“Mapping country” again: the Muluridji heritage project, Mareeba

We had a little positive media coverage in north Queensland last week after our community based heritage research project at Mareeba was picked up by the local Tablelands Advertiser and the Cairns Post. It ran front page which was wonderful because media coverage of Aboriginal history and heritage issues on the Tablelands has historically been fairly limited. In any case, I thought that a short blog post to supplement the story would be worthwhile.

The project began early last year when Carol Chong, a Muluridji woman and anthropology student contacted me about trying to obtain some funds to begin recording Muluridji history and heritage places. We applied to the Australian Government’s Indigenous Heritage Program and the rest is history; we were funded and recently began fieldwork on the project. Carol and I are coordinating the project which we aim to finish by mid 2012. Dr Darlene McNaughton (anthropologist) is also involved focusing on the oral history and historical research.

The project is focussed on community based heritage research. At one level, we’re identifying and recording  places associated with Muluridji history and culture that are valued by Muluridji people and developing plans for their protection into the future. So in that sense, it’s fairly conventional cultural heritage management work. This involves going well beyond archaeological places and documenting what others have termed geobiographies’ or the places that are revealed through oral history or cultural mapping work such as ceremonial grounds, resource sites, remembered settlements or recreational areas, or sites of colonial violence.

Cleared for cattle

Area of Muluridji country cleared for cattle grazing in the past few decades.

Although we’re setting out to do heritage management work, it is actually heavily driven by research objectives because Muluridji people want to find out more about their history. Of course, Elders have a tremendous amount of knowledge about the community’s history and places of importance however there are many aspects of Muluridji history that are not well understood or that people want to find out more about. As outsiders, it will take me time to listen to enough people to understand what the common themes or questions are but two themes that seem to be emerging relate to Muluridji history prior to the arrival of Europeans and the histories associated with the initial phase of colonialism. Both are fascinating topics that are very similar to some of my previous and ongoing research further north at Weipa. We should be able to develop some more substantive questions by the end of this year.

During our recent trip we managed to carry out quite a lot of heritage survey work despite the many ‘private property’ and ‘keep out’ signs that abound on Muluridji country. We identified a number of sites such as police camps and massacre sites, ceremonial places, scarred trees and artefact scatters. With a further 4-6 weeks of field survey later this year we should be able to identify quite a large number of similar places and record many oral histories that add so much to understanding the importance of these places and the history of Muluridji people.

I think the broader benefit of the project also relates to increased recognition in the local community; Muluridji people are expecting a consent determination on their Native Title applications later this year and are looking to highlight through heritage work their history and the fact that despite everything that has happened in the local area in terms of race relations, Muluridji people are still on their country.

There still seems great deal of racism in the local community. On my last day in Mareeba, one Muluridji woman asked a local non-Indigenous woman and property owner if we could access private property to visit a known heritage place. She responded:

I’m sorry, but your are mistaken. My family has been here for 100 years and before that there were only the Chinese. You must be from somewhere else.

I was astounded and as you might imagine she went on and refused the request. Private property and the attitudes of local landowner may be our biggest constraint on this project. I hope this is simply an overly-vocal minority.

Anyway, enough of that. You can read the short story that appeared in the local media here:

Hunt on for history of Tablelands Indigenous group (Cairns Online)

Asking questions about heritage management in Australia

I sometimes wonder whether archaeology as a discipline in Australia has been bought.

When I began working towards a degree in archaeology in the mid 1990s it was a common view that there were  no jobs and that most of my fellow students and I were unlikely to find any form of employment as archaeologists.  Ten years later, the Australian economy expanded in part through mining and there was a boom in demand for archaeology graduates and experienced archaeologists to work in heritage management. Most employment for archaeologists now comes from the heritage sector and this growth manifests in other areas such as increased enrolments at Universities and new positions in (some) Government regulatory bodies. Development has been very good to archaeology in Australia, but has it been good for heritage management and our knowledge of the past? Maybe? I wonder.

