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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“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)

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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?.

 

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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.

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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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The risks of professional blogging

Colleen at Middle Savagery has been facilitating a discussion about archaeology and blogging for the past few weeks and this week the question she poses is:

What risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

I thought I would participate in the discussion this week by considering blogging in relation to University students and recent graduates. In my experience, a large proportion of those who actively use blogs to write about research are students or recent graduates and I think there are specific risks associated with this (there are also many benefits, but I’ll come to that!).

I fall into a category that is sometimes termed the ‘early career researcher’. I’ve worked as a professional archaeologist for about a decade or so, have recently completed a PhD and I now teach at an Australian University. I have blogged since about 2005 however I have never been a prolific blogger because I’m often very busy with other things.

There is one standard that I have tried to maintain in my blog writing for the past couple of years: is the post professional? By that, I mean is it ethical, accurate, logical, well written and appropriately sourced? Writing unprofessional posts is a very risky business, regardless of how established you are in your chosen career. We simply do not know who will be reading our work: academic colleagues, members of committees (ethics, jobs, funding), community members, developers, school students? If your work does not meet basic professional and ethical standards of the discipline in which you work, then what is the message that you are sending to them?

People who are well established in their chosen career usually have a clear sense of just what is unprofessional and the kinds of impacts that unprofessional work can have when released into the public domain. I think this is less so for recent graduates with limited experience of professional life. However, as we might all  agree, the media landscape today is not the same as it was even ten years ago and there are umpteen opportunities for professionals to get their message into the public sphere and to interact with each other via various kinds of new media. This is a new problem – and opportunity – for archaeology.

There are several key risks associated with students or recent graduates who maintain blogs. First, there is the risk that they unwittingly post material that is unprofessional and that this will negatively impact on their career. We all know that an unprofessional post in your archives that was not very widely read at the time may come up in a web search two or five years later when you are applying for a grant or job. Most bloggers whose work I have time to read are very cautious about what and how they write; however, this may not be the case for those who are new to writing professionally and whose sense of professional standards may not be very well developed. If you seek a career as a professional and you run a blog you will be judged (in part) according to the professionalism of your blog, whether you want to be or not.

Second, there is the risk that an unprofessional post can be influential and attract a great deal of attention. A blog post about a research result or heritage management project that is controversial, for example, may attract the interest of mainstream media outlets or simply be promoted widely through social media: we all see examples of poorly researched and inaccurate popular archaeology stories that are uncritically promoted by dozens of people using social media. Also of concern though is the potential for inappropriate information to be released into the public sphere. For example, a blog post containing information that is culturally sensitive (e.g. about Indigenous heritage), commercially restricted or that includes results that have not been through a peer-review process could potentially have very significant ramifications. I’m not aware of any examples of this occurring in Australia, but very few archaeologists bother with blogs here so that is not entirely surprising.

Some may argue that the beauty of blogging lies in the way that peer review occurs in the comments and that the flaws of unprofessional posts are quickly pointed out by readers. I agree that this can be the case, but it is not consistently so. For most archaeo/anthro-bloggers, our audiences are very small and a problematic post may not be subject to very much criticism at all. Further, it may not be the correct kind of criticism, since readers of blogs may themselves not have the appropriate skills  to identify flaws and may not necessarily even be aware of relevant professional standards. One way around this may be to create a ‘research blogging’ style blog where  posts are to some extent peer reviewed in relation to an editorial policy (see my suggestion about Four Stone Hearth here). But I digress.

I am certainly not suggesting that students and recent graduates should not blog. Learning how to write good research blog posts is almost as important as learning to give a  conference presentation or prepare an academic poster. Blogs are clearly not recognised as a form of academic publishing, but the benefits of writing them are diverse and significant, particularly for students. However, students and recent graduates face unique risks when they decide to start blogging and as such, they should be learning about blogging at University level and encouraged to write and critique blog posts in a sheltered and supportive learning environment. That doesn’t mean telling students to simply “go write a blog”, but rather, incorporating it into the assessment process, providing feedback and helping them to develop and improve their skills. That way, when they do go out into their various professional careers they will better positioned to use blogs professionally rather than as professionals who use blogs poorly.

Edit (16 March):

You can read Colleen’s wrap of contributions on this question here. Some great work, including some contributions from a few CRM/heritage management archaeologists that I wasn’t aware of, as well as a post from Terry Brock on maintaining integrity in archaeological blogging. However, I don’t tend to agree with Colleen’s implication that maintaining a professional stance means writing boring, dry blog posts – I think the best kinds of blogs are those that are engaging and of wide appeal, provided they don’t send the wrong messages. Colleen’s own blog is a good example of an engaging style that sends the right kinds of messages to readers. Let’s face it, blogging doesn’t count for anything in relation to measurable academic outputs, and so there’s not much point writing posts that 10 people might read. Better to write openly and accessibly so that others might enjoy reading your work and to learn about archaeological ethics and professional standards.

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