Call for papers: Indigenous Knowledge, Stewardship and Heritage Management session at the 2014 Australian Archaeological Association Annual Conference

Annie Ross and I are convening a session at the Australian Archaeological Association Annual Conference in Cairns entitled ‘Indigenous Knowledge, Stewardship and Heritage Management‘. The session idea comes out of Annie’s longstanding research in this area, as well as my own ongoing research around this issue at Weipa. The abstract is as follows:

Indigenous-driven land management or ‘stewardship’ programmes are increasingly common throughout Australia. These programmes vary considerably, but typically focus on Indigenous values, knowledge and approaches to the management of tangible and intangible heritage. They are often based on governance structures that recognise local cultural norms, work towards implementing objectives determined by local language or clan groups and typically employ community members as rangers and in other similar roles. Our contention is that these programmes represent important spaces for innovative and genuinely community-based approaches to heritage management and the stewardship of Indigenous cultural landscapes, thereby situating applied research in an ‘Indigenous archaeologies’ methodology. This session seeks contributions from Indigenous community members, archaeologists, anthropologists and others who are working within such programmes. What are the varied approaches that Indigenous communities are developing and applying and what lessons are there in these approaches for cultural heritage management and archaeological method and theory? What are the relationships between Indigenous management programmes and the goals of an Indigenous archaeologies methodology? We encourage papers that explore these and related issues.

The call for papers for our session is completely open, and we’re keen to hear from people working all over Australia and internationally. If you’re interested, and if you have any questions, then please drop me a line or  leave a comment below.  Abstracts can be lodged via the online abstract submission system before the 27th June 2014.

It’s also worth noting that the Conference Organising Committee are providing up to $1,000 to support Indigenous delegates and students who attend and participate in this year’s conference. See the guidelines at the AAA Conference website.

Upgrading site, please ignore the mess

I know, it’s been kinda quiet around here of late. The reason is that I’ve simply been too flat out with my research and teaching to find time to think about writing blog posts. As well as that, another website project had burnt me out a little. In any case, I will be getting  things moving here again in the coming days and weeks.

First thing is first: the site has aged and is overdue for an update. During that process, some things will look odd or won’t work properly. My apologies for this, I’m working on it :)

Wanted: professional archaeologists in the Adelaide region to participate in our MOOClet filming!

I blogged last week about the new MOOClet focussing on Australian Professional Archaeology that we’re developing and that will be offered through Flinders University later this year. As part of this, we are planning a series of five to seven short, professionally produced films that present edited interviews with a range of Australian professional archaeologists discussing key issues covered in the topic. At the moment, we’re looking for people or organisations who are open to getting involved in the filming and interviews in July and who are in the Adelaide region.

One key point we are making in this topic and that needs to come through in the filming is that Australian archaeologists provide an important and diverse range of services in Australian society, across a wide range of industry and community settings. To help illustrate that, I want to work with people who have a range of different specialisations (Indigenous, maritime and historic), different levels of expertise (recent graduates through to retirees) and of course who work in a variety of contexts (community heritage management, commercial firms, museums, Government, Universities).

So, if you work in professional archaeology, are passionate about your work and are keen to be involved in the filming for version 1.0 of the MOOClet, then get in touch! Unfortunately, our budget means that we’re only able to film in the Adelaide region in July or early August so if you have any ideas for great locations where real archaeologists are doing some real archaeology, I would love to hear from you. My contact details can be found here.

Announcing our MOOClet: Australian Professional Archaeology

I’m pleased to be able to announce here that in around October this year, the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University will be offering a fully online open course (OOC) in archaeology. The topic differs from many other introductory topics in archaeology though, because we focus on telling the story of archaeologists in contemporary Australian society: what is archaeology, what do real archaeologists do and what are some of the key contexts in which archaeologists work?

This may seem an odd choice for an online topic, however the rationale is simply that our Graduate Programs in Archaeology and Heritage Management are heavily oriented towards helping students move into real jobs in the real world. While academia is a good option for some, there are very fulfilling opportunities for graduates to work as consultant archaeologists, as heritage or interpretation officers, or in archives and museums. In fact, people with these skills are in high demand and in Australia today the role of archaeology is much much more than simply digging up old sites. A considerable part of what we do is instead focussed on helping to look after the places and objects that communities value, and to help others to learn about these places. That is the story that we tell in this topic.