CC Image by Ben Hoskings, http://www.hoskingindustries.com.au/

It’s not a question I can answer here, but what concerns me is that there are not many people asking questions. Consultant archaeologist Gary Vines, who works in Victoria, has a recent post  that I’ve just noticed. He bemoans the lack of strategic planning in cultural heritage management:

There are more Aboriginal archaeological sites being recorded than ever before.Nearly all are identified as part of predevelopment environmental approvals. Management entails salvaging some, leaving a few in reserves (very occasionally with some form of interpretation or on-going management but more often than not – not), of doing nothing – or next to nothing as the ‘contingency arrangements’ that rely on contractors and developers keeping an eye out.

The discipline needs more of this. Critical reflection and open debate – outside of academic journals – about the difficulties, challenges and long-term problems that such a tremendous amount of development will pose for conserving and enhancing the heritage values of particular regions. One Aboriginal group I work with – the Alngith People at Weipa – have had approximately >70% of their country irreversibly damaged through mining. It’s been dug up, reshaped and left to the weeds by thirty years of mining. The situation is worse in cities as landscapes are cut up, and we ‘manage’ points on maps with the least amount of effort possible rather than – as Gary suggests – thinking about the wider landscapes within which they occur.

Government regulators and consultant archaeologists need to be more actively promoting heritage planning at a regional level, cutting across policy and tenure boundaries. Professional archaeology associations need to be leading the way by reviewing and enhancing our codes of ethics. Governments won’t lead, they’re only capable of following and are far too interested in royalites and re-election, consequently promoting an extractive, violent and naive approach to managing a country. It’s just one knee-jerk reaction after another, all terribly short-term thinking that is ultimately about maximising profits. History has lessons for us on such matters, but we’re not much interested in history.

Archaeologist of all persuasions have a  moral obligation to be talking about these issues in openly accessible forums. I know many who do, who submit opinion pieces to newspapers, who get involved in local council issues or heritage organisations. But we need more. Academic publications are fine, but they emerge from the review/publication process too slowly to make any significant influence on public debate in a 6 hour news cycle.

Anyway, I digress. I actually just wanted to suggest you should go and read Gary’s post:

Australian Archaeology: Where is CRM archaeology going?.

 

Spatial statistics and the archaeology of sugarbag scarred trees

This past few months I’ve been prompted into working on some scarred or culturally modified tree data that I recorded near Weipa  during a series cultural heritage consultancy projects between about 2003 and 2007. The reason for looking at this again was that I was fortunate enough to be hosting/supervising Masters student Emily Shepard from Portland State University who was out here on an EAPSI scholarship to work on this material with me. It was a great chance to blow the dust off some good data  collected under trying circumstances during many months in the field. It’s not often you get a chance like that.

A tree felled to obtain honey and wax

The project we’ve been working on has involved looking at ‘sugarbag’ scarred trees. These are trees scarred by Aboriginal people cutting holes (or apertures) to access honey and wax from the nests of various species of Australian native stingless bee. Alun Salt wrote a great post about some of my work on CMTs here last year and it’s well worth a read. The question Emily and I have been looking at this past few months involves using the data I collected to identify trends and patterns that give us some insight into the intensity of wild honey collection. Emily has worked through and made sense of the original data, re-analysed photos and completed most of the statistical analyses. I turned my attention to spatial statistics, a mildly terrifying method, but one that I think more archaeologists should employ.

Contents of a 'sugarbag'. The brown material is wax which contains small pockets of rather delicious honey

Spatial statistics are simply tools in a Geographic Information System (GIS) that use statistics to “cut through the map display and get right at the patterns and relationships in the data” (Mitchell 2009:2). They do require reasonable familiarity with using GIS software, as well as access to decent software that can perform the analysis. I found it quite challenging to begin with, partly as I’ve had no formal training in statistics or GIS, but if you need to identify patterns in the way archaeological data are distributed then it’s well worth the investment of time. There are a bunch of more simple tools archaeologists can use to find patterns in their data, such as proximity analysis, and these give good insights on simple questions such as ‘what is the relationship between site location and distance to water’. Resulting data can be quickly and easily exported to conventional statistical software. But GIS can do a lot more than make maps and summarise basic patterns such as this.

