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?

 

Shell-mound-at-Weipa_full.jpeg

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.

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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'

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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!

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