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.
For an aerial archaeologist 2018 has been a bumper year. The long, hot summer has revealed ancient landscapes not visible from ground level, but easily recognised in fields of growing crops from the air.
The principle behind the appearance of cropmarks is simple. If, for example, an Iron Age farmer dug a ditch around his field, over time this ditch will fill up with soil and other debris and will generally retain more moisture than the soil or bedrock it was cut into. Centuries later, a cereal crop sown over this earth will grow for a longer period and ripen more slowly, appearing greener as the surrounding crop ripens to a golden colour. Conversely, a crop planted in soil covering the remains of a stone building or roadway will ripen more quickly and parch, again appearing a different colour to the rest of the crop.
What has made the summer of 2018 so remarkable is that the winter and spring was so wet that plants grew relatively shallow roots, having no need to search deeply for water. So when the drought came this summer, those plants that grew over buried features such as ditches and pits benefited from the greater store of water retained in the infilled soil. Well-drained sandy soils and those over chalk are particularly conducive to revealing features through cropmarks.
Recognising archaeological sites by cropmarks is noted as far back as the antiquarians of the 17th century, although it was William Stukeley – who pioneered the study of Stonehenge and Avebury – who provided the clearest early explanation in his description of features in the Roman town of Great Chesterford in Essex in 1719. In the modern era, at first using balloons, then aeroplanes and, most recently, drones, aerial archaeology photography has become a standard reconnaissance technique.
History from the air
One area where this has been used widely is the Yorkshire Wolds, among the first to be covered in the National Mapping Programme undertaken by the former Royal Commission on Historical Monuments England, begun in 1908, now part of Historic England.
Compiled from thousands of aerial photographs by Cathy Stoertz and published as Ancient Landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds in 1997, this remains one of the most detailed studies of an archaeological landscape in the UK. From the River Humber at Hessle to Flamborough Head, Stoertz’s mapping revealed a network of prehistoric and Romano-British enclosures, burials mounds, ceremonial monuments and linear earthworks.
For example, the picture above shows the square barrow cemetery at Arras, in East Yorkshire. Here, burials were placed on the ground and a mound was built over them with soil dug out from a surrounding ditch. The barrow ditches show as green squares. Dating from the Middle Iron Age, probably around 300 BC, this site gave its name to the internationally recognised Arras Culture of East Yorkshire.
A portion of the massive later prehistoric earthworks of Huggate Dykes has survived since the banks and ditches were built in around 1000 BC, probably as territorial boundaries or as a means to control access to springs and streams.
Impressive from ground level, an aerial view reveals faint green stripes in an adjacent cornfield – all that is left of the buried ditches after centuries of ploughing.
This year I have discovered hitherto unknown sites and, in other places, greater detail at already recorded sites. These include Bronze Age round barrows, apparent as rings in the crop, the characteristic square barrows of the Iron Age Arras Culture, and linear features running across the landscape from Iron Age and Romano-British farmsteads and other settlements.
Collaborating with Tony Hunt of Yorkshire Aerial Archaeology and Mapping, for the first time I have also used drones. Although these are subject to altitude restrictions, a good quality camera on a drone guided along pre-programmed tracks by GPS can gather precise images. The hundreds of overlapping images can be combined to provide a huge two-dimensional mosaic image, or processed to create 3D imagery, an elevation model, or to colourise the images in order to make the hidden archaeological features more visible.
This technique is truly revolutionary as mapping was tricky and time-consuming in the past, particularly aerial photographs taken at oblique angles, requiring hours peering through a stereoscope, mapping sites by hand using geometry.
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While the drought of 2018 has seriously affected crop yields, it has provided a rich harvest of a different kind, one that will take a considerable time to digest. An opportunity to do so will be as archaeologists meet to discuss finds from across Europe at the Aerial Archaeology Research Group annual conference, held this year in Venice, September 12-14.
Another collection of stone tools dating back more than 50,000 years has been unearthed on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Details of the find, at a rock-shelter known as Leang Burung 2, are described in our paper out today in PLOS ONE.
But we uncovered no human fossils, so the identity of these tool-makers remains a mystery.
In 2016 we reported the discovery of similar findings dating to 200,000 years ago on Sulawesi, and we also have no idea who made them.
If the first islanders were a now-extinct group, did they linger long enough to encounter modern cultures?
Sulawesi also holds great promise for understanding the initial peopling of our land.
This large island on the route to Australia might have been the launch pad to these shores up to 65,000 years ago. It could even be where the First Australians met Denisovans.
