Adventure stories and big personalities

March 4, 2012

On the way to the Hotel Shamrock which was hosting the opening of the new exhibition of archaeology from the Forest Street excavation, Howard Carter walked past me and my partner. He was wearing a top hat and tails and a name tag, which is how I knew who he was. Later, after all the speeches I remarked to him that he was a long way from Egypt. At which Jim Evans, president of the Bendigo Historical Society, smiled and said sadly how many times that evening he’d had to explain who Howard Carter was. (Spoils the joke really when nobody gets it.) But though few could place his name, they surely knew his story: the mysterious Valley of the Kings, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s fabulous tomb, the curse.

Many people profess a fascination with archaeology; I wonder if it’s not some of the grand tales that give the profession that glamour. Howard Carter is not alone. Read the rest of this entry »

Common heritage or colonial appropriation?

January 22, 2012

We need to have laws that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people … but these laws should be based on need and the national interest, not race … The national interest because their cultures and languages are unique to this country to be celebrated as part of our common heritage.

This was Mark Leibler, co-chair of the panel on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, writing in The Age last Friday about the need for the Australian constitution to abandon the 19th century idea that Aboriginal people’s identity is based on race.

Colonial appropriation

Leibler had me nodding in agreement until this jarring claim. There are some who argue that claiming Indigenous heritage to be part of the common heritage of a settler society is simply colonial appropriation continued in a different sphere. Read the rest of this entry »

Not doing archaeology

November 28, 2011
Eucalyptus distilling vat filled with water

One of the two eucalyptus oil distilling vats on the site of a new development

I caught the bus to a dig today instead of starting work.

I had the opportunity to join a Heritage Victoria archaeologist who was on a building site today to monitor the digging out of two 19th century eucalyptus oil distilling vats. He was at pains to make sure I understood this is not how you “do archaeology”. Apparently it was expected that not much would come out of the site, so it hadn’t been worth getting a consultant in to dig the site. But what did come out of the site was hundreds of tiny bottles all bearing the name of the proprietors. Each scoop of the excavator revealed bottles sprinkled through the wet clay and muck like chocolate chips. Read the rest of this entry »

Making the invisible visible

October 31, 2011

If an important event takes place in Jaara Jaara country, you can be fairly sure that Jaara Elder Uncle Brien Nelson will be invited. In his quiet way, he extends a welcome to country at the opening of buildings, gardens, semesters and memorials. Yet for all his visibility on official occasions, Aboriginal people and their history are almost invisible here.

Uncle Brien Nelson

Jaara Elder, Uncle Brien Nelson. Image source: Bendigo Advertiser

Last week the Bendigo Advertiser inserted a 66-page supplement in Friday’s edition entitled “Bendigo 175 years”. Apparently Major Mitchell took a look over the place from the top of Mount Alexander in 1836 on his way to somewhere else. In his introduction, the paper’s editor, Rod Case, says of the supplement: “It is a celebration of community spirit with sections on migration, arts, sport, politics and the great identities who have called this city home through the years.” Indeed it is, but notable in their absence are the Jaara Jarra people.

Ironically, the same day the Bendigo Weekly published a little item about Uncle Brien and his wife, Jude Perry, who have established the Bunjil Park Aboriginal Education and Cultural Centre on their Neilborough property. Says Jude: “We have tried to get council involved through Bendigo Tourism but they are not interested, so we decided to give it a go on our own.”

DHS Centrelink Indigenous services officer Sue Allengame is quoted saying: “ventures such as these are sorely needed in Bendigo. Realistically, there’s not much representing Jaara Jaara culture, so if Jude and Uncle Brien can make this work, that would be good.”

History is a funny thing. Like crime, it  doesn’t pay. The Bendigo Historical Society and others have been calling for a museum in Bendigo for years. Never mind that we have the Central Deborah mine, the Art Gallery, the Post Office Gallery, the Golden Dragon museum, the Joss House and the Goldfields Research Centre – we do not have an building (with a neo-classical facade?) dedicated soley to the European history of the region, therefore we do not have a museum.

Council seems to know well that paying propositions only lie in exhibitions of haute couture and white wedding dresses and has been steadfastly ignoring such calls. It therefore seems entirely consistent that the council would express no interest in the Bunjil Park venture. But the truth is that, while Bendigo wears its European heritage on its sleeve even without a “museum”, there really isn’t much that represents Jaara Jaara culture.

So how do you tell the story of invisible people when a pilot program for European social history such as the Post Office Gallery attracts so few visitors and most of them out-of-towners? I think it will take more ingenuity than plonking an artefact in a display case with a label. While it’s a huge financial burden trying to establish something like this on your own, at least without external funding, Bunjil Park has the freedom to explore innovative ways of telling its story.