Cluster analysis is something that I’ve been interested in for some time, in part because my Doctoral research involved looking at clusters of midden sites and trying to make sense of them. With the scarred tree data, we were interested in discovering whether we could find clusters of similar variables in our dataset of >1500 sugarbag scars. We did.

We looked at the frequency of scars across our study area. Figure 1 shows aggregated number of scars within 500 metre raster cells.  This is a great means of visualising datasets in a relatively simple manner and helped us to identify general areas of high frequency scarring. However, it doesn’t provide a clear indication of whether there are finer or more localised trends within this dataset, or whether the things we think are ‘clusters’ meet tests for statistical significance.

Sugarbag scarred tree frequency

Figure 1: Frequency of sugarbag scar trees, 500 m raster cell size (click through for larger image)

We then used two local statistical measures to further explore whether there are any specific clusters of high scar frequencies. We used Anselin’s Local Moran statistic and the very nicely named Local Getis-Ord Statistic (or Gi*). I won’t go into details of how these work, but see this guide for a start if you’re interested. Figure 2 shows the resulting data. What we were looking for particularly were areas where both techniques pointed to a a number of cluster points in relatively close proximity to each other. You can see a few of these in this image.

Sugarbag scars - clusters of high frequency

Figure 2: Distribution of statistically signfiicant clusters of high frequencies of sugarbag scars

I suspect the results are probably not that exciting to look at without any more detailed context, but the approach has enabled us to identify clusters in the data that weren’t noted from visual inspection alone. Given some success here, we decided that it was worth  exploring clustering of other variables and the one that we had most success with was identifying clusters of larger scar aperture area, shown in Figure 3.

Clusters of high aperture areas

Figure 3: Clusters of high aperture areas

The result indicated the high frequency scarring locations broadly correlated with large aperture sizes and that there were even more subtle trends we needed to think about. I won’t go into what we think the results mean, partly because we haven’t completed our paper yet, but these methods provide a useful insight that can be used alongside other standard statistical tests that archaeologists often use.

Our dataset is not perfect: it’s uneven and there are major gaps which have limited our ability to take these analyses any further.  Despite that, I think these tests are still worth exploring for  archaeological spatial data. I’m especially fascinated by the potential of these kinds of tests for picking out clusters in more evenly distributed data, such as looking for clusters of particular artefact types or sizes within large surface scatters.

I’ve picked out a few books and articles below that I found really quite useful and that are worth reading if you’re interested in exploring this material in more detail. There is surprisingly little written about spatial analysis and spatial statistics in archaeology, which I find baffling given our love affair with conventional statistics.

Some useful sources

McCoy, M.D. and Ladefoged, T.N. 2009 New Developments in the Use of Spatial Technology in Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research, 17(3), pp.263-295.
Mitchell, A. 2005 The ESRI Guide to GIS analysis, Volume 2: Spatial measurements and statistics. Redlands, California: ESRI press.
Schwarz, K.R. and Mount, J. 2006 Integrating spatial statistics into archaeological data modelling. In M. W. Mehrer and K. L. Wescott, (eds), GIS and archaeological site modelling, pp.163-190. London: Taylor and Francis.
Wheatley, D. and Gillings, M. 2002 Spatial technology and archaeology: the archaeological applications of GIS. New York: Taylor and Francis. (see Chapter 6)

 

Updated research profile

I’ve finally found time to go in and update my research profile.

It’s a little terrifying that I’m working across so many different projects. Some are nearing completion, others are very new. The reality is that I only actually work on one project in any week and I have considerable assistance from three kind and helpful research assistants who are doing masters research projects with me (thanks Claire, Amy and Chantal!).

