Archaeological research has uncovered the remains of a 19th-century Irish community beneath an otherwise ordinary paddock in rural South Australia. Fitting the clustered form of settlement known as a “clachan”, it’s the first to be identified in Australia. Even more remarkably, this community thrived many years after this traditional way of living died out in Ireland.
The story of this discovery began in November 2012 when I walked for the first time on Baker’s Flat near Kapunda, about an hour’s drive north of Adelaide. I was an Irish-Australian archaeologist in search of an Irish colonial settlement.
In 1842, the discovery of copper at Kapunda led to the development of Australia’s first successful metal mine. The Irish arrived in 1854, seeking work as mine workers. They settled on an unused section of land close to the mine known as Baker’s Flat.
The histories are not kind to the Irish of Baker’s Flat. A 1929 collection of Kapunda stories established a narrative about the settlement as haphazard and chaotic, full of squalid hovels and unrestrained animals, and which essentially operated as a closed Irish community set apart from the rest of the town. Along with newspaper accounts of fights, public drunkenness and land disputes, the scene was set for these Irish to be perceived in stereotypical fashion as dirty, drunk, rebellious and lawless.
Years later, in the 1950s, the remains of any houses were demolished so the land could be farmed. Baker’s Flat was effectively erased from the landscape. The Irish were forgotten.
When I began researching the archives, trawling through the records of court cases and land disputes, I was really just trying to understand that community better.
The Irish had occupied Baker’s Flat from 1854 until at least the 1920s. At its peak in the 1860s and 1870s, 500 people were living there. Surely they couldn’t all be drunk and rebellious, or as one-dimensional as the dominant narrative implied.
I was looking for more depth and balance, but what I found turned out to be even more interesting. A surveyor’s plan from 1893 is the only historic map of the site. It shows a cluster of buildings in the north-west quadrant.
A series of photographs from 1906 depicts Irish-style cottages nestled into the landscape.
Affidavits from a court case disputing ownership and control of the land describe shared decisions, collective action and communal animal management. These facts hinted that this community might have operated as a clachan.
This traditional Irish way of living was characterised by clusters of farm dwellings and outbuildings built in the Irish style. In a clachan, the inhabitants managed the farming land communally. Unlike a classic village, clachans did not have services like shops or pubs.
Until the mid-19th century, clachans were widespread in Ireland. They died out, however, in the social upheaval following the Great Famine of 1845–1850. My research at this point indicated that, while the clachan was vanishing in Ireland, a vibrant one was flourishing in the heart of South Australia. Significantly, the only other clachan outside of Ireland to be hinted at so far is a cluster of houses built by 19th-century Irish migrants on Beaver Island, Lake Michigan.
Bringing in the archaeology
The next step was to test my theory using archaeological methods. First was a surface survey in 2013. Teams of archaeology students walked along a set route, observing and recording what they could see on the surface.
This survey identified the remains of 13 buildings (now just small heaps of rubble) and scattered broken glass and ceramics, mainly in the north-west quadrant.
These were clustered together and fit the pattern of rectangular structures about 10m long and 5m wide. There were also indications of paths and enclosures.
We tested these findings by excavation over two summer field seasons in 2016 and 2017. The excavations uncovered the walls of a long rectangular house, dug into the bedrock. It was one room deep, shaped like a traditional Irish dwelling, and matched the design of the photographed houses from 1906.
There was a cobbled path to the east. A small rubbish dump contained many 19th-century glass and ceramic fragments and butchered bones.
When all the evidence is combined, it confirms the presence of a clachan, the first to be identified in Australia. Analysis of the glass, ceramic and bone artefacts is ongoing but indicates so far that the Irish were generally drinking, eating and using the same things as other members of the broader colonial Australian community.
What is different here is the way they chose to live, building houses in the Irish tradition, living close together and making decisions jointly.
We do not know if the Baker’s Flat Irish deliberately set out to establish a clachan in a small corner of South Australia. It was such a common style of living at the time they left Ireland it may well be they just continued doing what they had always done and that it emerged organically. But they left enough behind to build a picture that challenges the stereotypes.
The archaeology is revealing that it wasn’t all chaos and lawlessness at Baker’s Flat. There was order. And this order took the particular form of the clachan.
As well as looking at the ancient past, archaeology is also about the recent past and what might lie beneath an unassuming paddock. It focuses on people and the things they discard or leave behind. For me, it’s about ordinary people, whose stories get forgotten as time goes by, but who leave traces in the landscape and the archives for archaeologists to uncover.
