Archaeology in the field – reflecting on the Mill Point experience of lantana, laughs & lake.

Geraldine Mate and Nick Hadnutt

Whenever you go into the field, the preparation seems to take over, until that moment when you get out of the truck at the site and breathe in the air. All of a sudden, the excitement kicks in, the nervousness about what you’ll find and the sense of freedom of the outdoors. There is a true delight in that feel of the sun or the chill of a cold dawn in the field, even the thrill of rain running down the back of your neck between the hat the collar (although not if it goes on for too long!).

Mill Point, a nineteenth century saw mill settlement on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, has been excavated and surveyed over many field seasons and has been the training ground for half a generation of Queensland archaeologists, including the authors. Field work is integral to all archaeology, generating the data to answer questions about the past. No matter where you go in the field however, there are some shared experiences.

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The Mill Point Lunch List in operation during the Mount Shamrock Archaeological Project

Before we set off, there’s paperwork and plans. The Mill Point Lunch List has been codified in many sets of field instructions: bread, butter, ham, chicken slice, cheese slices, mayo, mustard, beetroot… the list goes on. You haven’t lived until you’ve filled out a Risk Assessment that includes snake, scorpion and spider bites, water safety in the lake, shark and crocodile attacks, lantana cuts, poisoning from arsenic and cyanide, asbestos exposure, dehydration and sunstroke. And marshalling lots of people to excavate, survey, sieve and record has interesting challenges along with incredible rewards.

Fieldwork offers a sense of camaraderie amongst archaeologists, volunteer and professional alike, a collective sense of purpose and shared toil. At times it almost turns into a competition – keeping the buckets going, keeping on with wet-sieving in the cold water until you are soaked, the buzz of completing an excavation unit, completed paperwork, signed and sealed. The physical demands of fieldwork can be hard but all of that seems to fade under the spotlight of a shared intellectual adventure – the opportunity to discuss ideas and artefact discoveries with your fellow fieldworkers; robust debates about interpretation at the trowels’ edge; and even exploring theoretical viewpoints and methodological differences back in the camp site over a cold beverage. These things make fieldwork a refreshing change from day-to-day office based work and more than overshadow the physical discomforts.

Archaeology in the field, Mill Point. Image courtesy of Karen Murphy.
Excavation artefacts, Mill Point. Image courtesy of Karen Murphy.

The field is a great leveller. You meet people from different countries and backgrounds. When you are dirty, hot and tired and look in the face of a first-time archaeological volunteer or a well-regarded professor and see the same dirt and sweat on their faces, it creates a sense of bonding and friendship that last well beyond the final bag of artefacts being transported home.

Fieldwork is also about expertise – it’s an opportunity to execute your professional training, to create detailed maps through survey skills, to carefully excavate a feature where the information can be revealed, to record observations in meticulous detail. Presenting a 1m x 1m excavation pit with perfectly straight walls, neatly cut in, showing clear stratigraphy is, to an archaeologist at least, a thing of beauty.

There is a sense of discovery, no doubt, and it’s generally the culmination of months of research pre-departure.  Working in and walking across the landscape is a journey of learning. When you arrive at a new site, it seems to be an immense unknown, with perhaps where you park the four wheel drive and establish a datum the only “known” bits. As you work on features, survey land and begin excavating, the contours and changing vegetation reveal themselves in more and more detail. When artefacts and features are recorded and related to stories, activities, people, there is a sense of learning more about the past, almost becoming connected with the people who had been before.

Work doesn’t end in the field and fieldwork is not the be all and end all of archaeology. It is often said that for every week in the field there is a year in the lab. So much of our time is spent in post excavation artefact analysis or post survey mapping with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software. It’s about the analysis and interpretation of the artefacts and answering the research questions that led us to the fieldwork in the first place. It’s about publishing findings or reports to ensure that the discovered past is recorded, protected and shared.

It’s a privilege to be allowed to do the work we do. We get to work with people from across the state. Aboriginal custodians share knowledge and experience, local historians keenly provide archival documents, and landowners proudly take you on a tour of their property, all showing the cultural heritage of Queensland.

Join us as we celebrate National Archaeology Week. Queensland Museum curators and their favourite collections as they delve into our fascinating past with daily Meet the Curator sessions in the Discovery Centre at 1pm.

See the Museum’s ancient Book of the Dead as well as see mummified animals from Ancient Egypt. You will hear about colonial life in Queensland as discovered through the Mill Point Archaeological Project and get an opportunity to touch and feel Aboriginal stone tools and learn how they are made and used.

Discovery Centre, Level 3, Queensland Museum, Cnr Melbourne & Grey streets, South Brisbane.