Heritage My research Weipa Mission

Fieldwork beckons

I’m glad to report that after a seven month stint here in Adelaide I’m finally able to get back up to north Queensland to do some fieldwork. Teaching and University life is wonderful, however I do not recall a time in the past ten years where I have not had a field trip for seven months. So this is long overdue and I’m very much looking forward to the trip.

This is a quick 10 day trip to Weipa on western Cape York. It is not what most would consider to be archaeological fieldwork but instead a community liaison trip with anthropologist Dr Darlene McNaughton, who is also my partner. We’re both tying up some loose ends on the Alngith Heritage Project and laying the groundwork for a 4-6 week field trip to a place known as Waypa in June-July with the Anhatangaith people.

Ground Orchid, Weipa

The Alngith work is nearing completion. For the past two years we have been working with Alngith elders using a range of methods (oral history, archaeology, historical research) to identify places of cultural significance on their country, which is the western portion of the Weipa Peninsula. We’ve compiled information about 300 or so places and in this trip our focus is on checking that we’ve ‘got it right’, particularly for story places. It’s easy to think about these places as points on a map however one of the exciting things we’ve been able to document are some of the linkages between these places and the movement of ancestral beings (animals) through Alngith country. It’s not appropriate to go into detail, however it’s been a tremendously enjoyable and worthwhile project and it’ll be interesting to see the responses of Alngith elders when we throw up a draft ‘map’ of their country onto a projector. There will be quite a few visits to key places as well as some survey work that I need to finish off as well.

The second project is a continuation of the Weipa mission project that was funded by AIATSIS back in 2007. The Indigenous Heritage Program have provided additional funds to finish site documentation work which we plan to complete in June-July. I expect we’ll only manage a one day trip to the site, probably by boat, and the purpose of this will be to get a good photographic record of the place during the early wet season. The big priority though is to catch up with the Anhatangaith elders and discuss with them the project and how they want to go about it in terms of logistics and timing. The major field trip is some way off yet, however I’ve often found that in order to do ‘capital A’ archaeology, one needs to first do the ‘capital C’ consultation and community liaison. That’s not to say that the latter ends when the former begins; but that it’s good to begin the conversation about the project well before the fieldwork plans are set in stone, which I’ve blogged about recently.

I’ll try and get a few blog posts and photos up while we’re up there, so stay tuned!

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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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Mareeba My research Weipa Mission

North Queensland fieldwork projects, 2010-11

Today I’m happy to report I have been successful with two funding applications to carry out fieldwork projects in north Queensland over the next  year or so. The funds – $150,000 in total – have been provided by the Indigenous Heritage Program (IHP) and were announced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Arts last week. The first project is completely new one for me, and will be carried out with the Muluridji People whose land is near Mareeba, near Cairns in north Queensland. The second is a continuation of earlier work with Anhatangaith people at the site of the former Weipa mission, which I have written about here before.

The  Muluridji Heritage Project will involve working around Mareeba on the upper catchments of the Barron and Mitchell Rivers. The project is a essentially a baseline study of Indigenous cultural heritage places in this poorly investigated area which lies in an area with wet tropical rainforests to the east, and dry open savannah woodland to the west. While my interest is pre-contact archaeological sites, the project takes quite a broad approach to cultural heritage and we’re aiming to identify and record pre-contact archaeological sites, areas of traditional importance and historical places. We expect to start fieldwork by around September this year, with the project to be completed by mid 2011.

Ceramic Dolls Head (scale = 1 cm

The second project involves detailed work at the site of the original Weipa Mission (1892-1932).  The area, known as ’20 Mile’ or ‘Waypenden‘  is part of the lands of the  Anhatangaith people, who are seeking to have the site protected from vandalism, pilfering of artefacts and so on. This project is a continuation of ongoing community history and heritage project that is broadly investigating the experiences of Aboriginal people at Weipa during the ‘mission era’ (1898-1966). I’ve written previously here about how the project initially began, as well as about work at the more recent (post-1932 site) here and here. Upon reflection, I should really be writing more about this project because it is really very interesting, however finding time is sometimes challenging and there are also important ethical issues about disclosing historical or cultural information about the history of the community. We’ll be spending about 6 weeks on the site filling in gaps on what is already quite a detailed GIS database  and acquiring some detailed data on artefact scatters across the mission site for further desktop analysis.

Both projects will generate some good research outcomes as well as good outcomes for the management of Indigenous heritage places. One key element of both projects is the use of Google Earth to present heritage data to community members, and to establish an easy to use database that Indigenous management groups can use. I’m working on another post at the moment in which I will outline in detail just how I plan to do that and may even do a conference paper on this later this year.

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Aboriginal history Archaeology Weipa Mission

New paper: Mission-based Indigenous production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission

In 2007 Jane Lydon, Jeremy Ash and I co-convened a conference session at the ‘New Ground’ Australian Archaeology joint conference at the University of Sydney on the archaeology of Indigenous missions and reserves in Australia and the Pacific. A range of papers were presented exploring the contributions of archaeological approaches to the history of missions and reserves,  with case studies including work from the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, Torres Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria and a series of papers on work throughout south eastern Australia. After the great feedback we received at the conference, we explored publication opportunities and I am (belatedly) glad to report that this collection of papers has recently been published in the March 2010 edition of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.