Part of the reason that I’ve done this is to clarify my research priorities. The major focus of my work is the archaeology of capitalism and Aboriginal wellbeing, and this will form the focus of an application for one of these early next year. A lot of work, and it’s certainly not too early to start developing the proposal. A full time research postdoc would be brilliant, though.

Close up of the nib of a caligraphic pen found on the former Weipa mission site. Date reads: 'June 15.86'

I still care about blogging

Yes, it’s true. Despite having dropped out of various social media universes this past few months, I still maintain that it’s critical for archaeologists and other professionals to blog. I should practice what I preach.

Aside from the fact that I’m crazy busy, my reticence about writing here lies in the fact that I’m spending a lot of time working on other blogs.

I’m managing two separate sites, including a blog for the Department of Archaeology here at Flinders University where I teach. It’s a moderated group blog, but they require management and time. I really like the way that this site is going though; most of the content is from students writing about their thesis research, work placements, field schools and so on and I’m happy to say that this is entirely unique in Australia, at least for an archaeology department. You should follow us, I’m really excited about this project, particularly as we transition to a self hosted blog later this year which will allow us to incorporate features that allow us to do more interesting things with teaching and learning.

I’m also spending an increasing amount of time preparing a new site for the Australian Archaeology Association (an update is long overdue) and also managed by WordPress. We do have web developers, thankfully, but I’m seeing a lot of the WP dash as we approach a launch in December.

In any case, I’m a little over WordPress at the moment.

I’ve been reading Scripting News regularly. It has nothing to do with archaeology but I enjoy the short-format style and Dave’s thoughts on US politics and the web. One point he makes regularly is the importance of owning your content so I’m shifting away from ’3rd party services as content repositories’ to ’3rd party services as distribution tools’ (for my content). In other words, I want to post/store more here and distribute it elsewhere. That way, I control my content.

So you can expect to see a lot more short posts, thoughts and ideas in Dave Winer style.

 

Weipa fieldwork wrap, part 1

I’ve just returned from a month long research trip at Weipa where we were working to complete a plan of an early 20th Century Presbyterian mission site that I’ve been working on for the past few years. It was one of the most enjoyable research trips I’ve run in quite some time in no small part due to a great team of students who participated in the work and who suffered the relatively basic living arrangements with good humour and enthusiasm throughout. The work was undertaken in collaboration with Anhatangaith people, who I’ve been working with for a few years now and whose country includes the site of the former mission at an area known as Waypandan.

We began our trip by flying from Adelaide to Townsville and from here two of my students (Amy Della-Sale and  Claire Keating) and I drove the ~1200 km or so north to Weipa. We visited the Quinkan Cultural Centre in Laura, which I’ve not previously visited, and we were impressed by the quality of the displays illustrating aspects of the history of the region. The displays focus on contemporary Aboriginal cultural practices, land tenure and management, the history of the cattle industry and on the unique environments in the region, characterised by broad dissected sandstone plateaus and an abundance of distinctive rock art. My only concern with the centre was that although Aboriginal people feature prominently in the display, I found it a little disconcerting that the historical themes surrounding the violence associated with colonisation of this region were entirely absent. Furthermore, the centre lacked any significant detail on the pre-colonial Aboriginal history of the region which is a real shame because it is one of the few locations in Australia where there has been enough research across the region to be able to develop wide ranging and detailed interpretive materials that actually say something substantive about long-term Aboriginal histories. Despite that, it’s well worth a visit and one of these years I’ll make sure to stop long enough to enjoy one of the many rock art tours that you can join here in Laura. We did visit one well known gallery at Split Rock which is an easy 1 hr self guided walk through some quite spectacular country and that gave me a brief chance to test out my new Canon T3I.

Escarpment edge at Split Rock Art site, near Laura

That night we camped further north on the Archer River which is about 200 kms south of Weipa. Archer River is, in my view, the beginning of western Cape York as not far from here the rather broken and rocky ranges that run along eastern and central Cape York Peninsula give way to low open rolling hills and plains, low plateaus and wide expanses of mostly undisturbed tall open woodland.

