Tag Archives: Historical Archaeology

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?

Searching for a Saint’s Stables (a tale of one site, two trenches, seven days of excavation, 16 archaeologists, 100 primary school students and hundreds of domestic artefacts)

Sarah Nahabedian excavating in Trench A

Mary MacKillop may be Australia’s first saint, but a core part of her story revolves around her passion for providing schooling for all children.  At Penola she and her two sisters began teaching the Catholic children of the district in their own cottage, then the church, and finally a disused stables owned by William McDonald on an allotment at the corner of Queen and Bowden Streets.  The stables were only used as a school for one year between 1866 and May 1867 until a purpose-built school was ready, but it was on the 19th March 1866 that Mary is generally acknowledged to have begun to lead a religious life.  This is the date that the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart is officially recognised as being founded (http://www.visitmarymackillop.com.au/where-it-all-began-penola.html), giving the site of the stables a critical role to play in the Mary MacKillop story.  The property remained in the McDonald family until 1925 when it was transferred to The Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, South Australia Inc.  The stables were demolished sometime between 1909 and 1925 and the site is now known as MacKillop Memorial Park.

How many archaeologists does it take to survey a site ...?

We excavated one trench at the front of the block (where a previous electromag survey had identified a ‘hot spot’.  In the end this turned out to be the limestone bedrock that gives the Limestone Coast its name and nothing to do with archaeological artefact signatures) and two at the rear, hoping to intersect the site of the stables.  Trench A at the front turned out to be the photogenic trench and contained the majority of artefacts, but Trench B kept the classes from the Mary MacKillop Memorial School enthused for days by giving them the chance to excavate a real site.  We now know that it’s possible to fit at least a dozen kids in a 2 x 2m trench, along with four archaeologists, without crowding.

Black glass ‘whistle’ button recovered from Trench A

Hardly a day went by without visitors to the excavation, almost all of whom had watched Time Team and were excited just to see the process of archaeology in action.  Some were driving through Penola en route to Melbourne or Adelaide (one couple had come from Perth, heard about it on the radio and decided to drop in on their way), others were locals who remembered the site.  One visitor was the great grandson of William McDonald, who originally owned the allotment and allowed Mary MacKillop to use the stables as a temporary school, another was a council worker who helped landscape it into a park in 1971; two others had played on the block as children in the 1920s and 30s.  All of them were curious to know more about what we were doing and what we’d found.

Kerosene lamp base in situ in Trench A

Despite the rain (and the cold) everyone persevered and worked to excavate a wide range of domestic items, including ceramic and glass fragments, black facetted glass buttons, glass and ceramic beads, shell buttons, copper alloy hooks and eyes, thimbles, pins, a lamp base and coins dating variously from 1839, 1860 and the 1870s.  Because the artefact bearing layers were mainly clay, we wet sieved most of Trench A’s deposits, recovering many (many) tiny glass beads, some so small that they lodged in the 2mm mesh of the smallest sieves.

A carved bone artefact from ... you guessed it ... Trench A. Is it part of a tambour hook, a crochet hook, a lace making bobbin, or something else?

Some of the most interesting items in terms of our original goal were the 20 or so slate pencils, most of which were recovered from Trench A (the single one that was recovered from Trench B towards the very end of the excavations prompted cheering), along with small fragments of possible writing slate.

We didn’t find the location of the stables building (the concensus by the end of the week was that it was most likely located in the one third of the block that we didn’t excavate), but the high number of slate pencils does suggest a schooling function for the site.  Slate fragments, slate pencils (sometimes wax, graphite and steatite pencils as well), buttons, pins, marbles and stoneware ink bottles are all common finds on school house sites in the US (see papers in Beisaw and Gibb 2009 The Archaeology of Institutional Life), as well as Australia.  They are also found on ordinary domestic (house) sites as well, although in fewer numbers.  William McDonald also ran a school at Penola, however, so we can’t be certain yet whether these items relate to Mary MacKillop’s time there or not.