The Flinders Ranges covers a vast area spanning over 400 kilometres. The nearest capital city is Adelaide which, like all of Australia, exists on Aboriginal land. Adelaide is in Kaurna Country, about 200 kilometres from the southern end of the Flinders Ranges, one of the world’s most interesting and beautiful locations. This is a short drive, relative to most travel in Australia.
It is impossible to describe the Flinders Ranges as just one environment. The landscape changes as you travel from south to north and there is no way you could see its entirety in the span of a lifetime. But to give you an idea of how this land varies, lets start at its most southern end with its flowing green hills, near the small city of Port Pirie. This part of the Flinders Ranges is Nukunu Country. The land here is beautiful and your experience of it is very different, depending on whether you choose to drive on the eastern or the western side of the Ranges.
If you continue driving on the western side you will witness the place where the Ranges meet the ocean. You don’t need to pass through many towns, but you definitely should do so as they all sit on the beautiful coast of the Spencer Gulf. Port Germein, one of the stops, is a lovely seaside town and home to what was once the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. One and a half kilometres long, it lets you experience what it would be like to stand in the middle of the sea looking across to the Ranges. An amazing view indeed.
The eastern side will take you through farmland and small towns. Gum trees, creeks, gorges and green grass surround you and it is one of the first times you will find yourself up close to the Flinders Ranges. Here, you will be travelling through Nukunu Country, or if you veer further east, possibly Ngadjuri or Adnyamathanha Country. There is a stronger colonial history in the towns here, which you can see in the monuments and buildings that now seem tattered and old. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is one more stop I want to show you on the western side.
As you continue to travel you see the hills gradually turn into shades of dark green and brown. Their shape begins to change too, their soft edges turn to sharper points. The green grass transforms into red sand and you notice that the dark green and brown on the hills are the colours of the shrubs embedded into this sand. You eventually reach the small city of Port Augusta which sits at the top of the Spencer Gulf. This area is a meeting place for a number of Aboriginal groups that are separated on each side of the gulf, however, it is specifically connected to Barngarla and Nukunu. It is no surprise that this place is of great interest to so many Aboriginal Nations. It is the one place where the desert truly meets the sea. It is also the town where I grew up.
The beauty of home
Growing up in Port Augusta, I never realised just how beautiful this place was or how fortunate I was to experience such stunning views. It is not until you have lived in a city and travelled the world that you start to see the beauty in the place you call home. I spent many days during summer down at the beach during high-tide. But I was more concerned with opening my eyes under water than opening my eyes to the beauty of the Ranges.
My house was not far from an amazing view. If I took a short stroll to the end of my street I could look over a large white salt-lake to the Flinders Ranges. In this area the Ranges become more textured, their edges rougher, the creases highlighted by the shadows cast during sunset. The vegetation here is overflowing.
But even this is not the best part of the Flinders Ranges. To reach the highlight, you must travel from Port Augusta along a small gorge until you reach the point of intersection with the eastern side of the Ranges at the tiny town of Quorn. Continue through this town and the land begins to flatten out. There are fewer hills and you see horizontal red ground for miles around. You are now in a much drier area of the country. Dust. Fewer trees. But shrubbery everywhere. In the distance small hills are rising. As you reach these hills you are exiting Nukunu country and merging into Barngarla and Adnyamathanha country.
When you arrive at the small town of Hawker, you are presented with the option of two roads, and two different adventures. You must ask yourself which side of Ikara (Wilpena Pound) you want to see – the east or the west? If you choose the eastern side, you get to travel at a higher elevation. This section of road brings stunning views that you cannot see anywhere else unless you climb a hill. You feel engulfed by the Ranges, seeing their true magnitude. As you travel north you begin to really enter Adnyamathanha Yarta (Country). You are fortunate to see open plains alongside the beautiful ridges of the Flinders Ranges. Despite the perception that this region is dry, there are flecks of green everywhere. The ground is not just red: it varies between orange, yellow, white and black. These are the same colours that are present in the malka, markings and rock art that exists throughout our Yarta.
If you travel further north-east you will continue to see small hills in the distance that transform into mountains. You might even be able to glimpse a line of white on the horizon – the salt lake, Lake Frome. The further north you drive, the closer you get to Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. Here you can see creeks and high gorges and you begin to realise this area is not so dry.
Travel further west and you eventually arrive in Nepabunna, a central hub for Adnyamathanha people. During the 1930s, our people decided they needed assistance from missionaries because our land had essentially been destroyed by the influence of pastoralism. When farm animals were introduced to our country, the land began to change, our waters changed, and parts of our country were no longer open to us. It was decided that we needed to turn the place known as Nipapanha into a mission. Today, Nipapanha is known as Nepabunna and is home to a small number of Adnyamathanha people. Despite most of us living outside of this area, we still feel connected and call this area our home.