Archer River Crossing, ~200km south of Weipa

Eventually we arrived in Weipa.  The whole basis of the research trip was to camp near the original mission site in order to minimise the number of times we needed to drive the fairly slow and rough track back into Weipa itself. Establishing a field camp for a trip of this length does require a little planning and so we spent a few nights staying with the tourists in a public camping ground in Weipa so that we could catch up with Aboriginal community members and carry out some preliminary trips out to the mission site at Waypandan. During these trips we cleaned up the living area for the the kids and elderly people who would be coming out to stay with us, started planning our survey work and dug our pit toilet.

Cleaning up with fire in preparation for field surveys

Cleaning up with fire in preparation for field surveys

We were happy to see that the area around our camp site had been recently burned and the creeks that we would need to rely on for water were clean and flowing strongly after a long wet season.  Over the course of a day towards the end of our first week away we moved the equipment, available community members and ourselves out to the camp site and were fairly well set up and ready to begin work.

For the first weekend we had about 13 community members staying with us including five young children which was unexpected and a great deal of fun. Kids have an amazing ability to lift the overall atmosphere in a camp and to impart a good deal of energy to those around them. One of the highlights of the trip for me was our first foray from the camp site down to the mission site (about 1 km) with several of the younger community members and a trail of kids behind us pointing out wallabies, animal tracks and other things that grabbed their attention.  It was also a good chance for me to think through a field survey strategy and to familiarise myself with parts of the mission site that I hadn’t visited for six or more years.

Grass tree on the mission site

Grass tree on the mission site (photo by Amy Della-Sale)

Over the course of the next two weeks we systematically surveyed the mission site and extended my site plan from 2008 to encompass the majority of the original mission landscape. Towards the end of our third week away I decided to shift our camp back into town at rather short notice due to a death in the community, but we were fine to continue our work at Waypandan via day trips from town. I’ll write more about the archaeology in a separate post later in the week.

We had our fair share of problems but fortunately no one was seriously hurt. We had serious mechanical issues with one vehicle – a Jeep Wrangler – which was off the road for two weeks and a this was a great loss to us as it limited the number of people we could transport out to the site. There were also a few close encounters wildlife ranging from the obligatory wasps,  ants, rats and snakes through to the  more concerning encounters with wild pigs and crocodiles. On the whole though it was a very positive trip: bracing swims in the chilly creek in the early evenings; johnny cakes and teatree smoked fish for dinner; the early morning chorus of birds; sharing the camp site with dozens of wallabies as well as the fresh air and glorious weather.

Mangroves at sunset, Embley River

Mangroves at sunset, Embley River at Waypandan

I’m planning a shorter trip back in September or October this year. The weather will not be as nice as in July, however any day spent in the tropics is far better than one spent in more southerly climes. We have quite a lot more work to do and the Traditional Owners are building an outstation near the mission site which will provide us with a good base from which to work and hopefully the access tracks will be improved as well. Frankly, I’m looking forward to getting back up there already.

Into the field…

In several days my small research team and I will be beginning the long drive from Townsville to Weipa where we’ll be based for a month long research trip investigating the history, archaeology and cultural significance of a former Aboriginal mission site.

This is a community based project that Anhatangaith Elders requested that we undertake about 5 years ago. We’ve been working on it only when we’ve had funding and time and this trip will be the first field trip since 2008 when we mapped out the mission site and produced the site plan below. This is just a quick screen grab from my GIS but illustrates the layout of the site.

Preliminary plan of the mission site

We’re doing the research in order to understand the history of Aboriginal people at the mission site. Historic records from the area are far from abundant, in part because prior to World War Two Weipa was very remote and accessed only by sea: so visitors were infrequent. Furthermore, as is often the case, the historic records are written by non-Indigenous people and focussed on the lives of missionaries.

