Stuck in the midden with you…

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

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

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

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



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

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Minimising the misery and pain: tips for completing a Doctoral Thesis

Long time readers  know that I’m a relatively freshly minted PhD graduate (2010 vintage) and a quick browse through some of my earlier posts here or on twitter would no doubt reveal some of the anguish and horror that I went through during my candidature. So, it is a rather strange turn of events for me now to be offering advice to PhD candidates who are setting out on that unique and harrowing journey. Nevertheless, I’m about to go and offer  some general tips on ‘success in a PhD program’ to new PhD candidates in my Faculty. Why they asked me I’m not sure, but I thought it worth posting those tips here because I think they’re more generally applicable to anyone starting a thesis.

As a brief prelude to those tips, I should note that my PhD was very messy and I suspect I was far from being the role model PhD student. I disappeared into remote areas for months at a time, took around 6 years to complete and for a whole lot of that time I was working full time. I did finish and I did get a job, but I would  do a PhD very differently were I to start another one tomorrow.

(Warning, longish read!)


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The value of a track record in blogging

At the moment I am writing a rather large grant application for a postdoctoral position to step into next year when my current teaching contract at Flinders University runs out. I’ve written a few successful funding applications but this is by far the most challenging application I’ve yet attempted, which is no surprise given this scheme is the major funding program for Australian researchers. For years I have moaned about blogs not being seriously ‘counted’ when it comes to getting jobs or promoted, however at about 2:14pm  on Tuesday in a chocolate inspired burst of writing, it struck me that blogs do serve two important purposes that are critical in the competitive world of academia. Let me elaborate.

This particular grant application is difficult not only because of its scale, but because it requires me to do two things that are each quite difficult in themselves. The proposal must be innovative on a national and international level and firmly locate the idea in relation to a gap that needs attention now. That means it should be academically rigorous, demonstrate a degree of mastery of the relevant literature and meet all the requirements of any major grant proposal, i.e. clear aims, sound methodology and sensible budgets. It also should be carefully crafted for a general academic audience, not of archaeologists but of readers whose specialisations are different to your own. So writing 10 pages of archaeology jibber-jabber won’t necessarily help you get money. You need to convince people outside of your narrow field what your project involves and why it must be funded now.

Meeting both requirements in one document is by no means easy, at least  not for me. But for those who lay awake at night wondering what the point of blogging is, particularly when everyone around you is saying ‘publish or perish’ (and I have made that very point myself), heed my words: having a track record with blogging has been very useful in developing this application, despite my modest and patchy approach to posting.  There are two reasons.

Blogging potentially demonstrates a track record in community engagement and can be utilised as part of a communication strategy to maximise the social benefits of academic research.  If you’re a student or an early career person looking to demonstrate that they have a track record of community engagement, then blogging helps. It shows you’ve been trying to bust open the academic silo, in your own small way, and it also shows that if given the chance (i.e. via a job or large grant), you could easily apply these skills as part of a communication strategy for an organisation or on a large project. That’s important, particularly when it comes to people giving you money. They want to see their investment promoted, plain English blogging helps that and sits nicely alongside formal communication in journals and at conferences and the like.

Blogs also help you to develop your ‘plain English’ writing skills. They allow a great deal more freedom and unlike the real world you can write plain English posts that are accessible to a wider, non-academic audience. I’m an academic and even I find high brow, specialised posts very dull and I’m rarely interested in reading them unless they’re near to my specific field.  A good blog is a readable one and developing that skill is very useful when it comes to convincing others outside of your field about why they should employ you or give you money. So write for people outside of your field.

Publications are of course critical, and without those you are dead in the water so I still maintain that blogs are secondary to this. But they serve a purpose, and if now or in the future you need to demonstrate plain English writing skills or  a track record in community engagement, start  now. If you write about one thing, write about your specific field and the work that you are doing (if I want to read about some new research, I’ll usually read the publications themselves not your blog post ‘covering’ it). Don’t cover the big stories in archaeology if they’re outside your field, for that is the way of two paragraph quotes and blog spam and we don’t need more of that rubbish if we want to make a genuine case about the value of blogging in archaeology.

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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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