If you continue driving west, you will end up in the small mining town of Copley or Leigh Creek. This place is home to even more of us. The mine is located not too far outside of the town and operated for over 70 years. Coal was being mined here for use at the power stations in Port Augusta. When the power stations shut down, so too did the mine.
Travelling south out of Leigh Creek and Copley, you see even more amazing views. The hills around this area seem unreal. They create a strange illusion because they are close enough for you to see what is on them, but far enough away to look artificial. These hills are curvy and shapely; they look smooth. They look like what sand looks like when a snake slithers across it.
The views from this entire road are gorgeous. On one side you have a flat plain with no hills, because past this is the salt lake, Lake Torrens. On the other side the hills transform from smooth and curvy to the textured, ridged, multi-coloured ranges that circle Ikara. About half-way along this road, you will see the sign for Nilpena, the location of the Ediacaran fossils.
Ediacara is just one small location in the vast area known as the Flinders Ranges. Geologically, the fossils that are found here have transformed discussions about time periods and how the earth, and everything on it, came to be. Even the Ranges themselves are examples of this geological conundrum. They are not only scientifically amazing, they are incredibly breathtaking to witness. This region is truly an amazing place.
Despite the Flinders Ranges being so large, my ancestors and the ancestors of our neighbouring groups have explored it all. They mapped the entire country thousands of years before our colonisers had even thought of maps. Our people set borders between each other and formed customs that controlled how we entered each other’s country. They named every hill; every rock formation, big and small; every creek and every stream running off that creek. If you see something here, you can bet that we have given it a name.
The name of the Ediacaran fossils comes from their location in the Ediacara hills. But talking about the Aboriginal origins of this name is not as simple as you might think and it stems back to the colonial naming of all Australian places. Back in the time when the settlers were naming and claiming as many places as possible, some given names were original, some paid tribute to colonial figures and some were named after towns in other parts of the world. What is interesting is that many places were also named using Aboriginal words.
Some Aboriginal words that are used for places are not actually place names. In fact, there are many records of humorous words being given to settlers instead of the real name of a place. Due to the complexity of our naming, settlers often mistook words that referred to a specific spot rather than to the broader landscape that they were enquiring about. It was like using the name for a street as the name of a town. This adoption of names also led to the mispronunciation of words. Settlers were in no way linguists, and many Aboriginal words used as placenames have been altered and pronounced very differently to the way they were initially used.
Documentation of the word Ediacara does not clearly indicate which Aboriginal language it comes from, but there is some information about its meaning. One understanding is that this word is linked to a place where water is present. It is also believed that it could be a mispronunciation of the words “Yata Takarra” meaning hard or stony ground. Speaking to Adnyamathanha people about the meaning of the word Ediacara presents difficulties because of the linguistic history of Aboriginal place names. It is most likely that Ediacara was once pronounced very differently and it is possible that it may not be the name of the place where the Ediacaran fossils are located. Either way, the name that exists today in no way diminishes the Adnyamathanha history of the region.
Indigenous knowledge systems
From an archaeological perspective my ancestors have been in this area for over 45,000 years. Our histories are written in the land and passed down from generation to generation through talking and by marking rock walls. If you had traversed the land via the roads I took you on earlier, you would have passed many stories. But in order to tell you one of the main stories about the formation of our country today, I must return to the coalfields of Leigh Creek.
Although the closing of Leigh Creek mine caused distress amongst miners and power station workers, for me it felt like the land had finally won. It was no longer being attacked. Leigh Creek is not the only mine that exists on our country: we have had a long history of mining extending back to early colonisation. Up north uranium is extracted and down south, where the Ediacaran fossils are, copper and silver were once mined. I remember standing next to the Leigh Creek mine and looking inside the incredibly deep hole in the ground. You don’t feel well when you witness scenes like this because they are not pretty and you know that they are the direct result of human conflict. When I looked into that hole I saw a battle lost by my ancestors against developers. I saw my people’s fight and I saw their hurt. Mining coal may have been used to power parts of the state, but in terms of my Adnyamathanha community, it was a form of disempowerment.
The coal in Leigh Creek mine is connected to the story of Yurlu’s coal. Yurlu is a Kingfisher, but more importantly, he is the Master of Ceremonies. He came down from Kakarlpunha to Leigh Creek where he made a big fire out of mallee sticks. The fire was created to alert everyone to go south with him to Ikara where there would be a ceremony. Along the route of his travels he made several fires and these became the coal deposits you can find on the way down to Ikara. While doing this he was being followed by the two big snakes known as Akurras. These snakes pursued him all the way down to Ikara and you can see their travels represented in the shape of the hills and the ranges as they slithered south. They slid into the pound where they watched the ceremony, their bodies forming each side of the shape of the pound. There is more to this story, but this is enough to illustrate the breadth of our wisdom about our country. We never had any large animals to use as transport, we developed strong knowledge of place by traversing this land on foot.
