Tag Archives: Excavation

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.

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.

The Medieval Adventures of an Archaeology Student in Ireland: Part 1

By Carly Strapps

Recently I travelled to Ireland and undertook three weeks of archaeological fieldwork training with the Irish Archaeological Field School. This opportunity presented itself when I was looking to visit friends in Ireland during my annual leave. With just a little bit of internet research, I discovered that a training excavation just happened to be running in the same town that I was visiting and at the same time that I would be there. It was perfect!

The Irish Archaeological Field School (IAFS) run a research and training excavation at Black Friary, Co. Meath, Ireland. The program has a strong focus on both teaching and community involvement, and is called the Blackfriary Community Archaeology Project. Black Friary is a 13th century, late medieval Dominican Friary. The site is situated outside the town walls of Trim – an Anglo-Norman medieval town. Students come from all over the world to work at this site. Not only is it a great way of gaining site-based experience on a real archaeological excavation, but it also has a strong focus on teaching methods and is university-accredited.

View of Trim, Co. Meath, from Trim Castle.

As I had only began my Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management with Flinders University this year, the training at Black Friary seemed like a fantastic opportunity.The IAFS offer three different courses for students, being An Introduction to Field Archaeology, Advanced Methods in Field Archaeology, and Introduction to Bioarchaeology and Osteoarchaeology. I had no previous experience in archaeological fieldwork and three weeks to spare, so I signed myself up for the two-week beginners course with one-week in bioarchaeology and osteoarchaeology.

Knowing that I was going to be working outdoors during an Irish summer as opposed to the summers I am used to in South Australia, I packed my gumboots and wet weather gear and off I went!

First Day on Site

I had a little trouble first locating the site, as it’s on a paddock and tucked behind a SuperValu supermarket. But when I finally found some grubby looking folk with trowels in their hands I knew I was in the right spot. I met up with the other students also starting on this date and we commenced our induction and tour.

The first thing I noticed about the site was that it was enormous. Twelve cuttings had been opened, and there were approximately fifty different students, supervisors and staff members working on various different tasks around the site. The second thing I noticed were all the sheep. They were under trees, around the features, in the cuttings. They were everywhere! Obviously both the sheep and team had become quite accustomed to each other’s presence. As I was soon to discover, they also liked to poo in the cuttings overnight. As you can imagine it was a nice surprise for us to remove each morning!

Partial view of the Black Friary site, sheep included!

Partial view of the Black Friary site, sheep included!

Continuing our tour we learnt that the IAFS had been excavating at the Black Friary site since 2010, making this year it’s fifth season. Two surveys were carried out prior to the excavation commencing, a geophysical survey and a topographical survey (informing the placement of the cuttings). There were no upstanding remains of the friary buildings above the ground, and only a few pieces of collapsed masonry could be seen. So far the cuttings had uncovered parts of the church, cloister, buildings and numerous burials.

Once the tour was done and we were handed our new gloves and trowels, it was finally time for us to begin!

Work begins!

For further information on the Irish Archaeological Field School visit: http://iafs.ie/

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 as  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


  • 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.”