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.
This week and next I’m back in Weipa (NE Australia) working on a research project with Alngith People — Traditional Owners of the western Weipa Peninsula — as well as Dr Kathryn Allen (Monash University), to collect cores from Aboriginal scarred trees in the region. The work we’re doing involves applying dendrochronology, dendroecology and radiocarbon dating techniques to date Aboriginal scarred trees, understand growth rates on a particular species of tree and to collect new data about environmental change in the region over the past few centuries. In this post I want to outline the context and primary focus of the project, with another to follow on the methods and approaches we’re using as well as some secondary issues that we’re exploring.
What are scarred trees?
‘Scarred trees’ are simply trees that have some evidence of scarring as a result of people in the past removing bark or wood, engraving designs or motifs or cutting into trees for various reasons, including to collect food. In Australia, scarred trees have typically been created by Indigenous peoples. South eastern Australia is well known for the often large and imposing canoe scars carefully carved into the trunks of majestic river gums, and which are a common sight near waterways and wetlands. However, it is less well known that scarred trees are found in many parts of Australia and indeed, in many other parts of the world including in North America and Europe.
Scarred trees are a physical reminder of how Indigenous peoples in the past lived and are often of high importance to Indigenous communities in Australia today: they provide a link to the past and are generally a type of heritage place that communities try to preserve and protect where possible. Scarred trees are highly vulnerable to destruction via natural decay and fire while development is also a major threat as mining, urban expansion and so on see widespread clearance of otherwise undisturbed areas of forest and woodland across the country. This is particularly the case in western Cape York Peninsula where mining has considerable impacts on the local environment and where the foreseeable future is one that is dominated by ongoing mine expansion.
Scarred trees on Western Cape York
Many thousands of scarred trees occur on Aboriginal lands around Weipa, with well over 1,500 recorded on the Weipa Peninsula alone (1, 2). They are regularly found by archaeologists and Traditional Owners completing assessments before mining clearances and are frequently cut down and moved to make way for mining development. In the past few years, some Traditional Owners have chosen scarred trees of special importance and have placed these into monuments in the local area, in part to prevent them from being destroyed by mining (3).
According to local Elders, there are several different types of scar tree. Some scars were created by people cutting timber to make spear throwers or woomera as well as other tools (4). The scar tree that is most commonly found in the Weipa area are ‘sugarbag’ scars which were created by people cutting into trees to collect the honey and wax of the stingless native bees. In the early days, a stone axe was used to create a small hole near a sugarbag hive and then a thin, spongy branch was inserted into this hole to soak up the honey. These holes would then be sealed up again so that people could come back at a later time to collect more of the honey or wax. We’ve recently suggested that this approach was a form of resource management or ‘domiculture’, or a set of economic practices and ethics that were — and still are — a major feature of Aboriginal cultural traditions in the region (5).
In the late 1800s Europeans bought iron hatchets and axes and these were also used in the collection of sugarbag right through the 1900s. Indeed, Napranum Elders who grew up in the Weipa Mission remember their parents collecting honey and exchanging this with the Missionaries who would place it into a tank beneath the Mission Superintendent’s house. It was mixed with water as a cordial-like drink, and was eaten on porridge and damper every day. Sugarbag is still collected regularly by local community members today, using similar methods to those used by their parents and grandparents.
How old are scar trees?
On western Cape York Peninsula, scars mostly occur on one species of tree — the Cooktown ironwood — which as the name suggests is a tree whose timber is extremely dense and hard and is well known to be quite difficult to cut. This tree is also quite slow growing, with one study suggesting that a tree that was about 35 cm in diameter at chest height had taken between 180 and 300 years to grow, with growth rates of about 0.12 cm each year (6). What this means is that average sized ironwoods are likely to be at least several hundred years old and that the very large trees with 60 cm or more in diameter may in fact be much older than we had previously thought. Scars have been recorded on ironwoods of all shapes and sizes, and even found on ironwoods that have long since died, so it is likely that some scarred trees date to the period before Europeans arrived in the region.
There have been no previous attempts to discover the age of scarred trees in the region and only one other study in Australia that has attempted to do so (7), though this was highly destructive and required that the tree be felled — which is not always an option when it comes to managing Indigenous heritage sites.
The presence or absence of iron axe marks does give us a general estimate of the age of a scar and it is likely that scars with sharp and distinct axe marks were made after the late 1880s. However, many scars do not have clear axe marks suggesting they might be older than this. The techniques we are using potentially allow us to place scarring events into a 5-10 year time bracket allowing both community members and us to place specific trees into a particular historical context.
There are a number of reasons we are interested in developing a technique to effectively date scarred trees:
Having information about the probable age of a scarred tree will help to better manage these sites when difficult decisions about development are being made. For example, Traditional Owners may wish to manage scarred trees made in the 1960s, 1920s or 1850s in very different ways.