One of the key motivations for publishing the papers was to showcase the diverse histories of Indigenous missions in the region, and the equally diverse approaches employed in the investigation of those histories. Lydon and Ash wrote a great introduction to the volume which aptly locates the papers in relation to international debates on missions and the archaeology of cross-cultural interactions, as well as the history of research into Indigenous missions and reserves in Australia and the Pacific.

Darlene McNaughton, Justin Shiner and I wrote a paper that set out to explore the economic contributions of Indigenous people who lived in and near a former Presbyterian mission at Weipa, and the significance of those contributions to both the mission and the health and wellbeing of the mission community. We were most interested in looking at wild food (that is, foods that were gathered and hunted from the bush by Aboriginal people), and we focused upon the case study of culturally modified trees (scarred trees) as well as relevant historical and oral history data. The abstract is below:

Mission-based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932-1966)
Michael Morrison, Darlene McNaughton and Justin Shiner

Previous research on remote nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Indigenous missions in northern and central Australia point to their often tenuous existence and the complex nature of engagements between Christian Missionaries and Indigenous people. This paper explores the contribution and significance of Indigenous production of wild foods in the context of one such settlement located at Weipa on Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. It is premised on the assertion that investigation of the
economies of these often remote settlements has the potential to reveal much about the character of cross-cultural engagements within the context of early mission settlements. Many remote missions had a far from secure economic basis and were sometimes unable to produce the consistent food supplies that were central to their proselytizing efforts. In this paper it is suggested that Indigenous-produced wild foods were of significant importance to the mission on a day-to-day basis in terms of their dietary contribution (particularly in terms of protein sources) and were also important to Indigenous people from a social and cultural perspective. We develop this argument through the case study of culturally modified trees that resulted from the collection of wild honey.

Highlights in the volume for me included the paper by Lydon and Burns on the Ebenezer Mission in Victoria (see also Lydon’s recently published book), Angela Middleton’s comparative paper on Missionization in New Zealand and Australia, and finally, the paper by Birmingham and Wilson comparing the well known Wybalenna Settlement (Tasmania) with  the Killalpaninna Mission (central Australia). We hope to have the volume reviewed in the coming months and I’ll post that once it comes out.

EDIT (26 Mar 2010): Alun Salt has written a great blog post about our paper, which you can read here.

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Aboriginal history Heritage Weipa Mission

Mapping cultural landscapes: the Alngith Cultural Heritage Project

Over the past half year or so I have been working on a project documenting the cultural heritage of the Alngith People (pronounced Al-ngit where ‘ng’ is the same as in ‘ping’) , an Aboriginal group whose lands include the Weipa area and surrounds on western Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. It is a fascinating and enjoyable project that has thrown up a number of unique challenges and opportunities in regards to cultural heritage management. The project is funded by the Indigenous Heritage Program via the Malaruch Aboriginal Corporation, representative body for the Alngith group.

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Archaeology Middens

PhD is done!

At long, long last I am happy to report that my doctoral dissertation is through the examination process and came out largely unscathed. Although I need to make some minor corrections and graduate before it is ‘official’, it really all hinges on examiners comments which I received a few weeks ago. They were good, so I thought it might be timely to post my abstract.

The shell mounds of Albatross Bay: an archaeological investigation of late Holocene gatherer-hunter production strategies near Weipa, north eastern Australia.

This thesis presents the results of an archaeological investigation of shell matrix sites, and in particular, shell mounds sites that occur around the shores of Albatross Bay, near Weipa on the north western Cape York Peninsula, northern Australia. It is the contention of this thesis that earlier approaches to the investigation of shell mound sites in northern Australia have tended to place too much emphasis on developing long-term explanatory models that gloss over explanations for the specific roles of these unique sites in past economic systems. While long-term explanations represent important contributions, it is argued here that short-term decadal scale modelling of the production systems associated with shell mound formation and use are required in order to fully understand the significance of the mid- to late Holocene emergence of these types of sites. It is argued that a focus on production – defined in a substantive economic sense – is a suitable avenue through which archaeologists can expand our understanding of the role of these features in past Indigenous societies, and their broader importance on longer-term time scales

The thesis thus develops a detailed model of the production strategies associated with the formation of shell mound sites that occur around Albatross Bay, while also considering the broader significance of this model, particularly within the context of Cape York Peninsula. It presents the results of field surveys and excavations carried out around Albatross Bay by the author, as well as a detailed review and analysis of work carried out by others. It is argued that shell mounds are the result of relatively specialised production activities focussing on a very specific resource base: mudflat shellfish species. Shell mounds offered a range of unique benefits for people engaged in these specialised activities, including as camp sites and as specialised activity areas. These events were inherently flexible in size and in terms of timing, reflecting the dynamic nature of the resource base itself; yet the flexible nature of this production strategy also enabled more regular small scale social gatherings, along with a range of social and economic benefits to participants, than would have been otherwise possible. It is proposed that these types of strategies may represent an important characteristic of the production systems employed by gatherer-hunter peoples in late Holocene Cape York.