Resolving this mystery is not easy on a huge landmass like Sulawesi. Where do you begin to look? Which brings us to Leang Burung 2.
The original dig
Leang Burung 2 is a limestone rock-shelter in the island’s south. It was first excavated in 1975 by archaeologist Ian Glover.
Glover dug to a depth of 3.6m, uncovering “Ice Age” artefacts dating back 30,000 years. He also found, at the bottom of his trench, a layer of yellow clay containing simpler stone tools and fossils of large mammals (megafauna) that were rare to absent in overlying (that is, younger) “Ice Age” levels.
But before Glover could explore these hallmarks of earlier habitation he had to shut down the dig – large rocks in the trench had made further progress untenable.
Decades later, the late Mike Morwood, of “Hobbit” fame, resolved to extend Glover’s trench to bedrock. He had a hunch that below the undated clay might be evidence that archaic humans existed on Sulawesi until relatively recent times. In fact, Mike thought the ancestors of the “Hobbits” might have come from this island to the north of Flores.
In 2007 Mike’s team (led by Makassan archaeologist Irfan Mahmud) deepened the trench to 4.5m, but the dig was once again halted by rocks.
A new dig and deeper
Later, at Mike’s invitation, and with colleagues from Indonesia’s National Research Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS), I reopened the trenches in an effort to finally get to the bottom of things.
Over three seasons (2011-13) we excavated to a depth of 6.2m – deeper than ever before. It was a trying dig, requiring the use of heavy-duty shoring to support the unstable walls and specialist drilling equipment to remove huge rocks that had hindered prior work at this site.
Instead of reaching bedrock, we hit groundwater. With water seeping in, our dig was done.
Nevertheless, we can confirm that beneath an upper disturbed zone there is indeed evidence of an early human presence, having exposed a rich cultural horizon in a brown clay deep below Glover’s yellow clay.
Among the findings are large, rudimentary stone tools and megafauna fossils. We also turned up a fossil from an extinct elephant, the first known from the site.
Dating the new find
We are fortunate to have dating methods that were unavailable in Glover’s day, but the age of the lowermost layers has still proved tricky to nail down.
Our best efforts suggest that the top of Glover’s clay is over 35,000 years old, while the brown clay is about 50,000 years old – and we still have not bottomed out.
The early inhabitants used tools like those made 200,000 years ago on Sulawesi, so the deepest artefacts may be connected to the island’s oldest tool-making culture.
These cave dwellers could still have been around when the first rock art appears 40,000 years ago, but owing to dating uncertainties and the erosion of a large amount of sediment from Leang Burung 2, we can’t be sure.
Digging deeper at Leang Burung 2 is possible but it will require serious effort, including artificially lowering the water table. But while research at this shelter has been challenging, it has led us to another site with better prospects.
Our excavations at nearby Leang Bulu Bettue have unearthed rare “Ice Age” ornaments up to 30,000 years old, and we have now reached deeper and older levels.
Further work at this cave may yield vital clues about the original inhabitants of Sulawesi, including, we hope, the first fossil remains of these enigmatic people.
The history and archaeology of Mongolia, most famously the sites associated with the largest land empire in the history of the world under Ghengis Khan, are of global importance. But they’re facing unprecedented threats as climate change and looting impact ancient sites and collections.
Climate change and looting may seem to be unrelated issues. But deteriorating climate and environmental conditions result in decreased grazing potential and loss of profits for the region’s many nomadic herders. Paired with a general economic decline, herders and other Mongolians are having to supplement their incomes, turning to alternative ways of making money. For some, it’s searching for ancient treasures to sell on the illegal antiquities market.
The vast Mongolian landscape, whether it be plains, deserts or mountains, is dotted with man-made stone mounds marking the burials of ancient peoples. The practice started sometime in the neolithic period (roughly 6,000-8,000 years ago) with simple stone mounds the size of a kitchen table. These usually contain a human body and a few animal bones.
Over time, the burials became larger (some over 400 metres long) and more complex, incorporating thousands of horse sacrifices, tools, chariots, tapestries, family complexes, and eventually treasure (such as gold, jewellery and gems).
For Mongolians, these remains are the lasting reminders of their ancient past and a physical tie to their priceless cultural heritage.
Mongolia has reasonably good laws regarding the protection of cultural heritage. But poor understanding of the laws, and the nearly impossible task of enforcing them in such a large space with relatively few people and meagre budgets keep those laws from being effective. And laws can’t protect Mongolia’s cultural heritage from climate change.