Aboriginal stories are often viewed as mythology or folk tales, but they are much more than that. This is true of stories about Aboriginal places across the entire continent. Our stories come in many forms and provide various types of knowledge. In some instances they are used as maps. The places travelled to by the beings (they can be human, animal, plant or object) in these stories can be remembered over many generations. Even when these lands were no longer accessible during periods of environmental change, our people could recall them thousands of years later.
Our stories can be used as lessons, indicators of places or things that are dangerous. And I mean real danger, not “taboo”. Places where you can easily become disorientated and lost are in these stories as well as plants or other substances that are chemically dangerous to touch or consume. Our lesson stories can also lead us to places that can help us. They may describe natural springs in land where fresh water is uncommon, or they may map out the locations of rare food sources. They might relate to aspects of our culture such as the origin of certain ceremonies or the ways we identify ourselves in relation to each other.
Our stories are extensive and full of purpose, but because they are boxed into the category of mythology, the knowledge they contain is not seen as scientifically reliable. Western science has always prided itself on being objective and quantifiable and there is no doubt that it has presented some of the most important discoveries across the world. However, it has also been responsible for the oppression of my people. Western scientists developed ideas that enabled them to see Aboriginal people as lesser beings, that suggested “Western civilisation” was more intelligent than us. Western science is behind the forced removal of Aboriginal children, known more commonly in Australia as “The Stolen Generation”. Western science is the reason my people are seen as nomadic: it claimed we had no understanding of the land we existed on and that we were aimlessly wandering the country. Ultimately, Western science is the reason our land was originally taken away from us.
45,000 years of connecting to heritage
Western science and Indigenous knowledge clash because of their histories. In western society, science will always be placed on a higher pedestal, it will always be seen as more trustworthy. But Indigenous knowledge is the result of many thousands of years of observation. You cannot compare that to the past thousand or so years that western science has existed.
Scientific understanding of the Ediacaran period seems to be completely beyond the scope of Indigenous knowledge systems. It is unknown whether my ancestors had seen or even understood what the fossils were. However, the extent of our knowledge of the land and its creatures cannot be denied.
A similarity can be found between these fossils and our cultural heritage. Both are significant and vulnerable, and both need to be protected. When geologists and paleontologists started going to Ediacara the station owner made an admirable decision to restrict the removal of fossils for research. Therefore, all documentation of the fossils is completed on site. Additionally, their location is kept private due to the fear of vandalism and looting.
Adnyamathanha people have similar fears about our heritage. Our rock art is routinely destroyed and artefacts are removed from their original place. They are taken as souvenirs or vandalised out of disrespect for our culture. Unfortunately, we do not have the comfort of owning private land. Our heritage is used for tourism and whilst it is great that this shines a light on our history and culture, you have to wonder whether it is all worth it when our cultural heritage is in danger of destruction. Adnyamathanha heritage deserves as much consideration as the Ediacaran fossils.
Prior to Reginald Sprigg announcing his discovery of the fossils in 1946 they were of no interest to anyone, but we have continually been connected to our heritage for 45,000 years.
The Abstract features interesting research and the people behind it.
Davide Tanasi is a digital archaeologist at the University of South Florida. He creates highly detailed 3D scans of archaeological artifacts that can be viewed online or used to create 3D printed replicas.
Why is it important to digitize these artifacts as 3D objects?
It helps spread knowledge about them and guarantees that they will be passed to future generations. For example, the USF Libraries Farid Karam M.D. Lebanon Antiquities Collection is one of the largest collection of Lebanese archaeological artifacts in the U.S. Some of the objects are 3,500 years old. Due to space and personnel restrictions, it was never exhibited and made fully available to the general public. Being unpublished, hardly accessible and poorly visible online, it basically does not exist. Our project to recreate the collection in 3D is called the Virtual Karam Project. It allows us to share those objects around the world, hopefully triggering interest to curate and display the collection.
How do you scan them?
The 3D models of archaeological artifacts must be geometrically accurate to satisfy interested scholars but also realistic enough to engage the public. The “body” of the artifacts is captured with an ultra-precision 3D scanner integrated into a measuring robotic arm. The multicolored “skin” is acquired via a set of high quality digital photographs. From the combination of the two features comes the actual 3D model.
