Category Archives: Archaeology

Grindstone – ancient multi-tools

Marisa Giorgi, Information Officer, Queensland Museum

Grindstones are a relatively common tool found across Australia. But did you know grindstones have many varied uses? Archaeological science is revealing the complex nature of these stone artefacts.


At Queensland Museum, we have many of grindstones of different shapes and sizes, from across Queensland. These grindstones represent durable examples of everyday items used by Indigenous Australian people.  They are also integral components of the archaeological puzzle that helps us understand our past.

Grindstone, flat sedimentary rock with striations and polish on one side.

What’s a grindstone?

A grindstone is usually a large flat sandstone rock (abrasive rock) that is used with a suitable top stone, or muller. They form an efficient tool to grind or crush food to release nutrients. An important role was grinding of seeds to make flour for bread. This usually required a flatter top stone. There were many other uses which sometimes involved a smaller more rounded top stone called a pounder. This served to crack open seeds, break bones to extract the marrow, pound plant fibres to make string and grind ochre to create different pigment colours. Sometimes the process was dry grinding and other times using water. Essentially their main use of grindstones was for processing food.

Grindstones can be identified by their shape and wear patterns. Some are deeply abraded, with surfaces often worn smooth from extended use. They were mostly found where Aboriginal people lived and processed food. Grindstones were sometimes heavy (up to 14kg or more) so they were not always convenient to carry. The largest grindstones often remained at certain location for extended periods. Grindstones did wear out, and many areas lack suitable sandstone outcrops to create new ones. A grindstone trade network existed, and some of the recently located production areas are so large that they indicate an extensive and well-developed production for trade. Some areas, including parts of Victoria, seem to have fewer grindstones.

Grindstone – Muller, disc-shaped stone with polishing on one side.

What can they tell us?

We can analyse surfaces of grindstones for traces of plant matter. Because of limited resources this research is only carried out with community permission. Grindstones with a lot of contextual information are generally selected for this research. For this reason it is always important to leave artefacts in situ (In place) when possible. Record the location and report your discovery to the Department of Environment and Heritage so that archaeologists can get the full story behind an object. You can play an important part in preserving Australia’s history.

Grindstone – Muller, rectangular-shaped stone with polishing on multiple sides.

They are not all the same….

In the Museum we have some very specialised grinding stones such as the Morah grinding stone- only found in the Wet Tropics rainforests. This grindstone is made of slate with several parallel grooves incised on its surface to create a processing platform for seeds and nuts. Starch residue analysis on some of these Morahs for provides evidence that the stones are used to process toxic starchy nuts.

Some foods contain toxins which must be released before consumption.  Processing methods included water leeching or washing, and grinding or crushing. Grinding stones also processed plants for medicinal use. Smaller grinding stones were usually used in the production of pigments, crushing different colours of ochre to make a fine powder for the use in painting rock art, for painting on people’s bodies or on objects such as message sticks and shields.

Grindstone technology dates back thousands of years in Australia. Researching them provides us with clues about the food sources that were exploited across different climatic periods. Studies also shed light on the distribution of populations around Australia and how they traded and interacted. Some stones can even be traced to their origins before starting their life as a grindstone. One grindstone recently discovered in the Madjedbebe rock shelter, in Mirrarr Country, in northern Arnhem Land traces grindstone technology back over 60 000 years ago. That is the earliest evidence in the world for grindstones.

Grinding food, herbs and spices between two stones is still carried out today in many traditional communities. Indeed the mortar and pestle remains a popular tool in plenty of modern kitchens. Grindstones are still relevant to indigenous communities today, offering another connection to country and culture. At the Queensland Museum we have procedures in place to facilitate people visiting and reconnecting with their significant objects.

As we have many archaeological artefacts uploaded to our Collections Online web pages, you can start exploring some of the grindstones from the collection here.

Looking through the Glass

Dave Parkhill, Assistant Collection Manager

Clear as Glass?

