefacts were recovered (Figure 2); and
  • A natural, ‘rammed earth’ floor (Figure 2).
Figure 1. Our trench, ‘context 0000’: surface rubble, after some clearing. Image: author.

Figure 1. Our trench, ‘context 0000’: surface rubble, after some clearing. Image: author.

Figure 2. Our trench at the end of all excavation. Image: author.       = context 0002, brick floor of chimney/ fireplace       = context 0003, mortar        = context 0004, a ‘living floor’       = context 0006, natural, ‘rammed earth’ (white arrow = magnetic north)

Figure 2. Our trench at the end of all excavation. Image: author.

– Upper section containing scale rod:chimney/ fireplace.

– Far left section, medium brown colour: mortar.

– Slightly raised, darker brown section, with white arrow:  occupation layer.

– Larger, lighter brown area: natural or ‘rammed earth’ layer.

(White arrow = magnetic north)

As for artefacts, who needs cities, grails and bats when we found an array of glass shards, a unique metal name plate, a bullet shell, mother-of-pearl buttons, animal bones and even some ceramics. After all, what would be more helpful for our research questions?

And for those of you who are keen to find out more about Sturt Gorge Recreation Park, which is right near Flinders University, check out the Friends of Sturt Gorge website: http://www.fosg.org.au/aboutus.html

For more information about archaeological excavation techniques, have a look at: Burke, H. and C. Smith 2004 The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, pp.115-162.