Pitfalls for new professional archaeology bloggers

This is the last of three posts for students in my Introduction to Professional Archaeology topic, as well as other people who are new to blogging about archaeology. You can read previous posts here and here.

So you are considering starting a blog yourself—or have started one already. Great! In this post, I look at some of the potential professional pitfalls that can come from sharing your thoughts with the world, some of which can  undo all of the benefits of blogging I have outlined up until this point. The broad problem is quite simple: anyone can read your material, and a bad piece of work can be in front of hundreds or even thousands of readers just as quickly as a very good piece. That is something to be concerned about, but not terrified of, because it should be seen for what it is: a subtle form of pressure to produce high quality work on the web. So, that said, here are some tips for novice archaeological bloggers from the perspective of a professional archaeologist who has been reading and writing about archaeology on the web for about a decade.

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The benefits of blogging for professional archaeologists

In a post earlier this week I provided a brief account of why blogging is of interest to archaeologists and also touched on aspects of the history of ‘archaeo. blogging’. I’ve taken the time to do this to provide students in my Introduction to Professional Archaeology class with a background to blogging and social media in archaeology, which I argue is an important part of professional communication in the discipline today. Here, I focus on the benefits of blogging and also collate some ideas as to how archaeology students should start out with blogging and social media. For those on twitter, see also #profarch.

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Social media and professional archaeology in retrospect

This is the first of two posts directed at students enrolled in an online topic that I teach at Flinders University on Professional Archaeology.  The focus of this week’s module is to encourage students to critically evaluate the role of social media in professional archaeology. It is naturally the case then that this is an issue best explored publicly in the hope of encouraging some of my students to connect with each other and broader networks. As this is an introductory topic, it is written for an audience who is relatively new to archaeology.

I’ve maintained a long-standing interest in social media in archaeology, and have run and developed various blogs since ~2004-05. In this series of posts I want to consider the role of social media in professional archaeology  for aspiring professional archaeologists. In this post I offer a brief retrospective on where blogging in archaeology emerged from and why it is of such interest to us.

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Dating shell mounds at Weipa, Cape York Peninsula

I was just emailed this rather nifty word cloud that the Editors of Australian Archaeology have generated for a paper I have coming out in that journal later this year. It’s a great graphic depiction of what the paper is about: looking at possible patterns in radiocarbon dates on shell mounds for the Weipa region in Cape York Peninsula. If you’re not sure what shell mounds are, read this overview I wrote a few years ago. In short, they are cultural sites formed by generations of Aboriginal people collecting, cooking, eating and discarding shellfish—and other materials—resulting in the formation of mounds of shell. They are of high importance to Aboriginal custodians in the region today. 

Shell mounds at Weipa began to appear in the archaeological record just after around 3000 years ago, though I suspect ongoing research will eventually push this date back by another 1000 years. In this paper though, I wasn’t interested in the earliest dates. Instead, I was motivated by research elsewhere in northern Australia that suggested that Aboriginal people stopped constructing shell mounds around 700-500 years ago. The reason? Environmental changes are thought to have led to a drop in the availability of the main shellfish species found in shell mounds (Anadara granosa, known locally at Kwambuk). Does this theory apply at Weipa?

Close to 100 radiocarbon dates have been collected on shell mounds at Weipa, so I analysed this dataset to try to understand whether this theory could be supported. Without getting into the technical details, the answer was very simple. There is clear evidence that Aboriginal people continued to build shell mound sites up until AD 1800, that is, to within the past few hundred years. After that, our data is patchy because radiocarbon dating can not accurately date more recent samples.

The other interesting result was that within the last 1000 years there seems to have been an increase in the rate of mound building, though this is a trend that requires more research to better understand. This issue is a focus of excavations planned next year at Weipa, i.e. to better understand patterns of mound use through the past 1000 years.

You can find the abstract of the paper on the AAA website. If you want a copy of the paper, feel free to email me (or just join AAA!). 

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.

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.

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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!)

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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.

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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!).