Glass was used throughout the Roman world, with various applications and methods of manufacturing, and with colours ranging from an almost clear, pale green to vivid blues or other bright colours.

This rare core-formed alabastron (circa 3rd to 4th C BCE) is so named as earlier forms were made of alabaster. This bottle would have been used to hold perfume and the two small lugs were probably used for attaching a stopper in the neck. (© Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington)

A Dubious Origin Story

Glass objects, mainly in the form of simple glass beads have been dated to approximately the 3rd millenium BCE, but it was not until approximately a thousand years later that the first glass vessels emerged in Syria and Mesopotamia, an area that now makes up Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey and Iran.  One historical, albeit fanciful, explanation as to the origin of glass was recounted by Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian from the first century CE. In book 36 of his Natural History, Pliny gives a somewhat serendipitous account of how a Phoenician trading vessel, loaded with nitre, or potassium nitrate, was moored on the banks of the Belus River. The merchants were preparing their evening meal on the beach, and, not having any rocks to support their cooking pots, they turned to using large pieces of their cargo.  The nitre melted and fused with the beach sand and as the entire concoction cooled and hardened, glass was formed.  This theory has been generally discounted as the high temperatures needed to create glass would not be supplied by a simple cooking fire. 

Used for holding perfumed oils for anointing the body, this double balsarium (circa 3rd – 4th century CE) still has its looped handle intact – a rarity due to its fragile nature. (© Queensland Museum Peter Waddington)

Delicate glass bangles (circa 2nd cent CE) such as this indicate a life of relative ease and luxury. (© Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington)

Three Methods of Manufacture

Prior to the 1st century BCE discovery of glass blowing, there were basically two methods of manufacturing glass vessels: slumping and core formed. 

Slumping involved heating a piece of glass, roughly cut to size, over a mould and as the glass softened it would “slump” or drop into the mould. This was used to produce plates or bowls or other open containers.  The resulting product had both a rough exterior and interior, which was then polished smooth; it was at this point that a design could be cut or etched into the glass.  

Core formed glass requires forming a core of clay, or sometimes even animal manure and sand, around a steel rod and then dipping it into molten glass.  Strings of glass could be laid onto, and wrapped around the core.  The outer surface of the vessel was smoothed against a stone while still soft, and if needed, handles or feet could be added at this point.  Once cool, the object, such as this core formed alabastron (image a), was snapped free of the rod and the core removed. 

The third approach to making glass vessels was glass-blowing. The development of glass blowing is generally considered to have occurred sometime towards the end of the first century BCE in Syria, which at that time was a province of Rome.  The Romans came to excel at glass blowing, a technology that allowed them to create objects with far thinner walls, thereby making the product more translucent and allowing for a greater range of designs.  This method was also quicker and less expensive, which in turn gave rise to an increase in productivity, and glassware became more common as everyday items.  To create blown glass, molten glass, known as a “gob” is attached to the end of a blow pipe and air is blown through the pipe by the artisan. As the gob inflates it is shaped and formed by rolling or swinging the blowpipe.  While the glass is still soft, a rod, or pontil, is attached to the base of the object so that it can be held as the blowpipe is removed, and the mouth of the vessel is smoothed and shaped. Items such as this double balsarium (image b) were formed by glass blowing then folding the tube in half and pinching the fold to close each side.  In this example, a glass trail was then added to the upper half and a handle attached.  The chalky white encrustations on the balsarium are the results of the glass deteriorating due to the environment of the soil in which it was buried prior to its archaeological excavation.  

Beautifully blown glass dishes similar to this (circa 4th century CE), were used to serve meats, the well in the base providing a space for marinating oils. (© Queensland Museum Peter Waddington)

Beauty and Function

Glass was not only functional but could also be decorative, as in the case of tesserae for use in mosaics for pavements as well as for walls or ceilings, but also for personal adornment such as bangles (image e) and pendants (image f).  . With the discovery of new techniques, combined with greater skills of the glass makers, Roman glass became more accessible and served a wider range of uses. The advent of glass blowing, made for a thinner walled vessel, increasing its beauty and decreasing its cost.

