Collecting the Deep Past: Queensland Museum’s archaeology collection.

Written by Curator of Archaeology, Nick Hadnutt.

Queensland Museum is the custodian of a significant and extensive archaeological collection. The collection is so large it is divided into categories to enable better management, access and the application of expert knowledge to the collections. All together, these various collections comprise of hundreds of thousands of artefacts and occupy many square meters of storage. The collections are divided as follows:

  • Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island) Archaeology
  • Historic Archaeology
  • Maritime Archaeology
  • World Archaeology
  • Antiquities

The Indigenous Archaeology collection includes artefacts and archaeological material from various archaeological projects conducted in Australia. Generally, this collection contains material excavated from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander sites and places such as stone artefact scatters, middens, rock art sites, occupation sites, quarries, ceremonial sites and grinding grooves. The artefacts and material collected or excavated from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites and places includes stone artefacts and tools, ochre, charcoal, faunal remains, shell material and artefacts, plant remains, raw material and boomerangs. These artefacts and archaeological material may have been found and collected in an archaeological context, or collected, surveyed or excavated from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander sites under permit under the relevant cultural heritage legislation. The majority of this material and stone artefacts is from Queensland. The oldest dated Australian archaeological material in this collection comes from Kenniff Cave in Queensland’s Carnarvon Range and is dated to around 16,000 Before Present (BP).

This small jar of rheumatism ointment is from a historical archaeology excavation in Southbank.
This small jar of rheumatism ointment is from a historical archaeology excavation in South Bank.

The Historic Archaeology collection contains artefacts and items that have been collected from various surveys and excavations of Queensland historic sites. This material includes a range of objects and material such as bottles, glass, buttons, ceramics, gun cartridges, structural remains of buildings, clothing remnants and remains of foodstuffs including faunal remains such as bones and shellfish. Some of the local Brisbane sites in the collection include the Commissariat Store in William Street, South Bank Cultural Precinct, Victoria Park and Queens Park, George Street (opposite the Casino).

Our Maritime Archaeology collections are largely held by the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville. This collection includes material collected from HMS Pandora which struck a reef and sank in the Torres Strait in 1791 whilst returning from a voyage to search for the HMS Bounty and the mutineers who commandeered her. Another key maritime archaeology collection held at MTQ is from the Foam. The Foam was a recruiting vessel sailing for the Solomon Islands with the intention of returning a number of South Sea Islanders to their homes as well as trading for further labourers. The ship struck Myrmidon Reef, off the north-east coast of Australia, in 1893 and sank without any loss of life. The 84 returning labourers were indentured to another sugar plantation on Mackay.

This Neolithic necklace is part of the World Archaeology collection. Some of the artefacts in this collection are over 200 000 years old.
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These Neolithic fragments of goat’s jaws were found in France.

Our World Archaeology collection includes artefacts from Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites in Europe (especially United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Switzerland and France) and Africa (particularly Somalia). It also includes artefacts from Native American Indian sites in the United States of America, Canada and Mexico. These objects form some of the oldest objects within the Cultures & Histories collections and some of the hand axes date to over 250 000 years old.

Our Classical Archaeology collection includes material collected from sites in Rome and Sicily, Greece and the Middle East including Egypt, Pakistan, Israel and Palestine. This material consists largely of household items, lamps, bottles, pottery, pottery fragments, vases, items of personal adornment and items such as funeral goods.

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Assistant Collection Manager, Dave Parkhill, is auditing mummified bird remains from Ancient Egypt.
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A mummified hawk from the Ancient Egyptian component of the Antiquities collection.
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The Antiquities collection is comprised of Ancient Roman Greek, Cypriot and Egyptian material. These fragments of an Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead date to over 3000 years old.

Together, these collections combine to tell a grand narrative of human development over many thousands of years. However, in many cases, they also tell stories of very specific and intimate experiences. For example, the different collections provide insight into a discreet moment in time, such as the loss of a sailing vessel, but they also can be researched and interpreted to tell us more about the broader cultural contexts of the time. Studying the trade material that the ship, the Foam, was taking to the Solomon Islands reveals very detailed and surprising information about how European merchants were imitating Islander trade goods, such as arm bands, in an effort to capture the trade markets.

The small fragments of ceramic dolls hands and feet from a historical archaeology site tell us a story about children living in the fledging timber town, Mill Point, in the late 19th century. Also, the changing stone tool types excavated from Kenniff Cave tell us the story of how Aboriginal people, who lived in that shelter over thousands of years, changed the way the made tools in response to changing climatic conditions which impacted the flora and fauna around them. All of these stories and many more are contained within the Queensland Museum archaeology collection.