By Tegan Burton, Grad Dip in Archaeology
As the Directed Study assessment due date draws ever nearer I return again and again to numerous journal papers, book chapters and web sites. Such is the nature of a literature review project. But it is fieldwork that truly keeps me alive.
No matter where, no matter when, no matter what the activity, no matter what the weather, fieldwork is always one of my favourite things. But the most inspirational fieldwork of all is Indigenous archaeology or cultural heritage management alongside Indigenous youth.
Since 2010 I’ve been in the fortunate position of coordinating what has evolved in to a ‘Connecting to Culture’ project in northern Sydney, engaging urban Indigenous youth in Aboriginal site recording and management within National Parks. Each year has been a little different, but a persistent gap has been the involvement of women. Well, no longer, with the first tangible steps towards a young Indigenous women’s group now under way!
Our first day out together was spent visiting some Sydney rock art sites with strong connections to women. We began at the sign-posted America Bay Track engraving site where a passionate and ‘say it like it is’ Indigenous mentor introduced the idea of women’s business. We also talked about threats facing the engraving site, and whether there were simple things we could do to reduce those threats.
Our next stop was the Great Mackerel Rockshelter featured in Jo McDonald’s doctoral research, Dreamtime Superhighway (McDonald 2008). McDonald describes both cultural remains in a midden layer and a recent art phase as indicators of the presence of women at this site, perhaps as a semi-permanent living site for a smaller group in the last 500 years (McDonald 1992).
One the one hand I imagined looking at the art on the wall of the shelter through the eyes of an Anglo woman archaeologist. In doing so I was guided by what I could recall of Jo McDonald’s writing.
On the other hand I imagined looking at the art through the eyes of a young Indigenous woman, raised in the heart of the city and reconnecting with different elements of culture. For this perspective I was guided by the conversation of those around me.
Bringing these two perspectives together, archaeologist and Indigenous person, made real the question of Indigenous community perceptions of archaeologists, and of the discipline of archaeology overall.
Our second day together came a few weeks later, returning to the America Bay Track rock engraving site. Two main threats to the site were identified during our previous visit.
1) Burnt vegetation from a wildfire a few years earlier had fallen on the rock surface, providing fuel which could damage the rock in future wildfires, and promoting the accumulation of organic material across the rock surface.
2) Poor drainage along the walking track resulting in water flows and sediment deposition on the rock surface.
A small crew with simple hand tools over a couple of hours was able to make great head way in the amelioration of both of these threats.
Coming from a conservation land management background I find it hard to know where to draw the line between archaeology and cultural heritage management. Advice has been not to get too concerned, the line is often blurry.
McDonald, J. 1992 The Great Mackerel Rock Shelter excavation: Women in the archaeological record? Australian Archaeology 35:32-50
McDonald, J. 2008 Dreamtime Superhighway: Sydney Basin Rock Art and Prehistoric Information Exchange. Canberra: ANU E Press – Terra Australis 27.