The archaeology of (impenetrable) site reports

October 17, 2011

The annotations on the site diagram read “slag” and “smelting waste”. Slag? Smelting waste? This is supposed to be a residential site, not an ore processing factory. In the summary of findings in the report, there’s no mention of any of this. But I’m curious now. So I do a search for the two words in the report and, lo!, I find the following. (Try reading it – I had to.)

To the north of the dwellings were the outlines of timber frame outbuildings. Both outbuildings were of similar size and measured at least 6m south to north and 7m east to west separated by a wide stretch of several layers of waste clinker and smelting material [1140], [1142], [1143], which may have formed a yard or workshop surface between the two structures. The timber floor of the eastern building was clearly visible sitting above the natural subsoil and a compacted clay subfloor [1144].  A possible hallway within the building was outlined by a ‘parquet’ timber block floor [1142]. A second room defined only by backfilled beam slots was located to the north of this room. This room had a level yellow/grey compacted clay floor.  Several distinct roughly circular patches of ‘slag’ were located within the floor surface possibly indicating removed timber upright support. Fragments of burnt red brick were also found pressed into the clay floor. Overlying this was a layer of smelt waste and red loamy clay [1143]. A layer of grey battery sand had been used to level the immediate area of the timber workshops and certain areas within the rooms. Several artefacts were recovered from within the area of the rooms, these are undated but included an intact .38 pistol shell case, various corroded metal objects, a tyre iron and a hand manufactured 16 ½” length coach bolt. Parts of a gas burner or stove were recovered within a clinker layer together with a small eroded coin and a .44 calibre cartridge case.

Yes, but what does it all mean?

All that is about as impenetrable as a layer of concrete, but it definitely refers to the contexts I’ve seen in the diagram. So I do some more investigating and find that “clinker” and “slag” are both waste products of a blacksmith’s forge. I also discover that some blacksmiths didn’t fix their anvil support (usually a solid bit of tree) to the floor because they liked to be able to move it about depending on the nature of the job they were working on – which may account for the “roughly circular patches of ‘slag’ on the floor possibly indicating removed timber upright support”. Then of course there were the fragments of burnt brick and the corroded metal objects.

I know from the historical research included in the excavation report that next door to these workshops, a livery stable was operating for at least 50 years. I also now know from my own research and the 1907 city directory that there was another one over the road. Elementary, Dr Watson, we must have a blacksmith or farrier’s shop here.

A horse being shod outside Mr H Hinge blacksmith's shop, Bendigo 1853. Artist C Russell. Source State Library of Victoria

Making a call on a farrier’s shop

I’m as excited as if I’d scraped away the grey battery sand with my own trowel and found all that blacksmithing waste myself. But, honestly, reading that technical report, I got the distinct impression that the writers were trying to bury it all again. So I go out on a limb and write the following in the interpretive essay I’ve been working on:

On the corner opposite the Royal Hotel, Connelly and Co Ironmongers had set up business by 1907. Perhaps they had been there long enough to supply the blacksmith or farrier who occupied one of the workshops behind the houses on the middle terrace. With two livery stables at that end of the street, it must have been a busy shop: hammering and filing metal, the hiss of hot metal being cooled in a water barrel, horses clopping down the access lane, the smell of hot iron. In the yards between the workshops the waste fuel and slag was tossed out from the forge.

Now I wait to see whether I’m challenged on my “findings”.

In stories lies human culture

October 12, 2011

One of my colleagues died this afternoon. She’d sent an apology for this morning’s fortnightly meeting and said she’d probably be back next week. This afternoon we learned that Kay’s brother had found her dead. We all thought she just had the flu. Though I’m still in shock that she’s gone so unexpectedly, I realised that she’d left me a gift.

The gift of story

Archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf argues that storytelling, not empirical knowledge is the basis of human culture*. I moved to Bendigo in central Victoria (population 100,000) seven years ago. When I arrived I knew only that it had been a major gold mining town. For seven years I’ve been reading or listening to stories about the place – from people with strong family and professional connections to the Chinese history of Bendigo, from the mountain biking friends who showed me remnants of wooden water pipes and puddling machines out in the bush, from the bushwalkers who know all the water races and their history. After only seven years I feel a connection to the place that I never felt in Melbourne even though I grew up there.

Remains of puddling machine near Jackass Flat

Remains of puddling machine downstream and north-east of Jackass Flat Reservoir. This is about a half hour walk from where I live. These machines were much more efficient than hand puddling, but they needed huge amounts of water and the waste sludge was an environmental disaster. It clogged waterways and polluted water leaving inhabitants sick or thirsty. This whole landscape has literally been turned upside down.

