Field Work, News

Background noise: a double edged sword

By Sam Deer

Most archaeologists working in the field know far too well of the bothers that can be caused by background noise when looking for artefacts at a site. This little trickster comes in a variety of forms, usually depending on what field you’re working in – e.g. for indigenous archaeologists looking for stone artefacts background noise usually rears its ugly head in the form of stone fragments of the “non-artefactual” variety.

While investigating the site of the Seven Stars Hotel at Red Banks, SA, with a group of approximately 18 Flinders University students and staff, background noise proved to be a bit of a double edged sword, mischievously messing with not just the usual one, but two of the most important senses necessary to carry out a worthwhile investigation in such a setting.

The Seven Stars Hotel was a popular drinking hole for locals in the 60s and 70s and got its name from its location at the time – at the intersection of (yes, you guessed it) seven roads. Today the pub is non-existent to the naked eye – the only remnants are thousands of artefact fragments (bottles, ceramics, bricks and more) scattered throughout a field and the surrounding area. As would be expected when working on a site that’s been cultivated and ploughed extensively, background noise played tricks on the visual senses of field workers in the form of artefact-resembling rocks, remnants of crops, clumps of soil, grass and snail shells (see image above).

Situated right on the roadside (and quite possibly underneath it), the fieldwork being done on the site was hindered even further at the hands of background noise from passing traffic – every time a vehicle drove past the site a deafening roar filled the air and rendered any communication being attempted at that moment pointless. Conversations and instructions had to be repeated regularly, and we found ourselves on more than one occasion having to wait patiently as a convoy of cars cleared the area. This proved to be quite infuriating, especially when trying to communicate GPS co-ordinates across an open field with the wind also blaring in the background.

On the upside, we managed to defeat background noise and make the project and field school a great success – more than a thousand artefacts were collected from the site!

Field Work, News

From red dirt to Redbanks… and back again

By Mandy Atkinson

I have been lucky enough to have worked as a consultant archaeologist since completing my undergraduate and since that time have been working only in Aboriginal cultural heritage management. In a consultant’s world, you walk a lot, there’s nasty bugs and spikey bushes at every turn and there’s always more work to do than there is time to do it, quite a contrast to the friendly field school!

A ‘red dirt’ excavation in western NSW

With a view to enhance my professional skill set, I decided I should try my hand at historical archaeology… and brush up on my field skills while I was there. I drove from Sydney, NSW to the Seven Stars Hotel historical archaeological site at Redbanks, SA, via Condobolin and Lake Cargelligo (as I had work to do on the way). For 1500km I was bursting with excitement and enthusiasm at the prospect of a new ‘archaeology experience’.

I will confess I was completely underwhelmed for the first few days and actually found it much more difficult than I care to admit. On the first transect I caught myself walking past numerous artefacts. Why? Usually I would consider pieces of glass, ceramics and nails as background scatter impeding my ability to discover Aboriginal cultural heritage material.  So I turned around and re-did 20m or so of transect, hopefully unnoticed and concentrating intensely.

Redbanks, South Australia

After I few days of great company and learning a few new ‘tricks’ I started to warm up to the idea historical archaeology and to the site, which may have once been a pub.  I was impressed by a few interesting artefacts, found the working conditions beyond fantastic and was completely baffled by the ‘site boundary’ (and still I am!). All in all, it was a wonderful introduction to historical archaeology however my passion is still, and will always, be for Indigenous archaeology.

In my haste to start a new job, the next day and about 800km away, I left my backpack with all required field gear in Redbanks. Not the best way to start a new job! I must thank the backpack rescue team; Heather for posting it right away and John the station manager for driving 200km into town to pick it up for me!

Field Work, News

Searching the Land of Nothing

By Antoinette Hennessy

We all search for something. Palaeontoligsts have the Lost World, treasure hunters have El Dorado, and cryptozoologists have the chupacabra. Something stirs the mind, makes it race with ideas and fantastic notions of what something could have been, or even better: what once was. Something like the Seven Stars Hotel, Redbanks, South Australia.

Imagine this: a bustling Victorian-era pub almost out of place in the middle of the Adelaide Plains. Aptly named the “Seven Stars Hotel” it stands on the corner of a seven-road junction, and offers relief to weary merchants, farmers and the local population of Redbanks town; blessing their heads with showers of beer, liquor and merriment.