The term MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), which is normally applied to these kinds of online topics, doesn’t really apply though because this won’t be massive and we’re not that ambitious that we’re aiming for thousands of participants. Further, we’re offering about one third of a traditional University topic over about six weeks, partly because resourcing a fully online, semester long topic is beyond our capacity and timeframe, but also because we want to evaluate the format, test the MOOC platform being trialed by the University, and of course make sure that students are happy with the product. So, we’re still searching for the right abbreviation:’Tiny OOC’ (TOOC, a good name for a train perhaps), simply ‘OOC’ (taken, but this definition kind of works), or my current favourite, the ‘MOOClet’ are all on the table.

Anyhow, what follows is the topic summary we’re running with at this point. It’s very much a working draft and likely to change:

Working topic title: Inside professional archaeology: the view from down under 

Archaeology is an adventurous and exciting way of learning about humankind’s rich and diverse past, and both social and traditional media streams regularly cover the big discoveries throughout the world: the ‘ice mummies’, the ‘hobbits’, and gold hordes that make our headlines. Indeed, if you were left to work out what it is that most archaeologists do based on popular media, you might reasonably imagine that archaeologists are rather dirty little creatures, up to their ears in mud or scurrying about in caves in search of treasure. The reality, of course, is very different and the discipline today is characterised by a very well trained, highly skilled and extremely professional cohort of specialists charged with helping to understand and conserve our cultural heritage.

This topic will help you to learn about the archaeology in the real world from a distinctly Australian perspective. You will learn about the field not only from the point of academics and researchers, but from the perspective of those archaeologists who represent the majority of practitioners and who are working across the industry in heritage and environmental firms, on mine sites and major construction projects, for Governments, museums and conservation parks. Across all of these contexts archaeologists do much more than merely digging: they survey, they dive, they liaise and negotiate, they advise and analyse and conduct detailed research to help protect and understand our cultural heritage.

We begin by exploring what archaeology is and what archaeologists do and then dig more deeply into how archaeology works in different contexts, before concluding with some focus around how you can get more involved in archaeology either as an exciting hobby or as a career. Each module has been designed to be completed in around two or three hours, depending on how much you want to explore the supplementary materials we provide. Modules include videos featuring interviews with a diverse range of Australian professional archaeologists, narrated slideshows and screencasts, quizzes, online and independent research activities.

I’ll post more here as the topic develops in order to share information about any issues we’re having or useful resources that might help others who are also embarking on this path. I can see a potential research project here exploring public perceptions of Australian archaeology on the one hand, and evaluating the ‘MOOClet’ as a tool for community engagement and outreach on the other. For example, might MOOClets be a useful way of developing packages of educational material (e.g. for specific sites, projects or communities) where community outreach is important part of a project? I’m sure that I’m not the first to have that thought though. If you work in this area, or are developing similar topics yourself, I am entirely open to genuine research collaborations as well so feel free to get in touch.

Dating Aboriginal Scarred Trees in north eastern Australia

This week and next I’m back in Weipa (NE Australia) working on a research project with Alngith People — Traditional Owners of the western Weipa Peninsula — as well as Dr Kathryn Allen (Monash University), to collect cores from Aboriginal scarred trees in the region.  The work we’re doing involves applying dendrochronology, dendroecology and radiocarbon dating techniques to date Aboriginal scarred trees, understand growth rates on a particular species of tree and to collect new data about environmental change in the region over the past few centuries.  In this post I want to outline the context and primary focus of the project, with another to follow on the methods and approaches we’re using as well as some secondary issues that we’re exploring.

What are scarred trees?

‘Scarred trees’ are simply trees that have some evidence of scarring as a result of people in the past removing bark or wood, engraving designs or motifs or cutting into trees for various reasons, including to collect food. In Australia, scarred trees have typically been created by Indigenous peoples. South eastern Australia is well known for the often large and imposing canoe scars carefully carved into the trunks of majestic river gums, and which are a common sight near waterways and wetlands. However, it is less well known that scarred trees are found in many parts of Australia and indeed, in many other parts of the world including in North America and Europe.

