Four years and a Pandemic in the making

Dr Geraldine Mate, Cultures & Histories program

This week Queensland Museum archaeologists start fieldwork in an exciting community-led project exploring Australian South Sea Islander lived identities in the Mackay region.  

Imagine the scene… A fenced cattle paddock, some old concrete foundations, and a lovely tropical garden arrayed along a small quiet country road. One day two port-a-loos arrive, the next a bus and two 4WDs arrive and 15 archaeologists, anthropologists, researchers and students pour out and start unpacking shovels and sieves and toolboxes. This day has been four years in the making, through grant applications, community discussions, planning and a pandemic. Finally we are in the field to start our first archaeological field season, begin mapping landscapes and discussing objects as part of the Archaeology, Collections and Australian South Sea Islander Lived Identities research project.  We were nearly brought undone again by the recent Covid-19 outbreak in Sydney, but an all-Queensland team from Queensland Museum and the University of Queensland began work today at the Homebush Mill site south-west of Mackay. 

Working in a sugar mill 

For the last 4 years, our team has been working with the Australian South Sea Islander community to develop a research project looking at archaeology, cultural landscapes and objects to explore Australian South Sea Islander stories and identity. Despite a long history in Queensland, many people are unaware of this extraordinary part of Queensland’s past.  At Homebush, a sugar mill that operated from 1883-1922 employed South Sea Islanders to work in the mill itself and they lived nearby. We are here to try and identify the places where the South Sea Islanders lived. Historical plans give glimpses of possible locations for the separated barracks and other worker accommodation, and we are using these plans, and geophysical equipment to work out where to excavate. 

The broken brick walls and stray pipes that are all that’s left of the mill have, even in the first day of work, revealed the likely extent and alignment of the mill building. Along with suggesting the sugar milling processes of the day, these remnants show the volume of sugar cane processed by an early twentieth century industry. 

More than a Mill 

The work at Homebush is more than just about a sugar mill though. Community members have been sharing their stories of life in Homebush over the twentieth century. The area around Homebush is rich with stories. Nearby is the Homebush Mission Hall, which has been an important place of worship and fellowship for the South Sea Islander community for over 100 years. 

We are just at the beginning of our fieldwork, but are hoping for some interesting results over the next two weeks.  

Find out more about the project on our website https://assilivedidentities.qm.qld.gov.au/ 

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