The looting of archaeological sites in Mongolia has been happening for a very long time. Regional archaeologists have shared anecdotes of finding skeletons with break-in tools made from deer antlers in shafts of 2,000 year old royal tombs in central Mongolia. These unlucky would-be thieves risked the unstable sands collapsing in the shafts above them for a chance at riches, not long after the royal leaders had been buried there.
But many recent pits dug directly into burial sites around Mongolia, some that are more than 3,000 years old, suggest modern day looting is on the rise. For the untrained looter, any rock feature has the potential to contain valuable goods and so grave after grave is torn apart. Many of these will contain no more than human and animal bones.
Archaeologists’ interest in these burials lie in the information they contain for research, but this is worthless on the black antiquities market. But to steer looters away from these burials would be to teach them which ones to target for treasure and so this strategy is avoided.
Archaeologists working in northern Mongolia in 2017 found hundreds of looted sites, including an 800 year old cemetery consisting of at least 40 burials. Each and every one of them had been completely destroyed by looters looking for treasure. Human remains and miscellaneous artefacts such as bows, arrows, quivers, and clothing were left scattered on the surface.
Having survived over 800 years underground, these priceless bows, arrows, cloth fragments and bones likely have less than a year on the surface before they’re gone forever. This is not to mention the loss of whatever goods (gold, silver, gems) the looters decided was valuable enough to keep.
The result of natural processes rather than intentional mummification as in ancient Egypt, some of these mummies are preserved by very dry environments protected in caves and rock shelters. Others are ice mummies, interred in burials that were constructed in such a way that water seeped in and froze – creating a unique preservation environment.
Both preservation environments produce artefacts that rarely survive such long periods of time. This includes human tissues like skin and hair, clothing and tapestries, wooden artefacts, and the remains of plants and animals associated with the burial.
As looters zero in on these sites, and climate change melts ice and changes the environmental conditions in other yet unknown ways, archaeologists are racing to locate, and preserve these finds. But with little infrastructure, small budgets and almost no specialised training in how to handle such remains, there’s some concern about the long term preservation of even those remains archaeologists are able to rescue.
Efforts to provide training opportunities, international collaborations with mummy experts, and improved infrastructure and facilities are underway, but these collections are so fragile there is little time to spare.
What Mongolia can teach us
The situation in Mongolia could help us to understand and find new solutions to dealing with changes in climate and the economic drivers behind looting. Humans around the world in many different times have faced and had to adapt to climate change, economic strife and technological innovations.
There’s truth represented by a material record of the “things” left by ancient peoples and in Mongolia, the study of this record has led to an understanding of the impact of early food production and horse domestication, the emergence of new social and political structures and the dominance of a nomadic empire.
On 1 July 1983, in a dramatic four-three decision, the High Court of Australia ruled to stop the damming of the Franklin River. It brought an end to a protracted campaign that had helped bring down two state premiers and a prime minister, as well as overseeing the rise of a new figure on the political landscape – the future founder of the Greens, Bob Brown.
The fact that a remote corner of southwest Tasmania became the centre of national debate reflects what was at stake in the campaigns against hydro-electric development. For many, like novelist James McQueen, the Franklin was “not just a river”: “it is the epitome of all the lost forests, all the submerged lakes, all the tamed rivers, all the extinguished species”. The campaign was a fight for the survival of “a corner of Australia untouched by man”; it was a fight for the right of “wilderness” to exist.
“It is a wild and wondrous thing,” Bob Brown wrote of the Franklin River in May 1978, “and 175 years after Tasmania’s first European settlement, the Franklin remains much as it was before man – black or white – came to its precincts.”
But it was not only the idea of “wilderness” – of an ancient, pure, timeless landscape – that saved the Franklin. The archaeological research that took place during the campaign was at the heart of the High Court decision. Far from being untouched and pristine, southwest Tasmania had a deep human history. What was undoubtedly a natural wonder was also a cultural landscape.
‘A sea of stone artefacts’
The archaeological site at the centre of the campaign was, for a time, known by two names: Fraser Cave and Kutikina. Kevin Kiernan, a caver and the first director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, was the first to rediscover the site. He and Greg Middleton recorded it on 13 January 1977 as part of a systematic survey of the lower and middle Gordon and Franklin Rivers.
They were aware that the monolithic Hydro-Electric Commission was considering the region as the site for a new dam and they were searching for something – “maybe a big whizz-bang cave” – that might save these valleys from being flooded. In an attempt to raise awareness of this threatened landscape, they started a tradition of naming rock features in the southwest “after the political figures who would decide their fate”.
