Tag Archives: Excavation

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

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.”

Public interpretation and the Port Adelaide Community Archaeology Project

By Rikke Hammer, Graduate Student

This blog post is the first in a series of seven reflecting on various aspects of my four week industry practicum with post-graduate student Adam Paterson at Flinders University. Adam is doing his Phd research on understanding how public participation in archaeological research can contribute to and improve management of cultural heritage. The research forms part of the Port Adelaide Community Archaeology Project and is funded by the Australian Research Council. Also supporting the project are the South Australian Department of Environment and Heritage, the South Australian Maritime Museum and Archaeological and Heritage Management Solutions (Paterson n/d).

The Port Adelaide Community Archaeology project has involved several excavations around Port Adelaide, an area unique for its buried landscape of 19th century buildings and artefacts resulting from continuous deposition of sediment material to prevent against flooding. One of these excavations, the site of two 19th century working class family homes in Jane Street, excavated by Susan Briggs in 2003, will form the basis of a public archaeology event to be held during the Port Festival in Port Adelaide on 8 & 9 October 2011. It was  preparations for this public happening that occupied my time during the first week of the practicum. The event will be executed as an interactive “meet the archaeologist” event and will include opportunities for people to test their archaeological illustration skills as well as explore the practical and interpretive aspects of archaeology through learning how archaeologists read the soil and its contents. One idea for the event is to reconstruct the stratigraphic profile of two separate sections of Briggs’ 2003 excavation trench that illustrate different aspects of the site and the archaeological process and to incorporate authentic artefacts from the excavation. Plates 1 and 2 shows the sections selected for reconstruction.

Plate 1 Section one, collapsed wall.

Plate 2 Section two, brick, stone and cobble floor and vertical stratigraphy of yellow sand lenses underlying grey beach sand.

As part of the public outreach program heritage posters will also be produced. My task specifically, was to identify the stratigraphic contexts and artefacts found in the sections of Brigg’s trench that Adam wants to recreate based on photographs and site records. A second task involved reading up on interpretive archaeology focusing on tiered communication and interactive presentation strategies.  My next blog will focus more on the topic of public archaeology and the latter two concepts that are core to a well-designed and successful interpretation program.

References:
Paterson, A. n/d Port Adelaide Community Archaeology. Retrieved 12 August
2011 from http://www.flinders.edu.au/ehl/archaeology/research-
profile/current-projects/adam-paterson.cfm.

Industry partners:
South Australian Department of Environment and Heritage: http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/
The South Australian Maritime Museum: http://www.history.sa.gov.au/maritime/maritime.htm
Archaeological and Heritage Management Solutions: http://www.ahms.com.au/

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.)

Indigenous Archaeology Test Excavation, NSW

Indigenous Archaeology Test Excavation, NSW

Background

The first week of May saw me in the field for OzArk once more, this time directing the excavation of an Indigenous site in Central Western NSW. The site is a farm paddock situated on the northern edge of town, previously used for potato growing and stock grazing. The property is subject to a rural residential sub-division proposal and had been identified as an Open Site with Potential Archaeological Deposit (PAD) several years ago. Surface artefact scatters within potato furrows had suggested that sub-surface deposits existed at the location and the excavation was designed to determine the extent of the deposit and the integrity of any associated archaeological features.

Methodology

The excavation methodology was as follows:

1.            Mechanical (backhoe) excavation of between eleven and fourteen 1 m x 1 m test pits, at 20 cm spits;

2.            On site wet sieving of all excavated deposits; and

3.            Post-excavation artefact analysis.

As director, I had arranged all staffing, accommodation and plant hire prior to the excavation. On site, I directed the laying out of the site (under the supervision of Dr Jodie Benton, Principal Archaeologist), briefed all staff, monitored both excavation and sieving processes, and recorded site / pit information on recording forms, stratigraphic drawings and with a digital camera. Following the excavation, my key tasks were report writing, preliminary contact with the local Land Council, and (in conjunction with Ben Churcher) artefact analysis.

Results

Geomorphological evidence from the pits demonstrated that ploughing had disturbed the entire A Horizon. Cultural material was excavated from the A Horizon of most pits, however most were broken flakes / flaked pieces, with a small quantity of non-Indigenous glass / ceramic material, reflecting the disturbed nature of the site. Minimal cultural material was recovered from the B Horizon. No evidence of archaeological features was present at the site and the distribution of artefacts suggested that the original assemblage had been spread over the entire paddock as a result of ploughing.

Lessons learnt

1.            Plant. A test excavation involving any type of plant (in this case back hoe / water truck / bob cat) will have a better chance of success if you have done your homework beforehand. In this case, confirming that the water truck had correct hose connections, appropriate hose lengths, adequate pressure and volume and a pre-deployment water supply meant that there were no delays due to incorrect fittings, inadequate pressure, or the need to re-fill during the day. Likewise, confirming that the backhoe had the correct kind of mud bucket and that the operator understood the exact nature of the holes we needed meant that he was prepared to start work immediately (in fact he produced excellent pits!).

2.            Photography. The job of directing an excavation involves regular / continual monitoring of the various activities being conducted on site. Becoming TOO involved with monitoring, however, can lead you to either forget to, or run out of time to, record and photograph the operation adequately. I made the mistake of focussing too much on monitoring for the first morning and consequently I did not photograph the back hoe excavating any pits. Such a photograph would have been useful come report writing time; this only occurred to me about an hour after the back hoe had finished and left the site! (I did get a photo of the bob cat backfilling the pits though!) The lesson learnt here, then, is to make sure every task conducted on site is photographed, for example:

            a.            Setting up / laying out pits;

            b.            Excavation (whether mechanically or by hand);

            c.            Filling buckets;

            d.            Sieving; and

            e.            Artefact cleaning and recording.

3.            Paperwork. Ensure that all administrative paperwork is filled in before work commences. OH&S is particularly important here (if you haven’t done the paperwork and things go wrong, you have dramas!). Probably the other really important piece of paperwork is some kind of Indigenous community participation form indicating who participated, in what ways, and what their views on the project are. This is helpful when writing the report as all of that information needs to be written up. It also helps to establish that the correct community participation procedures have been followed.