What do archaeologists do when there is a global pandemic?

Dr Geraldine Mate, Acting Program Head, Cultures and Histories Program, Queensland Museum and Sciencentre  

What do you do when you can’t go into the field due to Pandemic? The answer is stay home! But that doesn’t mean archaeologists stop work…

This year was to be the year of archaeological fieldwork for our team. At the moment Queensland Museum is involved in some really exciting archaeological projects including archaeological investigations of the Ravenswood Mining Landscape and Chinese Settlement Area, and the Archaeology, collections and Australian South Sea Islander lived identities project. In 2020 we had plans to do several field seasons – in April, May, July, August and September as part of these amazing projects. So what to do when fieldwork is not possible?

All in a day’s work

Most people imagine archaeologists spend all their days out in the field excavating traces of the past, trowel in hand. But for many archaeologists this is only makes up a small part of their time. There is other work to do – archive-based research, searching historical records, diaries and letters; laboratory work, painstakingly sorting, recording and analysing artefacts brought back from fieldwork; and writing up the work done – reports, scholarly papers and journal articles. The work done after excavation, back in the lab, is where we make many discoveries, and where archaeologists begin the stitch together accounts of the past. Post-excavation analysis is critical, whether it’s developing an understanding how artefacts were made by people in the past by examining the types of materials used, or doing painstaking investigations of pollens and seeds under a microscope to understand long gone environments. Even searching newspapers and old catalogues can be useful to work out exactly what patent medicine was once held in a mysterious jar with a name printed on the top.

Archaeology in the Museum

For Museum archaeologists, there is other work to do as well. We have to register collections of sometimes thousands of artefacts in our database. We might spend days, or even weeks, sorting artefacts and photographing and cataloguing them before putting them into our stores. We also lend artefacts to researchers, so that our collections continue to help us understand past lives. We are working to get descriptions of our archaeology collections available online, and there is always the chance that an exhibition might be developed.

File-work not Fieldwork

With Covid-19 making a big dent in our plans for fieldwork, and preventing people across Australia from travelling, we have been using this time to improve our collection records, adding more details to our database. We have been keeping in touch virtually with the communities we are working with and trying to get more information about our projects up on line. We’ve been talking to partners in universities across Australia about innovative research projects in the future, and looking at new ways to present archaeology virtually. And yes, we’re even working on future exhibitions.


So while 2020 has not ended up being a year of fieldwork, it still looks good to be a year where Queensland Museum’s archaeologists continue to learn more about Queensland’s past, and share stories about our exciting discoveries.

Stay tuned for other blogs about National Archaeology Week. Or go online to see our Curator of Archaeology, Nick Hadnutt, in the Cross River Rail Webinar series Methodologies.

Geraldine Mate in the field at Ravenswood, 2018

Nick Hadnutt in the field at Ravenswood, 2018
Artefacts ready to be added to the collection

Brit Asmussen, researching artefacts held in the collection, 2018