How common is it for museums to create 3D images of their collections?
The fire which recently destroyed the National Museum of Brazil was a global wake up call for curators to start plans for the 3D digitization of historical and archaeological collections. Plans not just for simple archiving and dissemination purposes but also to create a sister digital collection, which can be 3D printed and function as a “surrogate” in case the originals are destroyed. With the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution leading the charge, it is becoming more common even for small museums to start virtualization projects for their collections.
What other kinds of collections are you digitizing in this way?
I’m working on the Joseph Veach Noble Collection at the Tampa Museum of Art, a group of 150 artifacts, mostly high quality Greek black and red-figure pottery from Athens, Attica and South Italy. Another one of my projects involves the Luigi Palma di Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Antiquities, which includes exquisite examples of ancient pottery and statues ranging between 2,500 B.C. to 400 A.D. Both collections are largely unpublished, only partly accessible to the local public, with poor digital representation.
How do you hope people will use these digital collections?
They are an advanced archival record for the museum. But the 3D models can also be built in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality experiences for the public. Digital replicas can also be used by scholars in every part of the world or to popularize archaeology or trigger interest towards a certain museum or site. Digital collections can also be integrated in the teaching curriculum at K-12 and university level for history, art history and anthropology.
In spite of the gore, I sit completely transfixed by the deft movements of Sarah’s hands as she butchers a young spotted seal laid out on a strip of cardboard on the floor. “Can I help with anything?” I ask. She laughs as she separates out the meat from the fat and the fat from the skin and suggests that I can do the dishes if I like.
This is my third trip to the village of Quinhagak on the western coast of Alaska, surrounded by a landscape of vast expanses of tundra and an intertwined tangle of lakes and rivers which feed into the Bering Sea.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska is home to the Yup’ik people, who practise a largely subsistence lifestyle characterised by seasonal hunting, fishing and gathering. An archaeological dig happens here each year over the brief summer season between July and August, although seasonal changes, once like clockwork, are becoming less distinct because of climate disruption.
The dig, which goes back nearly a decade, was initiated by the local community with the aim of rescuing the remains of an old sod house in a nearby area known as Nunalleq, or “the old village”, before it is lost to permafrost melt and a crumbling coastline. The site dates from between 1570 and 1675, decades before Yup’ik first came into contact with Russian and European traders.
The excavations, led by a team from Aberdeen University in Scotland, were well underway by the time I joined in 2017. The project has recovered some 100,000 artefacts which were put on public display for the first time in August 2018 at the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Centre in Quinhagak.
As a reconstruction artist, it is my job to translate archaeological findings into renderings of life in the past. In Quinhagak, I was tasked with collaborating with the local community to co-design a digital resource for schoolchildren. It tells the story of the excavations in a way that makes space for the traditional Yup’ik worldview and contemporary parallels in subsistence, dance and crafts.
Within this resource, 3D-scanned artefacts and animated reconstructions of village life at Nunalleq can be explored on a computer screen, accompanied by soundbites, videos and interactive content co-curated by the Quinhagak community and the archaeologists. It will be available to the public here from July 2019.
The purpose of my trip in April 2019 was to test the resource on school computers in the village. This trip was outside the usual dig season so I stayed with a local family. My host was schoolteacher Dora Strunk, who was raised in Quinhagak and whose children belong to a generation in the village who grew up with the archaeology project.
Whether it was bouncing across the tundra on Dora’s four-wheeler to collect kapuukuq greens, or sitting in her daughter Larissa’s bedroom listening to her explain the meaning behind her traditional dance regalia, these friendships have gradually reshaped my own understanding of what it means to be Yup’ik in the 21st century.
What heritage means
I’ve heard objections to the collection being housed in the village: shouldn’t it be in a big museum in Anchorage or New York where more people can see it, “for the greater good”?
What I have learned during my visits here is that there is a need to maintain heritage within a community – and to allow it to be part of the here and now. Heritage is often seen as being focused on fragmented artefacts and ruinous buildings, but for many people, particularly indigenous and descendant communities, it can be intrinsically connected to a sense of social identity and cohesion.
Like many indigenous communities across the world, Yup’ik are still dealing with the effects of deep historic trauma from centuries of colonisation, exploitation and misrepresentation. Yet unlike the majority of Native Americans in the lower 48 states, Alaska Native land isn’t compacted into Indian reservations. People still traverse the vast expanse of tundra and coastline like their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
That said, maintaining this connection to land and tradition does not constitute a bygone era. Yup’ik is a living culture fully part of the modern world, with Snapchat and drum dances, microwave pizza and walrus ivory carving, snow machines and subsistence practices – even Facebook feeds filled with Yup’ik memes. Culture persists.