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This delicate amber glass bottle (circa 1st – 3rd century CE) is decorated with a fine a glass trail which spirals its way from the base to the top of the neck. (© Queensland Museum Peter Waddington)

Setting the Table: Archaeology and Food

Marc Cheeseman, Archaeologist/Master’s Student, UQ

In every culture large proportions of time are dedicated to food-related activities, but how can archaeologists investigate this relationship? And what can this information tell us about the development of modern Australia?


From the 19th century to World War I, minerals (mostly gold) made up roughly one third of yearly Australian exports. During this time, as the economy expanded with the spread of pastoralism, agriculture, and various gold rushes, large-scale immigration became necessary to satisfy the increasing demand for workers. Spurred on by these economic opportunities people arrived from many European countries, as well as America, and the southern provinces of China, all living and working together at various mining settlements in what must have been thoroughly difficult conditions. Despite this, most archaeological interest in gold mining sites, particularly in Queensland, has focussed on equipment and industrial activities, rather than the people who used that equipment. Recent excavations at Ravenswood, a gold mining town in northern Queensland that boomed in the 1860s/1870s and just prior to World War I, allow us to explore social aspects of an important period in the development of modern Queensland and Australia by looking at archaeological food remains; in this case animal bones.

Food and Identity?

So, how does food reflect culture and identity? And more importantly, for our purposes, how can we look at food archaeologically? Every individual needs the same basic nutrients: carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins and minerals. Across time and space, however, human societies have developed an impressively wide variety of approaches in order to fulfil these basic biological needs, and in utilising these approaches people have developed certain food preferences. To save time let’s call a given society’s food preferences, which are selected from a narrow range of available materials constrained by geography and historical circumstances, that society’s ‘cuisine’. Unfortunately there is still more to it. For a long time anthropologists have considered food to have very deep cultural significance; it is much more than a simple biological necessity. For a few brief examples, food emphasises certain times of the year by helping mark holidays and special occasions. Even our weekly (and daily!) routines are frequently punctuated by discussions within individual households, and/or larger social groups, that focus almost exclusively on the consumption of food (broadly defined to include alcoholic beverages). There is a reason that the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ holds so much meaning.

Food and Identity? …And Archaeology?

Notably, it is the repeated nature of these ‘food practices’ (behaviours associated with preparing and consuming food) that makes them archaeologically visible. People persistently create characteristic waste associated with their specific food preferences, or cuisine, and we can (sometimes) locate this rich deposit of decomposing data in order to help us understand the daily lives of people from past societies. Geography and history, however, are not the only influences that shape how an individual interacts with their society’s cuisine (there’s still more to it!). Other considerations need to be taken into account, such as an individual’s social class, gender, ethnicity, and age, among others. A rural farmer, for example, does not eat the same food as a wealthy merchant from the same society and region. Even if they are consuming the same animals and vegetables (their range of choices is somewhat limited by geography and history, of course), they would likely be eating different cuts of meat, and/or have different preparation methods. Nevertheless, there are ways of utilising this archaeological food waste to help us understand social differentiation (or ‘group identity’) in the past.

So How Is It Done?

For historical sites such as Ravenswood this involves bringing together a wide array of historical documents (advertisements and articles in newspapers, personal journals, photographs, etc.) and combining that information with the evidence taken directly from the ground: the bones. Other associated archaeological material, such as ceramics and bottles, can help paint a picture of the wider consumption patterns of sauces, drinks and preserved foods—they can also provide crucial information about when the material was used and subsequently thrown away.