Shaun Adams being interviewed by James Wakelin from TEN News

The Team:  Shaun Adams, Rhiannon Agutter, Susan Arthure, Angeline Buckler, Cherrie Delieuen, Samantha Fidge, Rikke Hammer, Mark Hoey, Sarah Hutchinson, Scott Jacob, Clare Leevers, Sarah Nahabedian, Vanessa Orange, Rachel Power, Hayley Prentice and Chantal Wight.

You can see the TEN and Nine network television news coverage of the excavations (including interviews with Clare, Shaun and Sister Chris) here.

Sister Chris in action in Trench A (hat courtesy of Shaun Adams)

We would like to thank the wonderful Penola community for their support of the project (especially Tony for loaning us his shed and Sisters Chris and Mary from the Sisters of St Joseph for their wonderful hand-made morning teas and lunches) and for visiting us on site.  The ladies at the Mary MacKillop Interpretive Centre gave us a fabulous dinner on Thursday night, complete with entertainment and a tour of the St Joseph’s school house and centre.  Andy, Darren and Bear at Whiskas Woolshed gave us a four course farewell dinner on the last night.  Thanks also to Andy for organising the impromptu tour of Yallum Park so that we could meet his dad and marvel at his magnificent house.

Claire’s ‘Mission on a Mission’

By Masters in Archaeology Student Claire Keating

Between the 24th June and the 20th July myself and fellow Masters of Archaeology student Amy Della-Sale accompanied Dr. Mick Morrison to the mining township of Weipa on western Cape York Peninsula to assist in the collection of archaeological data as part of a research project investigating the post-contact history of Aboriginal communities on western and central Cape York Peninsula. Our work this trip was at a place known to Anhatangaith Traditional Owners as Waypandan.

My thesis is part of this research program and sets out to understand the activities of the Moravian and Presbyterian missionaries who established two missions in the Weipa area between 1898 and 1963. It is the first of these missions at Waypandan which is the focus of my research. Having operated between 1898 and 1932 this place is of very high importance to the community and as such constitutes a poignant research question especially in terms of the activities of its European and Indigenous inhabitants. My aim is to re-evaluate survey data collected in 2008 in light of photographic and historical resources in order to understand with greater certainty the spatial layout of the mission compound itself.

Tidying up field plans at Waypandan

Data collection for my portion of this project consisted of my wandering solo around the mission laden with photo books, compass, measuring tapes, marker flags, a GPS unit and a drawing board becoming familiar with every fence post, building post, earth mound, artefact scatter, and stone line within a (roughly) hundred square metre area. However despite my solitude and feeling somewhat like a pack-horse I relished in the fascinating puzzle I saw unfolding before my eyes. What at first seemed to be a rather straight-forward research objective soon became not so. Programs of building relocation and rebuilding both during the mission’s lifetime and beyond have created an archaeological record which at once crosses several temporal periods.

Improvising in the field

In all, three weeks were spent mapping and evaluating the mission landscape of Waypanden which proved to be an extremely complex and at times challenging study area. Up on the mission there was much head scratching going on as I struggled to make sense of a fragmentary archaeological record and a photographic collection which began to pose more questions than answers; meanwhile down in the Aboriginal village Morrison was doing a fair bit of chin scratching as he and Della-Sale stumbled across more and more features that needed to be recorded.

In all seriousness though, at the close of this field season I came away with so much more than the archaeological data needed to complete my thesis. The experience of working and, for a time, living with the Indigenous community of Weipa was so enriching and warming that when I returned to the cold (literally) reality of Adelaide, I felt rather home-sick for the smells of the campfire, the sounds of the bush, the chattering children, and the stories of the old people. Though my time spent with the community was rather brief it has made me more determined than ever in my goal to one day work closely with Indigenous communities to help preserve their cultural heritage for benefit of future generations.

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/