Establishing the Nunalleq centre in Quinhagak and helping to create the digital resource with the Yup’ik community is part of the same mindset that is prompting a handful of museums to repatriate artefacts and remains to descendant communities – while others come under mounting pressure to do so.
Here and now
My latest trip coincided with the district’s annual dance festival, which brought together schools from across the region. I had worked with young people from the local group the previous summer, who had chosen to interpret the excavation of dance regalia from Nunalleq by writing a new traditional drum song or yuraq about the site. They performed it again at this year’s festival.
During the festival, many youngsters came to the museum to see the artefacts. I witnessed teenagers pulling open drawers containing wooden dance masks, drum rings, ivory earrings, bentwood bowls and harpoons with trembling hands. Big kids lifted little kids up to peer into the cabinets and gasp, asking: “These all came from down there? From our beach?”
The “greater good” is right here: not only the collection being housed in Quinhagak, but also the work the village is doing to take charge of its story and share it with the wider world through outreach like the Nunalleq Educational Resource.
For Quinhagak, the past is not a place which is independent from the present. For the younger generation especially, the past is becoming a space for engaging with their heritage which they are continually transforming and reimagining in the present.
It has long been assumed that Indigenous Australia was isolated until Europeans arrived in 1788, except for trade with parts of present day Indonesia beginning at least 300 years ago. But our recent archaeological research hints of at least an extra 2,100 years of connections across the Coral Sea with Papua New Guinea.
Over the past decade, we have conducted research in the Gulf of Papua with local Indigenous communities.
During the excavations, the most common archaeological evidence found in the old village sites was fragments of pottery, which preserve well in tropical environments compared to artefacts made of wood or bone. As peoples of the Gulf of Papua have no known history of pottery making, and the materials are foreign, the discovered pottery sherds are evidence of trade.
This pottery began arriving in the Gulf of Papua some 2,700 years ago, according to carbon dating of charcoal found next to the sherds.
This means societies with complex seafaring technologies and widespread social connections operated at Australia’s doorstep over 2,500 years prior to colonisation. Entrepreneurial traders were traversing the entire south coast of PNG in sailing ships.
There is also archaeological evidence that suggests early connections between PNG and Australia’s Torres Strait Islands. Fine earthenware pottery dating to 2,600 years ago, similar in form to pottery arriving in the Gulf of Papua around that time, has been found on the island of Pulu. Rock art on the island of Dauan further to the north depicts a ship with a crab claw-shaped sail, closely resembling the ships used by Indigenous traders from PNG.
It is hard to imagine that Australia, the Torres Strait and PNG’s south coast were not connected.
An unconventional trade
The trade itself was quite remarkable. When British colonists arrived in Port Moresby (now the capital of PNG) in 1873, some 130 kilometres from the start of the Gulf of Papua to the west, they wrote in astonishment of the industrial scale of pottery production for maritime trade by Indigenous Motu communities.
Each year, Motu women would spend months making thousands of earthenware pots. Meanwhile the men built large trading ships, called lakatoi, by lashing together several dugout hulls. The ships measured 15-20 metres long and had woven sails in the shape of crab claws.
In October and November, Motu men would load the pots into the ships and sail west towards the rainforest swamplands of the Gulf of Papua. The trade on which they embarked was known as hiri. The voyages were perilous, and lives were sometimes lost in the waves.
When the men arrived – having sailed up to 400 kilometres along the coast – the Motu were in foreign lands. People living in the Gulf of Papua spoke different languages and had different cultural practices. But they were not treated like foreigners.
Sir Albert Maori Kiki, who became the Deputy Prime Minister of PNG, grew up in the Gulf of Papua in the 1930s. He described the arrival of the Motu in his memoirs:
The trade was not conducted like common barter […] the declarations of friendship that went with it were as important as the exchange of goods itself […] Motu people did not carry their pots to the market, but each went straight to the house of his trade relation, with whom his family had been trading for years and perhaps generations.
In exchange for their pots, the Motu were given rainforest hardwood logs from which to make new canoes, and tonnes of sago starch (a staple plant food for many people in Southeast Asia and across the island of New Guinea).
The Motu would stay in Gulf villages for months, waiting for the wind to change to carry them back home.
Quantity overtakes quality
Pottery has been traded into the Gulf of Papua for 2,700 years, but the trade grew larger in scale about 500 years ago. Archaeological sites of the past 500 years have much larger quantities of pottery than those before them. The pottery itself is highly standardised and either plain or sparsely decorated, in contrast with older sherds that often feature ornate designs.