Fraser Cave was thus named after the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. There was also a Whitlam cave, a Hayden Cave and a Bingham Arch. When the Tasmanian Nomenclature Board caught wind of this tradition, they accused Kiernan and other members of the Sydney Speleological Society of “gross impertinence” for naming caves outside their state. In mid-1982, at the suggestion of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Fraser Cave became Kutikina, which means “spirit” in the oral tradition nurtured by the dispossessed Tasmanian Aboriginal community on Babel Island in Bass Strait.
But although Kiernan admired the natural splendour of Kutikina in 1977, he did not immediately recognise the artefacts it contained as human-made. It was not until he returned in February 1981 that he realised what he had found. He and the new director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Bob Brown, and its secretary, Bob Burton, were searching the remote valley for evidence of a convict who had supposedly perished in the region after escaping the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.
The story conjured the “wildness” of the country and the discovery of his bones might help bring publicity to their campaign against the dam. But when they climbed through the entrance of Kutikina, they were amazed to find a sea of stone artefacts and ashy hearths extending into the dark. These were no convict bones.
Three weeks later, a team of archaeologists, cavers and National Parks officers rafted down the Franklin River to investigate. It was already dark on 9 March 1981 when they tied their boats to the riverbank. They had a deep chill after hours navigating the fast-flowing river, hauling their aluminium punt and rubber dingy over successive rapids, journeying deeper into the dense rainforest. The rain picked up again as they unloaded their gear and took shelter in the mouth of the cave, which opened “like a huge, curved shell”.
Some of the team started a small, smoky fire to cook their dinner, while the others, with the light of their torches, ventured into the cavern. Kutikina opened out “like an aircraft hangar” and extended for almost 200 metres into the cliff. But it was not its scale that excited them: it was the idea that this remote cave, buried in thick “horizontal” rainforest, could have once been home to a thriving human population.
Too tired to erect their tents, they unrolled their sleeping mats on the disturbed floor at the cave entrance. It later occurred to them that they were probably the first people to sleep there in around 15,000 years.
Over the following days, as rain poured outside, the team carefully surveyed Kutikina. The archaeologists, Rhys Jones and Don Ranson, opened a small trench where the black sediment of the floor was covered by a thin layer of soft stalagmite. The test pit only extended to a depth of 1.2 metres before it met bedrock, but it yielded an extraordinary 75,000 artefacts and 250,000 animal bone fragments.
This small pit represented about one per cent of the artefact-bearing deposit, making the cave one of the richest archaeological sites in Australia. “In terms of the number of stone tools,” Jones said to one journalist, “much, much richer than Mungo.”
The archaeological remains at Kutikina told a remarkable story. The tools appeared to be a regional variant of the “Australian core tool and scraper tradition”, found across the mainland during the Pleistocene, suggesting immense chains of cultural connection before the creation of Bass Strait. The bone fragments were also curious. Most had been charred or smashed to extract marrow, and almost all (95 per cent) were wallaby bones, suggesting a finely targeted hunting strategy, similar to that found in the Dordogne region in France.
But most surprisingly, underneath the upper layer of hearths, there were angular fragments of limestone that appeared to have shattered and fallen from the cave roof at a time of extreme cold, forming rubble on the floor. It was one of the main pieces of evidence that led Jones to speculate in his diary: “Is this the late glacial technology?”
Home to the southernmost humans on earth
The possibility of Ice Age dates conjured the image of a dramatically different world. Pollen records in the region revealed that what is now rainforest was once an alpine herbfield like the tundra found in Alaska, northern Russia and northern Canada. Twenty thousand years ago, the mighty trees of ancient Gondwanaland had retreated to the river gorges, where they were irrigated and sheltered from fire, while wallabies and wombats roamed the high, open plains above.
The cold blast of Antarctica, only 1000 kilometres to the south, had dropped temperatures by around 6.5 degrees Celsius. A 65-square-kilometre ice cap presided over the central Tasmanian plateau, feeding a 12-kilometre-long glacier that gripped the upper Franklin valley. Icebergs floated off the Tasmanian coast.
At the height of the last Ice Age, Kutikina was home to the southernmost humans on earth. The people of southwest Tasmania hunted red-necked wallabies on the broad open slopes of Franklin valley, they collected fine stone from glacial melt water gravels and chipped them into tools, and they sheltered beside fires in the mouths of deep, limestone caverns. “They alone,” Jones reflected, “may have experienced the high latitude, glacier-edge conditions of a southern Ice Age.”
Significantly, during a separate excavation near the confluence of the Denison and Gordon Rivers, archaeologists also discovered tools and charcoal dating to 250–450 years ago, long after the ice cap had melted and the rainforest had returned. It revealed that the river valleys of southwest Tasmania had a recent, as well as a deep, Aboriginal history.