Scarred trees are a physical reminder of how Indigenous peoples in the past lived and are often of high importance to Indigenous communities in Australia today: they provide a link to the past and are generally a type of heritage place that communities try to preserve and protect where possible. Scarred trees are highly vulnerable to destruction via natural decay and fire while development is also a major threat as mining, urban expansion and so on see widespread clearance of otherwise undisturbed areas of forest and woodland across the country. This is particularly the case in western Cape York Peninsula where mining has considerable impacts on the local environment and where the foreseeable future is one that is dominated by ongoing mine expansion.

Scarred trees on Western Cape York

Many thousands of scarred trees occur on Aboriginal lands around Weipa, with well over 1,500 recorded on the Weipa Peninsula alone (1, 2). They are regularly found by archaeologists and Traditional Owners completing assessments before mining clearances and are frequently cut down and moved to make way for mining development. In the past few years, some Traditional Owners have chosen scarred trees of special importance and have placed these into monuments in the local area, in part to prevent them from being destroyed by mining (3).

Scarred tree monument at Ruchook Cultural Ground, Weipa

According to local Elders, there are several different types of scar tree. Some scars were created by people cutting timber to make spear throwers or woomera as well as other  tools (4). The scar tree that is most commonly found in the Weipa area are ‘sugarbag’ scars which were created by people cutting into trees to collect the honey and wax of the stingless native bees. In the early days, a stone axe was used to create a small hole near a sugarbag hive and then a thin, spongy branch was inserted into this hole to soak up the honey. These holes would then be sealed up again so that people could come back at a later time to collect more of the honey or wax. We’ve recently suggested that this approach was a form of resource management or ‘domiculture’, or a set of economic practices and ethics that were — and still are — a major feature of Aboriginal cultural traditions in the region (5).

In the late 1800s Europeans bought iron hatchets and axes and these were also used in the collection of sugarbag right through the 1900s. Indeed, Napranum Elders who grew up in the Weipa Mission remember their parents collecting honey and exchanging this with the Missionaries who would place it into a tank beneath the Mission Superintendent’s house. It was mixed with water as a cordial-like drink, and was eaten on porridge and damper every day. Sugarbag is still collected regularly by local community members today, using similar methods to those used by their parents and grandparents.

How old are scar trees?

On western Cape York Peninsula, scars mostly occur on one species of tree — the Cooktown ironwood — which as the name suggests is a tree whose timber is extremely dense and hard and is well known to be quite difficult to cut. This tree is also quite slow growing, with one study suggesting that a tree that was about 35 cm in diameter at chest height had taken between 180 and 300 years to grow, with growth rates of about 0.12 cm each year (6). What this means is that average sized ironwoods are likely to be at least several hundred years old and that the very large trees with 60 cm or more in diameter may in fact be much older than we had previously thought. Scars have been recorded on ironwoods of all shapes and sizes, and even found on ironwoods that have long since died, so  it is likely that some scarred trees date to the period before Europeans arrived in the region.

There have been no previous attempts to discover the age of scarred trees in the region and only one other study in Australia that has attempted to do so (7), though this was highly destructive and required that the tree be felled — which is not always an option when it comes to managing Indigenous heritage sites.

The presence or absence of iron axe marks does give us a general estimate of the age of a scar and it is likely that scars with sharp and distinct axe marks were made after the late 1880s. However, many scars do not have clear axe marks suggesting they might be older than this. The techniques we are using potentially allow us to place scarring events into a 5-10 year time bracket allowing both community members and us to place specific trees into a particular historical context.

There are a number of reasons we are interested in developing a technique to effectively date scarred trees:

  1. Having information about the probable age of a scarred tree will help to better manage these sites when difficult decisions about development are being made. For example, Traditional Owners may wish to manage scarred trees made in the 1960s, 1920s or 1850s in very different ways.
  2. It will provide historical information that can feed into a range of community heritage work including educational and interpretive projects.
  3. It will contribute to more academic research questions about the history of the region, particularly in terms of understanding what life was like for Indigenous people between the early 1800s and the mid 1900s and the ways in which the arrival of settler-invaders influenced Indigenous wellbeing.

So, this week we’re trying to relocate scarred trees on Alngith Country that have been recorded over the past 8-10 years. Next week, we’ll be selecting those trees that Alngith People want to core. Over the coming week I’ll post more information on the method we’re using and some images and video from the field.