In the past 500 years it seems that pottery makers valued quantity over quality: as greater quantities of pottery were traded into the Gulf of Papua, labour-intensive decorations gradually disappeared.
We think this is when the hiri trade between the Motu and rainforest villages of the Gulf of Papua began in earnest.
The coming decades promise further findings that will help unravel the forgotten shared history of PNG and Indigenous Australia across the Torres Strait. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Indigenous Australia was not isolated from the rest of the world.
It’s our experience that most people think archaeology mainly means digging in the dirt.
Admit to strangers that you are of the archaeological persuasion, and the follow-up question is invariably “what’s the best thing you’ve found?”.
Start to tell them about a fantastic ink and watercolour plan you unearthed in library archives, or an old work site you stumbled upon in thick eucalypt bush, and their eyes glaze over.
People invariably want to hear about skeletons, pots and bits of shiny metal. It’s this type of stuff that you will often see in the media, giving the misleading impression that archaeological process is only about excavation.
While the trowel and spade are an important inclusion in the archaeological toolkit, our core disciplinary definition – that of using humanity’s material remains to understand our history – means that we utilise many ways of engaging with this past.
Of course, there’s nothing like a tidy hole in the ground to get people’s attention. Yet what often gets lost in the spotlight’s glow is that excavation is the last resort; it’s the end result of exhaustive research, planning and design.
In the research environment, excavations are triggered by having no, or only a low level of, other streams of evidence.
This similarly applies in mitigating the impacts of development, where the threat of an historical site’s partial or complete removal adds an element of evidence recovery.
Should the excavation be ill-thought out, or divorced from proper research goals, the results – and therefore the net benefit of the whole exercise – are lessened, if not completely lost.
This is particularly so for historical archaeologists, where the availability of documentary archives, oral testimony and the remaining landscape itself can reveal so much – before trowels meet dirt.
For the historical archaeologist, a huge amount of work must take place before an excavation can even be planned, with invasive investigations sometimes not even considered.
In our particular field, the historical archaeology of Australia’s convict system (1788-1868), there is a vast amount of documentary evidence that requires interrogation before any archaeological process can begin.
As an example, in the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office, 35 metres of shelf space is taken up just by the official correspondence records for the period 1824-36.
Correspondence, reports, tables, diaries, newspapers, maps, plans, illustrations and photographs contain a wealth of information about the convict past. These can be used to query how people interacted with each other and the places, spaces and things that were created and modified as a result.
The experience of convict labour
We are currently over a year into a research project (called Landscapes of Production and Punishment) that uses evidence of the built and natural landscape to understand the experience of convict labour on the Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania (1830-77).
At its peak, nearly 4,000 convicts and free people lived on the penal peninsula. Their day-to-day activities left traces in today’s landscape that we locate and analyse using historical research, remote sensing and archaeological field survey.
LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging, a form of 3D mapping) has been used to great effect, mapping large areas in high detail, which have then been surveyed to find the sites of convict labour. These include quarries, sawpits, charcoal-burning stands, brick pits, tramways, roads and paths, cultivated fields and boundaries.
Without turning a sod, we have recreated historic landscapes that have long lain dormant.
These have then been brought to life through the records of the system, which were historically used to account for the convicts and their labour. These include records about the lives of convicts whilst under sentence, as well as statistics on the products and processes of their labour.
This raw data shows us the outputs of industrial operations carried out by the convicts, like brick making, sandstone quarrying, lime burning and timber-getting, as well as the manufactories that produced leather, timber and metalwork goods by the thousand.
The records also locate convict and free settlers back into time and space, reconnecting them to the places and products of their labour.
As the project develops, excavation may be one of the archaeological methods used to retrieve our evidence – but only once we have exhausted all other avenues of enquiry.
As archaeologists, we have a responsibility to ensure that the controlled process of destruction that is an archaeological investigation has the greatest possible research return.
Without this due process, our work becomes unhinged from research frameworks. The excavations devolve into expensive and directionless treasure hunts from which little research value can be extracted.
The archaeologist’s profession – be it as an academic or working in the commercial and government sector – is more than excavation. It encompasses a diverse range of skills and techniques which can be deployed to aid in our central task of understanding the lives of those who came before.
Peat bogs, which cover 3% of the world’s land surface, are special places. While historically often considered as worthless morasses, today they are recognised as beautiful habitats providing environmental benefits from biodiversity to climate regulation. However, they are threatened by drainage, land reclamation for agriculture and peat cutting for fuel, which has significantly reduced the extent and condition of these ecosystems on a global scale. Bogs are fragile and sensitive to change, whether by human hands or by processes such as climate change.