For the bones themselves, many previous studies across the world have shown that analysing archaeological food remains can provide much more than a short list of animals that people were eating. For example, identifying which species appear in the skeletal evidence, and then comparing this group with the list of available species for the settlement (taken from historical documents), can tell us about dietary choices and how the people in the town were expressing their societal and group identity. Similarly, identifying which body parts of each species appear in the skeletal evidence (the complete skeleton, or only one leg, etc.) can tell us about the town’s butchering practices. This information can of course tell us about cuisine and social formation, but it can also provide economic and social information about how transport and infrastructure (government funded railways, bridges, etc.) impacted daily life. Additionally, identifying ‘age at death’ patterns for each species can offer insight into whether an animal population was raised mainly for their primary product (i.e. meat), or their secondary product (e.g. wool or milk).

Bringing Home the Bacon

Taken together, this kind of information can start to paint a more personal picture of what daily life was like for the people of Ravenswood, the majority of whom are almost completely absent from the historical records of the period. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the stories that come out of Ravenswood feed into the much larger and ongoing story of the development of modern Australia. Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Historical archaeology at sites like Ravenswood can help answer these questions. There’s more than gold in them thar hills.

Further reading:

Lawrence, S. 2000 Dolly’s Creek : an archaeology of a Victorian goldfields community. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press

Orser, C.E. 2014 A primer on modern-world archaeology. Clinton Corners, New York: Eliot Werner Publications, Inc.

Pilcher, J.M. 2017 Food in world history (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Twiss, K. 2019 The archaeology of food: identity, politics, and ideology in the prehistoric and historic past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A Crime scene of the past – investigating tropical ice age megafauna

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum

In 2008, an extraordinary discovery was made at South Walker Creek, located near the town of Nebo, west of Mackay in Queensland, Australia. Traditional owners of the area, the Barada Barna people, were conducting a cultural heritage survey for the South Walker Creek Mine when they came across some interesting bones. These bones were not the usual white colour, like those of cows you find in the paddock, nor were they light in weight or becoming brittle from exposure to the sun. They were dark coloured, a little heavier than usual and quite solid in form.

We have found the white, brittle bones of modern cows and sheep on many of our fossil surveys. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.
 A fossil osteoderm (bone plate) from the scales along a crocodile’s back and a piece of bone below that was first found at South Walker Creek. Image Credit: Andrea Bull.

The bones were fossils! Fossils are the remains or traces of organisms (animals and plants) from a past geological age. Most fossils form from the bones and hard parts of animals and plants, but sometimes in rare conditions the soft parts, such as flesh and organs, can be preserved. The feathers, fur and stomach contents of animals have also been preserved, as well as small creatures, like insects, trapped in the sticky sap of trees, which has hardened into amber over millions of years. Trace fossils can include animal droppings, burrows, eggs or footprints, which can tell us a lot about the animal’s habits. They are all evidence of once-living things!

Brachiood fossil found at Homevale National Park on 29/09/2008 by Josh Moulds.

Fossils are found all over the world, but they only represent a few of the many organisms that have existed on the planet. Special conditions are required for an organism to become a fossil and survive the changes within the Earth’s sediment through time. Firstly, an organism has to be buried by sediment, such as mud and sand, which is usually washed in by water. The next stage of fossilisation depends on the organism itself and the environmental conditions. The bones from South Walker Creek have undergone a process called (per)mineralisation. Minerals from the soil and water in the creeks enter the cracks and pores of the bone making it harder over time and giving it a stony appearance.

White cards with field numberes were used to indicate the fossil bones found within the ancient creek. The one on the left is an arm bone (humerus) from a giant kangaroo, which has a whole other story – stay tuned with future blogs. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The environmental officers of the mine contacted the Queensland Museum where they were put in touch with palaeontologist, Dr. Scott Hocknull, who studies fossils of ancient life. Dr. Scott and his team worked with the traditional owners and mine officers to conduct natural heritage surveys, looking for more fossil remains and traces of past ecosystems within the geological landscape (geology) along the Walker Creek system.