Horse driven puddling machine in central Victoria in the 1880s.

Horse driven puddling machine in central Victoria in the 1880s. This is what the machine above would have looked like. Source: Victorian Dept of Primary Industry

Story and local connections

Kay’s gift was some marvellous stories about her aunt who grew up in Bendigo in the early part of the 20th century. She knew where all the old mining camp sites were scattered around in the bush and could take her nieces and nephews on expeditions to places that are now fast disappearing under new housing estates.

Each story you hear adds to a sense of place. Each builds on the last to create a deeper experience of place. And if a newcomer like me can develop a connection through stories and knowledge of landscape, how much more so those whose relationship extends through generations – or thousands of years.

Interest is proportional to nearness in space and time

Hedley Swain suggests that people feel more excited about an archaeological find the closer they are to it in space and time. Two years ago, an commercial firm in Bendigo decided to rebuild its headquarters and an archaeological excavation was required. My directed study this semester involves assisting on an exhibition of artefacts from the dig. The site owner was sent a draft of the essay I’m working on for the exhibition catalogue and replied: “It is fascinating to think that all of the activity you write about happened on a site we now operate from.”

I’m a late comer to the study of archaeology. Though it fascinates me, I frequently question its relevance, especially when so much work only lives in unpublished technical site reports. But with the opportunity to contribute a layer to local memory here, I wonder if there isn’t some value in the discipline – especially for Aboriginal communities whose landscape of memory has been disrupted or destroyed in the last 200 years by the very activities I’ve been hearing stories about.

I agree with Holtorf – it’s in the storytelling that the real value of scholarship lies. Kay, who knew I love to listen to stories, might have agreed too.

Holtorf 2005, cited in Hedley Swain 2007 An Introduction to Museum Archaeology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p55

What’s the point of contract archaeology?

September 23, 2011

Portuguese archaeologist Leonor Medeiros’s contribution to the Day of Archaeology 2011 project was a lament.

I still feel tormented by the fact that, after you dig a site, and discover so much about it, that information is going to only a few people, and most of the sites are left to be destroyed or abandoned.

Her words echo my own feelings. The temporary exhibition I am working on as an intern will show Bendigo residents what was happening behind the fence two years ago before a new office building was constructed. But this is an unusual case. The archaeology associated with most development sites in Australia goes exactly the same way as Medeiros’s Portuguese sites. The consultant archaeologists write a report and hand it over to the developer or land owner. The artefacts disappear into a warehouse. The local paper might have carried a couple of stories about the excavation while it was happening, but that’s about it.

Archaeology for the sake of it

Why do we bother? It seems a pointless exercise to investigate archaeological sites simply for  the sake of it. The Victorian Heritage Act 1995 (which does not apply to Aboriginal cultural heritage) only states that its purpose is: “to provide for the protection and conservation of places and objects of cultural heritage significance and the registration of such places and objects”.

It is not in the nature of legislation to question its own existence, but to what end are we protecting and conserving cultural heritage if no-one knows about it? Why excavate a site if the locals who would be most interested by dint of their connections to the place never hear the story of the site? What is the point of heritage if it doesn’t contribute to people’s sense of themselves as a part of a place because they know more of its history.

Contract archaeology is driven by funding imperatives. The developer funds the excavation reluctantly; the archaeologist must get the work done in a limited time frame and has no budget for the niceties of interpretation for a non-specialist audience. But just for a moment, put aside all those funding and resource constraints and imagine what archaeology with a purpose beyond fulfilling legislative requirements might look like.

Children working in an archaeological trench with a father leaning over the edge looking on.

Both kids and adults are fascinated by archaeology as the Port Arthur Kids Dig program demonstrates. Photo A. Kinsela


  • There would be real community involvement.
    Instead of peering through a cyclone wire fence as they walk past, people could volunteer to help – anyone from primary school kids to retirees. People are fascinated by archaeology. Getting your hands dirty is a great way to connect with your local history. And connecting with your local history generally means you’re more willing and interested in protecting and conserving it because it means something to you. (See the Council for British Archaeology, which welcomes volunteers, for example.)
  • There would be broader and more direct communications.
    Podcasts from the archaeologists, blog entries, Facebook pages, YouTube posts, Tweets, a display at the library or council offices. This would give a much better sense of how archaeology is done and how stories emerge and change as the work goes on.
  • The reports would contain at least a summary targetted at a non-specialist audience and copies would be lodged with the local library. (See Tales of the Vasco, for example which was part of a final report and tells stories about the site based on the archaeological evidence.)

Yes, it’s probably fanciful. But nothing really changes if you don’t have a vision first, does it?


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