Out the back are the stables with fresh feed for the horses, and the outhouse for other business. The walls are a sturdy and strong patchwork of cobblestones and mortar atop brick foundations that seem unbreakable; a formidable opponent against the labours of time.

The stained-glass windows resemble those of classic Irish and English pubs, barely illuminating the interior with adequate lighting, but enough to spread a homely glow.

On a seemingly endless journey towards the developing settlement of Adelaide, the smoking chimney beckoned the traveller to rest and enjoy a most desirable home-cooked meal – freshly made, served with a warm and welcoming smile of the barmaid of bosom most ample.

Image

But there was none of that.

The vastness of the plains amplified the sadness of the sight: flat, heavily worked farmland with no visible remnants of any sort of building. There were no known photos, or paintings, and the only memories were that of its demolished grandeur – if there ever was. But the mental images poured out like paint on a canvas, plotting themselves on the land itself. I could see the hotel, and how it stretched and splayed itself along the fenceline; see where stables, sheds, outhouses were built within the dried wheat boundary. On the ground itself, you couldn’t take a step without coming across an artefact: a piece of gingerbeer bottle, glass from a once beautiful vase, or a piece of ceramic with elegant blue paint that, when put together with the other pieces of the jigsaw, would reveal an elaborate pond scene with weeping willows.

While the scientist analysed patterns and artefacts, the artist inside me was painting a new picture. A grand picture of a huge hotel based on the vast emptiness of the land, regardless of inaccuracies; knowing that something, and someone had once occupied this space. And as archaeologists, we would find it again.

Field Work, News

Flagging Tape, Body Bags, Witches Hats and a Mud Die – Improvisation in the Fields of Redbanks

By Rhiannon Agutter

It’s not exactly the Sahara or the slopes of Everest, but there is something about the wheat field of Section 103, Hundred of Grace that makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere – even if the township of Redbanks is only just across the street, and Mallala only 7kms down the road. Even though we were not so stranded, and not quite in the middle of nowhere, with the blistering heat of the sun scorching our skin and the gusty wind sending our hats flying and mattering the hair of those foolish enough not to tie it back (yes, that was me), survival instincts kicked in and 12 archaeology students and a handful of staff on a Flinders University field school were forced to show their creative side. And, as it turns out archaeologists are a creative (and perhaps slightly crazy) bunch.

Flagging tape. It’s the ultimate accessory that every good archaeologist should have. Not only does it come in a range of fetching fluoro colours to suit any standard Munsell soil colour but it can be used for so much more than just flagging.

When the wind gusts are strong and your hat blows away; never fear for flagging tape shall save the day!

Yes that was lame, and I shall never deliberately attempt to rhyme again, but seriously folks, flagging tape – who knew? And it does so much more than keeping your hat on…

It helps keep pens handy;

(Face blurred to protect the innocent from the embarrassment of a silly pose)

It looks dramatic blowing in the wind;

And if your pin flag breaks…

But flagging tape can only go so far. What if you have no hat to tie on? What if you have a hat but it has a brim so obscenely large that you can’t see anything if you have it on? These were very real problems faced by our crack team of archaeological improvisers.

The genius and slight insanity (I blame the heat) of those on the Redbanks field school continued to amaze me. By the final day the team had:

Invented a scoop for cleaning out auger holes which was much more efficient that any hand shovel we had;

Developed new ways of testing just how much clay is in the soil;

And found new uses for each other’s heads.

And then there was Sam…

Finding herself out in the field with no box or large bag on hand Sam did what any real archaeologist would do. She stuffed artefacts up her shirt.

Lots of artefacts…

Front and back.

Now that is what I call a “body bag”!

Archaeologists are a creative bunch. Redbanks taught me that. It’s not quite the middle of nowhere but even so it’s good to know (unintentional rhyme I swear!) that when conditions are against you, or you find yourself without the necessary equipment you can always count on an archaeologist to get the job done. In any way possible.

A big thank you must go to all the people on the fieldschool (especially the people who let me photograph them doing silly things).

Thank you to my fellow students: Mandy Atkinson, Di Baldry, Marc Brown, Sam Deer, Julie Forgan, Viki Gordon, Antoinette Hennessy, Matt Judd, Clare Leevers, Jess Lumb, Amanda Markham, and Britt Wilson.

And a humongous thank you to the staff and volunteers: Mick Morrison, Heather Burke, Bob Stone, Rob Koch, Chantal Wight and Shaun Adams.