Further reading:

I’m yet to upload my own publications here but if you are looking for a copy of something I’ve written just contact me and I’ll send it to you via express carrier pigeon.

1) Morrison, M.J., D.A. McNaughton and J. Shiner 2010 Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66). International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14(1), pp.86–111.

2) Shiner, J. and M.J. Morrison. 2009 The contribution of heritage surveys towards understanding the cultural landscape of the Weipa bauxite plateau. Australian Archaeology, 68, pp.52–55.

3) Barkley, R. et al. 2008 Collaboration and innovation in the management of cultural landscapes in mining contexts, western Cape York, far north Queensland. Historic Environment, 21(3).

4) Morrison, M.J. et al. 2012 New approaches to the archaeological investigation of culturally modified trees: a case study from western Cape York Peninsula. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, 35, pp.17–51.

5) Morrison, M.J. and Shepard, E. [Forthcoming] The archaeology of “sugarbag” production: post-contact Indigenous economic diversification within colonial intercultural settings in Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. Journal of Field Archaeology.

6) Cook, A.D. et al. 2005 Sustainable harvest rates of ironwood, Erythrophleum chlorostachys, in the Northern Territory, Australia. Australian Journal of Botany, 53, pp.821–826.

7) Long, A. et al. 2002 The origin and date of two scarred trees at Horsham Saleyards, Horsham, Western Victoria. A report to Horsham Rural City Council and Goolum Goolum Aboriginal Cooperative, Horsham.

Fieldwork update, Weipa 2012 (and reflections on a decade of work)

I’ve just arrived in Weipa again for a few weeks of  work with the Anhatangaith and Alngith groups. It will likely be the most relaxed field trip I’ve had here for some time. I’m not planning to survey, record, dig or count. I’m here to listen, to catch up with old friends, to write, and maybe catch a fish or two along the way. I thought I might try and throw out a quick blog post or three while I’m here about what I’m generally up to. “What is that?”, you ask?

Last year my small research team and I completed a field survey program at Waypandan, an important place within the Country of the Anhatangaith people (via Weipa). The purpose of that work was to pull together  a ‘management plan’ to help conserve and look after this important place into the future. We’re all familiar with such reports; there are quite prescriptive guides on how to write them and every second heritage project you’ll read about mentions them. While I think they’re important and useful documents, my experience is that they are poor – and lazy – ways to finish projects that are supposed to be collaborative, inclusive and above all, useful for the communities that we all work with.

I have recently been thinking a little about ways to relegate the management plan to the background, where it should be. A few days ago I found some field notes that I recorded in late 2007 during an informal meeting with a group of Elders who were instrumental in establishing the project. According to my notes, they mentioned that they would like to tell people about the “true history” of Weipa in a book. So for the next couple of weeks one of my tasks is to sit down and find out if a community oriented book might be a more useful way to finish this phase of the project. I’ll still need to prepare a supplementary report and management plan, but they will be brief and in the background. Our research has generated such a wonderful array of oral, historical and archaeological data that I think it would be unethical to exclusively present that in a dull report.

The other thing I need to do while I’m here is to help set up a heritage/caring for country program for the Alngith people. We finished a major project early last year that included, among other things, a ‘whole of Country’ heritage management plan to outline problems and issues that they face with regards to managing their Country. The next step – and the focus of this trip – is to form a heritage reference group to guide development of a program that can employ people and offer tangible outcomes. Growth of this idea has been very organic and slow (since 2008!) and for me at least, the path forward is still a confusing tangle of ideas: rangers, signage, rehabilitation, environmental management, eco-tourism, fencing, ethnobotany, mining, oral history, etc. But that’s often the case with this type of community work: it is complicated and – for outsiders at least – confusing. But it should be; if things don’t seem complicated then you’re probably not listening (or hearing) what people are saying.

In any case, a heritage reference group will help sort out those tangles and facilitate some focussed discussion.  I’ve recently been reading  a wonderful book by Annie Ross and colleagues, who propose an Indigenous Stewardship Model for such situations. I haven’t finished the volume yet, but their framework will be very helpful as we move forward.