A less well known aspect of bogs is their remarkable archaeological potential. In their undisturbed state at least, bogs are anoxic (oxygen-free) environments due to their saturation. These conditions are hostile to the microbes and fungi that would normally decay organic material such as the remains of plants, which are the principal constituents of the peat. The same anoxic conditions also offer protection from decay for organic archaeological remains. The vast majority of objects and structures used by our ancestors were made from organic materials (in particular wood). These are normally lost on dryland archaeological sites but can be preserved in peatlands.
The saturated conditions mean that even soft tissue can survive, including both skin and internal organs. Probably the best known archaeological finds are the remains of “bog bodies” such as the famous prehistoric Tollund Man in Denmark, Lindow Man in the UK, or the more recent Irish discoveries of Clonycavan Man, Old Croghan Man and Ireland’s oldest known bog body, Cashel Man, dated to the Bronze Age.
Seeing hidden landscapes
But archaeology is only part of the story these environments have to tell. They are important archives of the past in other ways: the layers of moss and other vegetation that make up peat are themselves immensely valuable as archives of past environments (palaeoenvironments). The manner in which peat accumulates means that the deposits have stratigraphic integrity, meaning that contained within each layer can be found macroscopic and microscopic remains of plants and other organisms that shed light on landscape change and biodiversity on timescales ranging from centuries to millennia. The high organic content of peat means that these records can be dated using the radiocarbon method.
The best known such records are probably pollen grains which provide evidence of past vegetation change. But evidence from other organic material can be used to reconstruct other past environmental processes. For example, single-celled organisms called testate amoebae, preserved in sub-fossil form, are highly sensitive to peatland hydrology and have been extensively used in recent years to reconstruct a history of climatic changes. Meanwhile, fossil beetles can tell us how the biodiversity and nutrient status of a peatland has altered over time.
The potential of bogs to preserve both environmental and archaeological records means that they can be regarded as archives of “hidden landscapes”. The accumulating peat literally seals and protects evidence of human activity ranging from the macroscopic (in the form of archaeological sites, artefacts and larger plant and animal remains) through to the microscopic (pollen, testate amoebae and other remains) material that provides contextual evidence of environmental processes.
Through detailed integrated analyses these records can provide evidence of past human activity ranging from the everyday exploitation of economic resources of peatlands, through to the ceremonies associated with prehistoric human sacrifice and the deposition of the so-called bog bodies. The associated palaeoenvironmental record can be used to situate these cultural processes within long term patterns of environmental changes.
Taming the wild
There has been extensive study of the palaeoenvironmental record from bogs and notable archaeological excavations of sites and artefacts, but there have been relatively few concerted attempts to integrate these approaches. In part this is because generating sufficient data to model the development of a bog in four dimensions (the fourth being time) is a formidable research challenge. But some peatlands have seen relatively extensive archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research over the last few decades, providing an excellent starting point. Hatfield and Thorne Moors, situated primarily in South Yorkshire, are two such peatlands.
These two largest surviving areas of lowland bog in England are located within a wider lowland region known as the Humberhead Levels. After decades of industrial peat extraction, these bogs are now nature reserves managed by Natural England, and are becoming the “wild” bogs they once were. We are attempting to reconstruct the wildscape and bring the complex histories of this vast and dynamic boggy landscape to life.
These moors are just two surviving parts of a once rich mosaic of wetland landscapes. In the past, this landscape was famed for its wildness – a remnant of an extensive complex of mires, rivers, meres and extensive floodplain wetlands. Antiquarians such as John Leland visited the area in the 16th century, and his descriptions provide a “window onto what must have been a truly fabulous ‘everglades-like’ landscape”, as described by local historian Colin Howes.
Now largely drained, tamed and converted to farmland, it’s hard to imagine the vast wetland landscapes that once characterised these areas. Following large-scale land reclamation in the 17th century, many of the traditional practises such as fishing, fowling, grazing and peat-cutting (turbary) rights were no longer available to commoners. Consequently, the connections between people and place became increasingly defined by a new, dryland landscape and disconnected from its former wetlands that were once so central to people’s lives.
We are investigating and reconstructing this dynamic and changing wildscape throughout its history, reconnecting communities to these wetland landscapes. Drawing together previous research alongside targeted archaeological fieldwork and palaeoenvironmental analyses, we are combining these with newly available digital data and sophisticated modelling techniques to reconstruct their interwoven landscape and human histories. Together, for the first time, we are beginning to see the complexity of the dynamic and changing landscape that once characterised the Humberhead Levels.