Too long between posts…

So I’m not sure what happened, but it is almost five years since my last post here. I have a love-hate relationship with social media, but that was excessive. I certainly have been busy, teaching and writing along with a constant stream of fieldwork and community research committments. I have so much that I should have been sharing here, and I’ve failed miserably at something that I have always (since at least 2004) strongly argued should be a central part of archaeological practice: I have failed to write openly, to share my work, and to reflect on my practice, my discipline and this mad old world we have created for ourselves.

If I’m honest, I have struggled for a few years to engage with social media, outside of interactions with limited circles of friends and family. I’ve jumped into and out of the Twitter bubble several times, and even struggle with that. I’ve written and subsequently deleted a lot of tweets; hitting the old ‘post’ button became a step too far. Blogging has been a real challenge. There is somethign thrilling and frankly liberating about writing so openly, on a platform that I completely control. But this also terrifies me, it always has; a fear that I’ll write something stupid, or wrong, or produce poor quality work. Somehow I managed to keep that gremlin off my shoulder for many years, until 2015 or so. That was the start of a bad spell, in hindsight.

So what have I been up to? Here are some brief updates:

  • I quit my job at Flinders University (late 2019) possibly one of the best things I’ve done in my professional life. The ‘Flinders culture’, which was formerly something I was both fond and proud of, was taken out the back and metaphorically shot via a nasty restructure. My outlook on life has consequently lifted, but things continue to worsen there and I fear for the wellbeing and job security of many friends and students. It seems to be getting worse, too.
  • My wife and I moved to the country, where we soon hope to be eating a lot of peaches (to paraphrase the song) after I took a role as A/Prof. Digital Humanities at the University of New England, Armidale. In positive news, the country lifestyle and culture at UNE is wonderful. A genuinely nice place to work. We live on 30 acres only 30 mins drive from work. What a lovely lifestyle in COVID times.
  • We won an ARC Linkage grant for a project investigating Indigenous foodways through the colonial period in northern Cape York Peninsula. That is keeping me very busy.
  • I helped write a text book. It was a priviledge to be asked to contribute to this, and a fun process also. I learned a lot, especially from my wonderful colleagues Professor Heather Burke and Professsor Claire Smith.
  • I’ve written a few more papers. Yada yada yada.

More soon (I hope!)


Stuck in the midden with you…

I really didn’t ever think I would excavate another shell mound site. I mean, I did a whole PhD on the things and sieved and sorted and counted my way through hundreds of kilograms of samples. But as it happens, I am currently enjoying the warm weather at Weipa (north eastern Australia) while finalising my preparations for a two week project with the Alngith People, who are Aboriginal custodians of the western Weipa Peninsula. We are planning on excavating a number of unusual shell mound sites at their request, after a number of unrecorded shell mound sites were found in locations that they shouldn’t ‘normally’ occur. As such, they are interested to know the age of the mounds and to learn more about the history of their Country and people. Plus, I get the sense people really enjoy working on Country when there are no bulldozers waiting to clear the area for mining once they are done.

My interest is in the question of mound formation. My Doctoral research looked at the economic dimensions of shell mound formation, and I’ve argued that these sites were associated with strategic but episodic use of very specific ecological niches: intertidal mudflats and sandflats. These are very rich ecosystems, brimming with shellfish, crabs, fish, rays and so on. My argument was that these shellfish species are sometimes highly abundant for a few months of the year, and that shell mound formation was linked to very specific shellfishing events that were timed to coincide with these shellfish ‘gluts’.

There’s more to it than that, of course, and these ideas are outlined in more detail in my various publications. While I was writing one of these papers, it occurred to me that my research had drifted away from what I think is still a major gap in our knowledge: why did Aboriginal people build mounds? It’s funny, since that question was why I became interested in shell mounds in the first place, but I think to get to that I needed to look at a bunch of more basic questions first. Hence, a PhD that didn’t directly tackle this issue.

For the last few years I’ve become interested in this question again and this was helped along by a recent paper by Ian McNiven (Ritualized Middening: doi:10.1007/s10816-012-9130-y). Like others, McNiven suggested that we need to reconsider the idea that shell middens are refuse and are the result of unplanned, unintentional discard. Applied to shell mounds, one could posit that unintentional or unstructured discard of shells and other debris left over from past meals might have meant that shells were thrown back into the sea, or distributed about the landscape forming large scatters. But they weren’t: people intentionally focused the placement of shell in such a way to create not only single mounds, but entire landscapes of mounds. In other words, it was cultural practices that led to the deposition of shell to form mounds. But what were these cultural practices? How did people in the past understand shell mounds and what does that tell us about Aboriginal societies in the past?



So, my work on the mounds starts from the position that it is problematic to assume that shell mounds were accidental, or even that they were seen as ‘refuse’ as we understand it now. I’m interested in finding out what the cultural and social factors contributing to mound formation were. I do have lots of data to draw on to answer this question, but the problem with archaeology is that our research outcomes are heavily influenced by what we find in our excavations. Furthermore, the way an excavation is designed can yield very different kinds of information. It follows then, that a different question can lead to a different approach to excavating and, in turn, different results. So, this year we’ll be excavating and sampling with a different approach compared to earlier excavations I have done. I’ll post something else about that later in the week, but basically it’s all about understanding the stratigraphy of mounds as we excavate, and that entails adapting the single context method to suit these sites.

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.


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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