The team surveys the ancient creeks and floodplains of the area looking for other fossil sites. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

On inspection of the fossils, Dr. Scott identified them belonging to extinct giant creatures, not dinosaurs, but megafauna! The megafauna we refer to here occurred during the ice ages of the Quaternary Period from 129,000 to 11,700 years ago. An exciting find was waiting for them in the form of a partial skull from the giant wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum.

The tooth rows from a skull of the giant wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum, were eroding out of the ground. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The megafauna fossils from South Walker Creek mostly represent †extinct species, some of which are new to science, along with a few extant (living) species that survive today. We have found predators such as crocodiles †Pallimnarchus (giant freshwater crocodile), † ‘Quinkana’ (terrestrial crocodile) and Crocodylus (saltwater crocodile), the giant goanna †Megalania (Varanus priscus) and the marsupial ‘lion’ †Thylacoleo.

A fossil tooth from a crocodile found while surveying. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

These predators would have preyed on the herbivores (plant eaters) that they lived with, such as the giant wombat-like marsupial, †Diprotodon optatum, giant wombats like †Phascolonus gigas, the strange giant sloth bear-like marsupial, †Palorchestes, and kangaroos, including the giant forest wallaby, †Protemnodon, a short-faced kangaroo (†Sthenurine), the red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus), a giant wallaby (†Notomacropus) and a giant deer-like kangaroo (†Macropus sp.). 00Rare fossils, including eggshell, of the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) have also been found.

Dr. Scott excavates the tooth rows and partial skull of the Diprotodon to carefully remove it from the ground. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

In among the megafauna bones we also find small fauna of both aquatic (water-dwelling) and terrestrial (land-dwelling) species, along with the fossil impressions of leaves and seeds from the plants that grew in the environment at the time of the megafauna. These delicate remains are rarely preserved in fossil sites of this age and are especially uncommon in the tropics making these sites extra special for palaeontologists. Since 2008, teams have undertaken fieldwork to survey, salvage and excavate fossil sites at South Walker Creek and this work continues today.

Dr. Scott and field volunteer, Noel Sands, carefully carry the partial skull of Diprotodon out of the site as if it were the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

The fossil discoveries from South Walker Creek are exciting because little is known about the megafauna from the tropical northern regions of Australia compared to those that have been studied in southern Australia. The site is significant as it preserves fossil evidence that is very close to the time of the megafauna’s ultimate extinction in Australia. By studying the site, we are finding answers to our questions surrounding the evolution and extinction of megafauna. Documenting the responses of megafauna to past environmental change is important to better understand the impacts of future change on our living species.

The team celebrate their exciting fossil finds and Diprotodon treasure. Image Credit: Queensland Museum and BHP.

Stay tuned for future blogs on South Walker Creek fossils as we take you behind the scenes and delve deeper into the past of these tropical ice age megafauna.

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – The main site of the South Walker Creek megafauna fossils where we are excavating their remains within an ancient floodplain. Image Credit: Josh Moulds.

What are megafauna?

By Rochelle Lawrence, Palaeontological Research Assistant, and Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Queensland Museum.

Megafauna are giant animals usually weighing over 44 kilograms (kg). Most megafauna are now extinct (no longer exist) and were closely related to living species of animals we see today. You have probably heard of the more commonly known megafauna species, like the saber-toothed cat and woolly mammoth from North America.

Here is a cast of a saber-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis, from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, United States of America, that I walk by in our Queensland Museum’s Geosciences collection. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

However, Australia is unique with its own megafauna ranging from huge and sometimes strange marsupials (mammals with a pouch), like the giant sloth bear-like Palorchestes to very large monitor lizards like the giant goanna, Megalania. There were giant wombat-like marsupials the size of a rhinoceros like Diprotodon, an array of giant kangaroos different to today’s species and a weird super-predator called Thylacoleo, which means pouched-lion. Australia even had giant, armoured tortoises with clubbed tails, land-dwelling crocodiles, giant constricting snakes and huge flightless birds.

Reconstruction of one of my favourite megafauna, Palorchestes. Image Credit: Andrey Atuchin, Rochelle Lawrence, Scott Hocknull © Queensland Museum.