Not much of this counts in my discipline, at least for more traditionally minded archaeologists (though this is changing). For me though, I think it reflects a natural progression in how I see myself fitting in here. When I first bounced up the dusty road to Weipa in 2000 with my then boss Roger Cribb, I was fully focussed on counting and digging up middens and managing things: I was an ‘archaeological cowboy’, riding the wild frontier and cracking the whip of science. Perhaps I wasn’t that bad, but I certainly know that this approach is counter to everything I’ve since learnt here. I tend to shun conferences these days, because I see too many of these glorious cowfolk (and their students) with their pith helmets, leather boots, medals and tall tales. I have no problem with science, research or generating new knowledge, I just dislike the ‘cowfolk approach’. That will the subject of another post, though, and one that is best left unpublished for a while.

Minimising the misery and pain: tips for completing a Doctoral Thesis

Long time readers  know that I’m a relatively freshly minted PhD graduate (2010 vintage) and a quick browse through some of my earlier posts here or on twitter would no doubt reveal some of the anguish and horror that I went through during my candidature. So, it is a rather strange turn of events for me now to be offering advice to PhD candidates who are setting out on that unique and harrowing journey. Nevertheless, I’m about to go and offer  some general tips on ‘success in a PhD program’ to new PhD candidates in my Faculty. Why they asked me I’m not sure, but I thought it worth posting those tips here because I think they’re more generally applicable to anyone starting a thesis.

As a brief prelude to those tips, I should note that my PhD was very messy and I suspect I was far from being the role model PhD student. I disappeared into remote areas for months at a time, took around 6 years to complete and for a whole lot of that time I was working full time. I did finish and I did get a job, but I would  do a PhD very differently were I to start another one tomorrow.

(Warning, longish read!)

Continue reading

Australian Indigenous archaeology and cultural heritage wrap, 5 March

I try to keep a close eye on new papers, books and so on relevant to Australian Indigenous archaeology and collate much of this information in Zotero. I thought it might be worth irregularly posting a list of new materials that I’ve noticed. If there’s some interest, I’ll turn this into an open Zotero group. This is by no means comprehensive, just a list of the items that I stumble across and that might be of interest to others.

I will avoid commenting on items; the authors speak well enough for themselves.

Continue reading

A calligraphy pen on an Aboriginal mission site?

There has been a little interest in this image below and so I thought a brief post was worthwhile to give it the context it deserves. Full credits for the image go to Amy Della-Sale, who is working towards completing her archaeology Masters Thesis at Flinders University on the post-contact histories of Indigenous people in a colonial frontier setting in Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia.

Caligraphic Pen, Weipa Presbyterian Mission ca. 1898-1932

Close up of the nib of a caligraphic pen found on the former Weipa mission site. Date reads: 'June 15.86'. Photo by Masters in Archaeology Student Amy Della-Sale

The full image of the pen is below however I much prefer Amy’s photo since it brings out a critical detail: the date. The scale is approximately 1 cm across the nib from top to bottom.

I have next to no knowledge of 19th century calligraphic pens however this one is interesting because of its context. It was found in an Aboriginal settlement or ‘village’ area (as it is referred to in historic documents) at the margin of a Presbyterian Mission site near Weipa that I’ve been working on for a few years now. If the date on the pen is correct (June 15 1886) then it pre-dates the mission site (1898-1932) and looking at the images now I wonder whether it is silver plated (if there are any readers with expertise in this area I’d love to hear from you!).

I suspect the dates don’t match up because like many Aboriginal missions in Australia, the Weipa mission sometimes received donations of money and goods from organisations or individuals in large cities to the south (often Presbyterian congregations). My view is that this pen may have been part of one of those packages, donated by a well-to-do Church-goer in Melbourne or Brisbane and mailed to the local Mission Superintendent along with other items such as children’s dolls, clothing and toys before being given to a local Aboriginal person. The historical evidence suggests that exchanges such as these were usually loaded with social meaning and intent; for example, it may have been part of a range of incentives used to encourage a particular person to comply to missionary norms and expectations in a context where the desire was to shape and modify their social, ideological and material worlds.