Overall, this thesis makes a significant contribution to both our understanding of late Holocene lifeways at Albatross Bay as well as to our understanding of the significance of the emergence of shell mound sites in Cape York. Furthermore, it highlights the importance of a focus on short-term modelling of Indigenous lifeways alongside approaches oriented toward longer-term explanations of economic, social and environmental change.

I’m in the process of making the final corrections and within a few months expect it to be available online and open access via the Open Digital Thesis Program. I’ll post again when that happens.

Morrison, M.J. 2010 The shell mounds of Albatross Bay: an archaeological investigation of late Holocene production strategies near Weipa, north eastern Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, Adelaide: Department of Archaeology, Flinders University.

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Aboriginal history Archaeology Weipa Mission

History of Indigenous wellbeing at Weipa

I apologise for the slim offerings to be found here on my blog so far this year. By way of explanation (particularly for my regular readers!) I have had a touch of writers block due to an identity crisis regarding the overall purpose of my blog. To my mind, my blogging seems to have drifted a little away from archaeology and more into technology and gadgets which is not at all where I want to to take it. While relevant, I want to make that type of content more of an aside to posts that are principally about archaeology: it is after all supposed to be an archaeology blog. So in this post I thought I should get the ball rolling again, so to speak, by writing about a research project I am working on at Weipa in northern Australia. It will be split up over a few separate posts, with what follows simply serving as something of an introduction to the issues were are exploring.

Way back in 2005 I was in a meeting with a number of Elders from the Aboriginal community of Napranum (near Weipa). At that stage I was managing an Indigenous land and sea management program, so my role was to liaise with people about land management issues – which almost always came back to heritage management – and obtaining funding to do management oriented projects. Although we were supposed to be discussing weed management issues (a particularly exciting topic I might add), the conversation quickly drifted onto more interesting issues.

The Old Ladies I was meeting with had all grown up in the mission dormitories which, by all accounts, appears to have been a traumatising experience for many. Removed from their families at a very young age they were essentially locked in dormitories at night and were only able to see family on a fairly infrequent basis. Often their only substantive interaction with older kin was during camping trips out bush away from the mission. Along with the need to regularly attend church and school, they were also expected to work which the Presbyterian Mission superintendent considered to be a form of preparation for the practicalities of their adult lives. This meant domestic chores for girls and young women, and gardening and manual tasks for the boys and young men.

During our chat I scribbled down a few quick comments and wish now I had recorded the entire conversation. In particular, in talking about the original mission (which operated from 1898-1932) one of the women stated:

“they were healthier times (at Waypa). Waypandan, that is my mothers land. They ate wallaby, drank Nonda milk, collected ambanum [hairy yam], sugarbag, all those things. We need to tell people about those times”

The quote was quite significant at the time because from earlier work in the area I was well aware of a widely held view at Weipa that bush foods (i.e. bush ‘tucker’) are considered more healthy than store bought foods. This is because many people associate getting bush foods and being on Country with a sense of health and wellbeing. Simply put, being on Country and eating bush food is good for you in all respects: socially, emotionally, physically, spiritually. In my view, the statement was important because it indicated that the Elders saw a link between history, learning about history, wellbeing and health. Looking at it now, I’m not so sure that this quote best demonstrates this point, but it was certainly the idea that I went away with that day. The other idea that those Old Ladies shared with me was that despite all of their bad experiences, people remember the ‘mission days’ as a period of comparative health and happiness compared with today. In short, ‘they were healthier times’ in the sense that health meant more than just physical health as such.

After that meeting it took a further few months of discussions with Elders to develop a research project. We entitled it ‘they were healthier times: indigenous health and wellbeing within the Weipa Presbyterian Mission’. The broader project idea was to look at the history of Indigenous health and wellbeing (defined broadly as emotional, physical, social and spiritual health, after Anderson 1996) from an historical perspective. Simply put, our core question was: what was the nature of Indigenous wellbeing throughout the history of missions in the area and how is this relevent to the community today? The project also explores an important view held by community Elders: that younger people in the community do not ‘know’ the real history of their community, and that learning about this would in fact contribute to improving their wellbeing. This is because they associate a knowledge of history, culture and Country with improved health and wellbeing.

Our evolving project involves recording of oral history, Traditional Knowledge, archaeological surveys around key mission settlements and also work on historical documents. We obtained initial funding from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in 2007 and from the Federal Government’s Indigenous Heritage Program (IHP) in 2008 and began work on the project in early 2008. Since my original conversations with Elders and anthropologist Darlene McNaughton, several other people have become involved in the project including fellow archaeologist Justin Shiner and more recently historian Geoff Wharton.

Our results are preliminary at this stage, with our first concerted period of fieldwork mid 2008. In the next post I shall write about the original Weipa Mission site which operated from 1898-1932 and the results of archaeological and oral historical work we completed there last year. The photograph below was take in the early 1900s at this site.

From Weipa historical photos


Anderson, I. 1996. Aboriginal well-being. In C. Grbich (Ed.), Health in Australia: sociological concepts and issues (pp. 57-78). Sydney: Prentice Hall.

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