Masters Thesis: Fieldwork at Tirringie 09

Who: A mish-mash of archaeology students and supervisors, both home-grown and interstate recruits
What: 10 windblown days of surveying, excavating, sieving, sorting, analysing, recording, examining, interpreting
Where: Tirringie, about 45 km from Meningie in the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray River region of South Australia
When: 15-25 February 2009

In mid-February 09, a group of intrepid archaeologists (and archaeologists-in-training) braved the harsh and often-gruelling conditions (aka home-made cookies, spa baths and trashy tv shows) to spend 2 weeks at the Coorong working with Ngarrindjeri community members to survey, record, excavation, investigate and rehabilitate a culturally important Old People’s burial site.
Located approximately 45 km from the small town of Meningie on the shore of Lake Alexandrina, the Tirringie burial site, despite being a site of known cultural significance, had not been the focus of any previous archaeological work. The site itself comprises a large midden situated in an area of low sand-dunes along the lake shore. In addition to the extensive shellfish remains, heat cracked cooking stones, otoliths and fish vertebrae and stone artefacts in the site, it is also associated with multiple burials of Ngarrindjeri Old People. In recent years this site, in addition to a many others throughout the region, has experienced severe degradation as a result of changing environmental conditions and the effects of non-native animals such as rabbits, cattle and sheep. With the integrity of the site in danger, the local Ngarrindjeri community identified Tirringie as a site of particular concern; my Masters thesis, designed to address site-specific attributes, has been developed through close consultation with relevant Ngarrindjeri organizations and individuals as a direct result.

My project has involved a series of different steps to record, investigate and rehabilitate the site, including:

Site Surveying

The site was recorded using a combination of offset surveying, detailed mapping of artefact distributions using a Total Station and RTK GPS surveying to map the landscape features and topography. The more technical surveys (ie RTK and Total Station) were carried out by Rob and Kara with the help of some of the local rangers from Raukkan and Camp Coorong, with the aim of creating a site map including all features of interest. It is anticipated that in addition to site plans, a fly-through (three-dimensional representation of the site enabling topography/elevation to be viewed) will also be created. Offset surveys conducted by Lynley, Heidi and Louise recorded the finer details of the blowout, plotting a range of cultural materials including shells, fire cracked rocks, lithics, otoliths, faunal remains and bone fragments. The fact that the latter needed to be carried out because someone (ok – Lynley and Heidi) broke the Total Station part-way through the survey probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but is a good example of why you need to have a level of flexibility with regards to archaeological fieldwork and the approach you want to take.

Test Pit Excavation

A 1×1 m test pit was also excavated in the midden by myself, Heidi, Matt, Louise and Alana to a maximum depth below surface of ca 80 cm. In situ sediment and organic (primarily charcoal and shell) samples were obtained so the age of the shell midden could be established and cultural material present within the midden recovered for subsequent analysis for insight into subsistence strategies.

Analysis of Old People’s Remains

In a particularly disturbed part of the sand-dune, the remains of a number of Old People were eroding. Many of the remains were highly fragmented and weathered as a result of their exposure. It was also clear that skeletal remains were continuing to erode, many of which were in a better state of preservation. All surface remains were collected and analysed by Kate and I to identify any diagnostic features and to measure characteristics such as the length, orientation and palaeopathology of long bones (femur, tibia, fibula, humerus, radius, ulna). Remains of partially intact Old People were excavated (so as to prevent their eroding in the near future and suffering further weathering) and again analyses were conducted to determine age, gender and any palaeopathology exhibited. In accordance with Ngarrindjeri community wishes, all skeletal analysis was carried out on-site and at the completion of the trip all remains were reburied at the same site in a location specified by community members. Based on the preliminary results of the analysis, six discrete burials were located within the sand-dune, with a further four individuals identified amongst the fragmentary surface remains.

After 10 days filled with much laughter and learning, trench-digging and teamwork, salad and sediment and most importantly the company and support of a brilliant group of people, now the hard work begins back in the lab, sorting, analysing and interpreting all material collected.

Name: Dr Lynley Wallis
Qualification: Senior lecturer at Flinders University and my supervisor
Claim to fame: Poster girl for cream cheese and crusketts, demonstrator of extreme technological prowess, maker of ‘Sputnik cupcakes’ as featured on Nicey’s blog

Name: Dr Kate Domett

Qualification: Biological anthropologist at James Cook University and fountain of all anthropological knowledge
Name: Rob Koch
Qualification: Lecturer in the Land Information Management Systems Programme at TAFE SA and general Total Station Guru
Name: Clare von Maltzahn
Qualification: Postgraduate student in final year of Master of Archaeology coursework program at Flinders University and general slave-driver
Nickname: Salad girl
Claim to fame: Accidentally looking like a pirate, a very suave dirt moustache
Name: Kara Mackay
Qualification: 4th year engineering student from Canada, assisting Rob with surveying
Claim to fame: Creator of the nutella and home-made cookies temptation

Name: Alana Rossi
Qualification: Research Masters student at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia
Nickname: Squirrelly Joe
Claim to fame: Porting a rather squirrelly demeanour in photos, being tempted down the same fox hole on 3 separate occasions
Name: Matthew Hornsby
Qualification: 3rd year undergraduate student at Flinders University
Claim to fame: Excessive use/abuse of the hangover plant, cheese on cheese lunches
Name: Heidi Pitman
Qualification: 3rd year undergraduate student at Flinders University
Claim to fame: Official salad advocate

Name: Louise Holt
Qualification: Technical officer at Flinders University and part-time postgraduate Master of Cultural Heritage Management student
Claim to fame: Taking the term ‘dirt bathing’ to a whole new level
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One Response to Masters Thesis: Fieldwork at Tirringie 09

  1. kdmackay_

    >Hey Clare, its good to see that you're doing well. Interesting blog!Kara