It will provide historical information that can feed into a range of community heritage work including educational and interpretive projects.
It will contribute to more academic research questions about the history of the region, particularly in terms of understanding what life was like for Indigenous people between the early 1800s and the mid 1900s and the ways in which the arrival of settler-invaders influenced Indigenous wellbeing.
So, this week we’re trying to relocate scarred trees on Alngith Country that have been recorded over the past 8-10 years. Next week, we’ll be selecting those trees that Alngith People want to core. Over the coming week I’ll post more information on the method we’re using and some images and video from the field.
I’m yet to upload my own publications here but if you are looking for a copy of something I’ve written just contact me and I’ll send it to you via express carrier pigeon.
1) Morrison, M.J., D.A. McNaughton and J. Shiner 2010 Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66). International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14(1), pp.86–111.
2) Shiner, J. and M.J. Morrison. 2009 The contribution of heritage surveys towards understanding the cultural landscape of the Weipa bauxite plateau. Australian Archaeology, 68, pp.52–55.
3) Barkley, R. et al. 2008 Collaboration and innovation in the management of cultural landscapes in mining contexts, western Cape York, far north Queensland. Historic Environment, 21(3).
4) Morrison, M.J. et al. 2012 New approaches to the archaeological investigation of culturally modified trees: a case study from western Cape York Peninsula. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, 35, pp.17–51.
5) Morrison, M.J. and Shepard, E. [Forthcoming] The archaeology of “sugarbag” production: post-contact Indigenous economic diversification within colonial intercultural settings in Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. Journal of Field Archaeology.
6) Cook, A.D. et al. 2005 Sustainable harvest rates of ironwood, Erythrophleum chlorostachys, in the Northern Territory, Australia. Australian Journal of Botany, 53, pp.821–826.
7) Long, A. et al. 2002 The origin and date of two scarred trees at Horsham Saleyards, Horsham, Western Victoria. A report to Horsham Rural City Council and Goolum Goolum Aboriginal Cooperative, Horsham.
There has been a little interest in this image below and so I thought a brief post was worthwhile to give it the context it deserves. Full credits for the image go to Amy Della-Sale, who is working towards completing her archaeology Masters Thesis at Flinders University on the post-contact histories of Indigenous people in a colonial frontier setting in Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia.
The full image of the pen is below however I much prefer Amy’s photo since it brings out a critical detail: the date. The scale is approximately 1 cm across the nib from top to bottom.
I have next to no knowledge of 19th century calligraphic pens however this one is interesting because of its context. It was found in an Aboriginal settlement or ‘village’ area (as it is referred to in historic documents) at the margin of a Presbyterian Mission site near Weipa that I’ve been working on for a few years now. If the date on the pen is correct (June 15 1886) then it pre-dates the mission site (1898-1932) and looking at the images now I wonder whether it is silver plated (if there are any readers with expertise in this area I’d love to hear from you!).
I suspect the dates don’t match up because like many Aboriginal missions in Australia, the Weipa mission sometimes received donations of money and goods from organisations or individuals in large cities to the south (often Presbyterian congregations). My view is that this pen may have been part of one of those packages, donated by a well-to-do Church-goer in Melbourne or Brisbane and mailed to the local Mission Superintendent along with other items such as children’s dolls, clothing and toys before being given to a local Aboriginal person. The historical evidence suggests that exchanges such as these were usually loaded with social meaning and intent; for example, it may have been part of a range of incentives used to encourage a particular person to comply to missionary norms and expectations in a context where the desire was to shape and modify their social, ideological and material worlds.
We discovered the pen eroding out of a low earth mound site (5 m diameter, 0.8 m high) and this was one of around eight mounds that we recorded adjacent to the remains of small cottages, arranged in two neat rows. Most of the artefacts we identified (glass, metal, ceramics, marine shell, stone artefacts) appear to cluster around these mounds, rather than in or near the cottages, however we’re still unclear as to what the mounds were used for: ie., camping/sleeping, cooking or rubbish disposal? During our most recent field work (2011) we created a detailed plan of all of the buildings, mounds, depressions, surface artefacts and so on, with excavations to come in the future. I’m in the process of creating our final site plans as well as doing some spatial analysis on artefact distributions in order to understand whether certain artefact types more frequently occur near cottages, mounds and so on, a technique that I’ve written about elsewhere.
The photo was taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T3i with a 10-20 mm Sigma macro lens. I’ve never owned or used a macro lens before this field trip, but what a difference they make to field photography! They’re brilliant for artefact photography, particularly capturing fine details such as this. They also enable a great deal more creativity with their limited depth of field. A creative eye helps, though; I don’t really have such an eye which is why it’s great to take creative students along (thanks Amy!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!