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!


A Plethora of Pin Flags

By Jessica Lumb

Redbanks. April 2012. An uninspiring ploughed field and a group of Archaeology students.


The ’empty’ field.

Ask many of them, I’m sure they were equally underwhelmed when we arrived. Wait, where’s the Archaeology? What on earth was going to keep us busy in this empty desolate field for a whole week?

After our initial orientation of the site, it became apparent. Out of the clods of earth, covered in dirt, hidden between the stalks of upright wheat, there were hidden treasures. Artefacts. Tiny gems of historical and archaeological wonderment.

Day two was the eye opener, and my first experience with a wonderfully bright and cheerful indicator of archaeology; the pin flag. Nothing extremely special in itself, a long straight piece of wire inserted into one end of a portrait orientated rectangle of coloured plastic; but the passion I feel for the pin flag is magical. I can remember feeling the same way about rainbows at about six years old; yes the rainbow itself was visually pleasing, but it was the idea of that pot of gold at the end that I was constantly obsessed with.

Of course, at the end of our rainbow pin flags inserted into the earth there were no tiny pots of gold, but for the Victorian domestic ware enthusiast (me) it was pure heaven, for each pin flag represented at least one shard of glass, ceramic, or other item of significance. The number of these tiny magical items was absolutely overwhelming.



Section of ‘Rhine’ pattern ceramic.


The pin flag’s work was never quite done in this field. Almost as soon as an artefact location had been recorded, and the pin flag removed, it was usurped by another team and inserted into another section of the site. A hot commodity indeed!

As such, the sheer volume of artefacts we recovered during the week (in my entirely visual opinion) cannot best be represented by a table of numbers, but in a simple photograph of a small section of an ’empty desolate field’.



A plethora of pin flags


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.