Teaching and learning Weipa Mission

The underbelly of an archaeology fieldschool

In June-July next year I am running an Indigenous archaeology fieldschool for students enrolled at Flinders University (see’s post on fieldschools if you’re not sure what they are). It’s quite a daunting task, particularly since I’ve not organised a field school before, and I’m yet to entirely decide on what this particular project will entail, where it will be held or what kinds of activities I can throw at students to help them to develop their skills doing Indigenous archaeology. One thing is clear though: I want to ensure it’s a realistic example of what ‘doing’ Indigenous archaeology involves.

The best way to provide a realistic experience for students is to incorporate the fieldschool into an actual research project. This has worked quite successfully for other Flinders Archaeology staff in recent years and has the potential to benefit the research project by increasing the amount of work (survey, recording, etc) that can be conducted on what are usually slim research budgets. Although I have a few options for research projects that I can tie to fieldschools, at this stage I’m leaning towards running the fieldschool at a place known as Waypa, which is part of Anhatangaith country, near Weipa on western Cape York. The reason? We have funding for an ongoing project here,  a great relationship with community members and there is an absolute stack of work to do on this site. Moreover, it’s an extremely important place for the local community and I’ve long been of the view that the area is of at least State level cultural significance, if not National level. I have a few other potential locations for fieldschools, however nowhere else do the stars align so neatly: community need, relationships and funding. It also happens to be a very interesting place, which I’ve blogged about previously.

View Waypa Indigenous Archaeology Fieldschool 2011 in a larger map

The logistics of remote fieldwork are always daunting, however I’ve been involved in a few fieldschools over the years and have also organised quite a number of field projects involving volunteers, Indigenous community members and so on. So dealing with remote fieldwork logistics is not my primary worry. Rather, I’m concerned about the potential problems that could emerge by taking a group of students to Waypa, particularly with regard to maintaining the health and safety of all involved as well as ensuring that the project doesn’t impact negatively upon the community.

Taking students ‘bush’ is always a concern, and for good reason. I’ve had students drive vehicles into trees and creeks,  they’ve fallen into creeks crawling with crocodiles, have been scared witless by snakes and on occasion have even gone down with heat stroke and numerous other minor maladies. Chosen carefully, small groups of one or two people are easy to manage, however in this  case I’m planning for around 8-10 students, a small fieldschool in comparison to some, but any more than this and the logistics become more and more difficult particularly for food, accommodation, transport, etc. Furthermore, as I explain below, there will likely be just as many Traditional Owners involved in the project and I expect that 15-20 people camping in the bush for two weeks might not be a picnic in the park. In theory, personal safety of participants is a manageable risk. Students are usually sensible, there will be a few people around with appropriate first aid training and (worse case scenario) it’s only a 1.5 hour rough drive to a hospital. It’s also (by law) a ‘dry’ area which means that there will be no alcohol involved. Archaeology students, alcohol and remote fieldwork are, in my view, not a wise combination and I suspect this takes out a major risk factor.

Ensuring that the fieldschool benefits community members and doesn’t have any negative repercussions for them is my second major concern and is something that requires a little more forethought. I haven’t yet asked permission to hold the fieldschool at Waypa and nor have I held discussions as to what the key priorities for community members are, but this is entirely due to the fact I’ve been office bound and haven’t had a chance to catch up with anyone since February. Any work in this region requires the full involvement of senior Traditional Owners for one very simple reason: it’s their country.  Traditional Owners usually like to be involved so they can keep an eye on the visitors, as well as for a chance to get out on country. Often, several people are employed to supervise the work and to ensure that visitors to their country are acting appropriately and the work is proceeding satisfactorily. One of the things that I enjoy most about working in this area is that extended families will typically want to come camping as well, which is always fun and usually results in plenty of fresh fish, fruit or other bush treats. More importantly, it means that we can have a ‘conversation’ about the project that includes all involved – including extended family – on a day to day basis. This conversation trickles along during the entire project: over breakfast, during survey or recording work, or over a cup of tea at 3 am in the morning. I think this alone justifies the need to camp with community members and I think everyone gets a lot more out of the process.

As I said though, how this all will pan out for this project is not clear yet, not until I’ve sought permission to carry out the project in January. Indeed, it may not happen at all, so watch this space!

The archaeology at Waypa is spectacular and I’ll post something more about that along with a description of the area soon – perhaps when I’ve spoken to the Traditional Owners. Waypa is the location of a former Presbyterian mission site and so most of the settlement was established on very hard gravel substrates, which means that the archaeology is mostly on the surface. There are also a number of pre-contact (i.e. pre 1881) sites such as shell middens and artefact scatters in the area which for the most part are undiscovered and unrecorded. For this reason, the project will likely be oriented towards planning and carrying out field surveys across very large areas. This is a skill that’s fundamental to doing Indigenous archaeology in Australia.  In reflection though, the other major theme of this fieldschool will relate to working with community members which if anything is the most critical skill archaeologists need in Australia.

In any case, I’ll try and continue to post as this fieldschool comes together. I figure it might be a useful insight into what goes on behind the scenes in terms of planning and undertaking an archaeology fieldschool. So do let me know if you have any questions!

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