Calligraphic Pen, Weipa Mission

Full image of calligraphic pen located on the Weipa Presbyterian Mission site, 1898-1932

We discovered the pen eroding out of a low earth mound site (5 m diameter, 0.8 m high) and this was one of around eight mounds that we recorded adjacent to the remains of small cottages, arranged in two neat rows. Most of the artefacts we identified (glass, metal, ceramics, marine shell, stone artefacts) appear to cluster around these mounds, rather than in or near the cottages, however we’re still unclear as to what the mounds were used for: ie., camping/sleeping, cooking or rubbish disposal? During our most recent field work (2011) we created a detailed plan of all of the buildings, mounds, depressions, surface artefacts and so on, with excavations to come in the future. I’m in the process of creating our final site plans as well as doing some spatial analysis on artefact distributions in order to understand whether certain artefact types more frequently occur near cottages, mounds and so on, a technique that I’ve written about elsewhere.

The photo was taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T3i with a 10-20 mm Sigma macro lens. I’ve never owned or used a macro lens before this field trip, but what a difference they make to field photography! They’re brilliant for artefact photography, particularly capturing fine details such as this. They also enable a great deal more creativity with their limited depth of field. A creative eye helps, though; I don’t really have such an eye which is why it’s great to take creative students along (thanks Amy!).

The value of a track record in blogging

At the moment I am writing a rather large grant application for a postdoctoral position to step into next year when my current teaching contract at Flinders University runs out. I’ve written a few successful funding applications but this is by far the most challenging application I’ve yet attempted, which is no surprise given this scheme is the major funding program for Australian researchers. For years I have moaned about blogs not being seriously ‘counted’ when it comes to getting jobs or promoted, however at about 2:14pm  on Tuesday in a chocolate inspired burst of writing, it struck me that blogs do serve two important purposes that are critical in the competitive world of academia. Let me elaborate.

This particular grant application is difficult not only because of its scale, but because it requires me to do two things that are each quite difficult in themselves. The proposal must be innovative on a national and international level and firmly locate the idea in relation to a gap that needs attention now. That means it should be academically rigorous, demonstrate a degree of mastery of the relevant literature and meet all the requirements of any major grant proposal, i.e. clear aims, sound methodology and sensible budgets. It also should be carefully crafted for a general academic audience, not of archaeologists but of readers whose specialisations are different to your own. So writing 10 pages of archaeology jibber-jabber won’t necessarily help you get money. You need to convince people outside of your narrow field what your project involves and why it must be funded now.

Meeting both requirements in one document is by no means easy, at least  not for me. But for those who lay awake at night wondering what the point of blogging is, particularly when everyone around you is saying ‘publish or perish’ (and I have made that very point myself), heed my words: having a track record with blogging has been very useful in developing this application, despite my modest and patchy approach to posting.  There are two reasons.

Blogging potentially demonstrates a track record in community engagement and can be utilised as part of a communication strategy to maximise the social benefits of academic research.  If you’re a student or an early career person looking to demonstrate that they have a track record of community engagement, then blogging helps. It shows you’ve been trying to bust open the academic silo, in your own small way, and it also shows that if given the chance (i.e. via a job or large grant), you could easily apply these skills as part of a communication strategy for an organisation or on a large project. That’s important, particularly when it comes to people giving you money. They want to see their investment promoted, plain English blogging helps that and sits nicely alongside formal communication in journals and at conferences and the like.

Blogs also help you to develop your ‘plain English’ writing skills. They allow a great deal more freedom and unlike the real world you can write plain English posts that are accessible to a wider, non-academic audience. I’m an academic and even I find high brow, specialised posts very dull and I’m rarely interested in reading them unless they’re near to my specific field.  A good blog is a readable one and developing that skill is very useful when it comes to convincing others outside of your field about why they should employ you or give you money. So write for people outside of your field.

Publications are of course critical, and without those you are dead in the water so I still maintain that blogs are secondary to this. But they serve a purpose, and if now or in the future you need to demonstrate plain English writing skills or  a track record in community engagement, start  now. If you write about one thing, write about your specific field and the work that you are doing (if I want to read about some new research, I’ll usually read the publications themselves not your blog post ‘covering’ it). Don’t cover the big stories in archaeology if they’re outside your field, for that is the way of two paragraph quotes and blog spam and we don’t need more of that rubbish if we want to make a genuine case about the value of blogging in archaeology.