The main aim of the trip is to complete full documentation of the surface record at the site. We’re not excavating, principally because we don’t need to in order to address the research questions we’re pursuing. The surface record at the site is very rich, with many high density artefact deposits including glass, ceramic, stone arteacts, marine shell metal items and so on. These are found around well preserved features such as fences, building remains, retaining walls, earthen mounds, quarries and historic vegetation such as well established mango and tamarind trees.

The second purpose of the trip is to find new sites in areas well away from the main mission site. Research on other mission sites in Australia suggests that Aboriginal people were often very mobile, regularly travelling well away from the mission to collect food, visit family and for ceremony. To fully understand the history of the Aboriginal community associated with the site we therefore need to identify and document places away from the mission that they visited or used. In this regard, we’re attempting to sample the entire catchment of the creek that the mission was established on. We’ve dived it into landscape units based on proximity to water, vegetation types and landforms. The image below is a screengrab from the GIS that highlights the coarse landscape units we’re sampling.

Landscape classification for surveying the mission site and surrounds

I’ll try to get some posts up whilst we are away, but given that we’re camping in a non phone/no net area using petrol generators my access to the web will be quite limited. I’ve purchased a new EOS600D camera with some very fine macro and wide angle lenses, so hopefully we should have some good imagery!

Apologies for the break (and a brief update)

What can I say? Work is frantic at the moment and consequently my blog and twitter stream are a great deal quieter than normal. That’s academic teaching for you. However, we’re now almost through our first semester here in Australia and over the past few weeks I’ve been able to refocus on my research. Before I blog about those projects though I thought I would cover a few teaching related things that I’ve been up to this semester.

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A burnin’ ring of fire: Four Stone Hearth 115

Ring of Fire / Johnny Ainsworth

Welcome everyone to the 115th Four Stone Hearth Blogging carnival! (my apologies for the Johnny Cash reference).

For the uninitiated, the Four Stone Hearth is:

a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology in the widest (American) sense of that word. Here, anthropology is the study of humankind, throughout all times and places, focussing primarily on four lines of research:

  • archaeology
  • socio-cultural anthropology
  • bio-physical anthropology
  • linguistic anthropology

The Hearth is an important institution among anthropology bloggers, and dates back to somewhere around the early Holocene (2006) when anthro blogging began to get serious.

It’s an interesting exercise to browse through some of the earlier editions of the Hearth, which were run by many bloggers who are still around today: Anthropology.net, Afarensis, Aardvarchaeology, Hot Cup of Joe, Greg Laden, John Hawks and many others. If you’re not familiar with the Hearth, I would urge you to browse through some of the earlier editions to get a taste of what it’s all about.

Some say the Hearth is diminishing in its appeal, and if so I’m not exactly sure why. I suspect part of it is due to a more diverse social media that has reduced the need for anthro bloggers to congregate and chat around a central Hearth, so to speak. This edition is relatively strong and I hope it continues this way into the foreseeable future. It’s too great an institution to let it languish .

We have a range of topics today with contributors reflecting on themes as varied as space archaeology, Christian religious rituals, stone artefact caches, gambling, and much more. Please take the time to read through what our contributors have to offer; I’ve tried to keep my overviews of their posts  short in the hope that you visit their blogs and read what it is that they have to say.

So please enjoy!

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The shell mounds of Albatross Bay, Cape York Peninsula

It has been some time since I last blogged about archaeology so in this post – which is a contribution to the Four Stone Hearth blogging carnival – I am taking up a question that has driven my work for the best part of the last decade – shellfish and its role as a food for Aboriginal people over the past ~2300 years on north western Cape York Peninsula (Australia’s north eastern ‘pointy bit’), which was the topic of my recent (2010) PhD Thesis.

[Note: This post is an attempt at writing about my research in plain English that is free from academic jargon which is something that I’ve wanted to do  for quite some time. There’s something dissatisfying about writing a 100,000 word academic thesis that won’t be read, and I think all academics have a responsibility to interpret their work for a wider audience. So my apologies – if you’re looking for something more academic,  then perhaps read some of the papers I’ve included in my reference list.

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