The rediscovery of Kutikina made the front page of the local and national newspapers, and was discussed on the floor of Parliament, but, surprisingly, it was restricted to the margins of the conservation campaign. John Mulvaney later reflected on the productive, albeit tense alliance between archaeologists and conservationists during the campaign:
We claimed an Ice Age environment of tundra-like grasslands, where their dearly loved primeval forest was supposed to have stood eternally. By discrediting the image of a forest wilderness, we were ruining their image and battle cry!
Added to this tension was the animosity the Tasmanian Aboriginal community felt towards both the archaeologists, for fossicking on their land, and the conservationists, for suggesting they had never lived there. Their activism during the campaign had profound implications for the Australian archaeological community. But while Aboriginal leaders such as Rosalind Langford and Michael Mansell were eager to regain control of Kutikina – “the most sacred thing in the state” – they also recognised the value of the history that had been uncovered. As Mansell said:
The fact that the Aborigines could survive physically and culturally in adverse conditions and over such a long period of time … helps me counteract the feeling of racial inferiority and enables me to demonstrate within the wider community that I and my people are the equal of other members of the community.
At the 1981 Tasmanian Power Referendum, 47 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. But, remarkably, there was also a 45 per cent informal vote. Tens of thousands of voters had scrawled “no dams” on their ballot papers. The unprecedented “write-in” had been organised by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, led by Brown. It repeated this highly organised, campaign-oriented strategy at local, state and federal elections throughout 1982.
The federal leader of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, also recognised the mood of the electorate against the dam and in August 1981 he initiated a Senate inquiry into “the federal responsibility in assisting Tasmania to preserve its wilderness areas of national and international importance”. Jones, Mulvaney and the executive of the Australian Archaeological Association were among the many to make submissions to the new Senate Select Committee.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre also made a submission, drawing upon the archaeological research to underline the cave’s “great historical importance”. But they also made a more personal plea. The Franklin River caves “form part of us – we are of them and they of us. Their destruction represents a part destruction of us.”
This advocacy had a profound influence. Several members of the Senate Committee flew into the Franklin valley to see the ongoing archaeological work and when the committee presented its report on the Future Demand and Supply of Electricity for Tasmania and Other Matters, the archaeology dominated the “other matters”. “Apart from any other reasons for preserving the area,” they concluded, “the caves are of such importance that the Franklin River be not inundated.”
Prime Minister Fraser heeded the conclusions of the report. He did not want the Franklin dam built, but he was reluctant to intervene in what he regarded as a state matter. So he did not act when construction on the dam began in July 1982.
Protests and political shifts
On 14 December 1982, the same day the region was formally listed as a World Heritage site for its natural and cultural value, a chain of rubber rafts blocked the main landing sites along the Franklin River, protestors occupied the dam site and rallies were held in cities across Australia.
By autumn 1983, 1272 protestors had been arrested during the Franklin blockade, and nearly 450 had done time in Hobart’s Risdon Prison, including Mansell and Langford, who were charged with trespass on their return from visiting Kutikina.
While the blockade continued, and with a federal election just around the corner, the ALP made a snap change in its leadership on 3 February 1983. It replaced Bill Hayden, who had voted against Labor’s policy to stop the dam at the party’s national conference, with Bob Hawke, who had voted for it. And in a tumultuous few hours of Australian political history, Fraser called an early election on the same day. It would turn out to be a grievous political miscalculation.
Neither Fraser nor Hawke believed the Franklin River dispute decided the 5 March 1983 election, but the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony, was adamant: “There is no doubt that the dam was the issue that lost the government the election.”
On 31 March the new Hawke government passed regulations to prevent further construction on the Franklin dam. Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray took the matter to the High Court, challenging the constitutionality of Hawke’s “interventionist” legislation. His appeal failed by the narrowest of margins.
The judges in the majority considered that the Commonwealth had a clear obligation to use its External Affairs power to stop the proposed dam, as the inundation of “the Franklin River, including Kutikina Cave and Deena Reena Cave”, would breach the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act and damage Australia’s international standing. They also invoked the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people.
The Franklin River campaign has entered “the folklore of Australian environmentalism” as a green victory: a battle won, in Clive Hamilton’s words, through “the intrinsic worth of wild places.” But behind the scenes it was the deep Aboriginal history of the region that pushed the decision over the line. The archaeological evidence featured in every report about the judgement, and privately Malcolm Fraser considered it to be the deciding factor.