Megafauna can also refer to species that weighed less than 44 kg, but resemble a giant version of a closely related living species. For example, the extinct ‘giant’ koala (Phascolarctos stirtoni) was larger than the living koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) and probably weighed under 15 kg. Others include a giant echidna, (Megalibgwilia), the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger and a larger relative of the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus laniarius. The term ‘megafauna’ is still used to refer to our largest living animals today such as the elephant.

Can you think of any other living megafauna or extinct?

A species of living megafauna, the elephant, we saw on safari in Namibia, Africa. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

The megafauna arose well after the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 66 million years ago. In Australia they reached their largest size during the Quaternary Period (2.58 million to 11,700 years ago). The rapidly changing climatic and environmental conditions created grasslands and open habitats favouring the worldwide evolution of gigantic animals. Towards the end of the Quaternary, extinctions of megafauna occurred with nearly two-thirds of Australia’s largest animals dying out, along with many smaller species.

Skeletons of extinct megafauna, including the woolly mammoth, we saw in the Palaeontological Museum of Liaoning in China. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

There is a great debate in palaeontology (study of ancient life) and archaeology (study of human history) surrounding the big questions of why and how did the megafauna go extinct? Answers revolve around an extended period of severe climate change or human activity, or a combination of both, resulting in extreme changes to the environment. To answer these questions, we have to keep searching for the evidence and investigate more megafauna fossil sites – if they have been lucky enough to be preserved and can be found! Each individual site is a reflection of the different creatures and environmental conditions that existed within the ecosystem of that region representing a small piece of a bigger puzzle involving the whole of Australia and even the world. 

Reconstruction of a Diprotodon who had met its fate. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.

Climate change here refers to the long-term, natural processes that can change the Earth’s climate such as its orbit around the Sun, changes in solar radiation, levels of greenhouse gases, and plate tectonics (movement of the Earth’s crust). These changes appear locally in the form of sustained changes in weather patterns, like decreases and increases in temperature, the frequency of droughts or flooding and overall intensifying aridity. Human activity during this time refers to hunting and disturbance patterns to the environment such as the burning of the landscape.

The drying and cracking of the earth I captured in outback Queensland. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Today climate change includes anthropogenic drivers, like pollution from increased industrial activities of humans. Some of these include the burning of fossil fuels that generate extra greenhouse gases, pollutants and deforestation. These influence how the temperatures across the globe are regulated and drive global warming, a rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s climate system.

Smog from pollutants, such as cars, released into the atmosphere surrounding a bustling city in Asia. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Megafauna fossils have been found around Australia and throughout Queensland. Those from the Quaternary Period have been found within sites in southern Queensland like the Darling Downs and Eulo. These sites are well known for the world’s largest wombat-like marsupial, Diprotodon optatum. Diprotodon would have browsed and grazed through the open woodlands and grassy plains of the downs and around the mud springs of Eulo, where on occasion they got stuck, leaving their bones for us to find tens of thousands of years later.

During this excavation we used the numbers to show where the bones of Diprotodon are situated within the ancient mud spring near Eulo. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

As we head north into the subtropics of central eastern Queensland we find fossils of megafauna from The Caves region near Rockhampton. The fossil remains of these animals that lived around and inside the cave systems have accumulated in cave chamber deposits. These deposits are unique as they record fossil fauna from different environments that transitioned through time from wet rainforests to dry open-arid habitats and then to today’s special vine thicket refugia (habitat supporting refuge). Here we find fossils of the extinct giant tree-kangaroo, Bohra, who is a larger version of today’s living tree-kangaroo species found in Far North Queensland and New Guinea.

Reconstruction of Bohra from the rainforest deposits. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.
Dig pit in Colosseum Chamber of Capricorn Caves preserving fossils of animals from modern refugia. Image Credit: Rochelle Lawrence.

Even further north in Queensland, west of Mackay, fossils of megafauna are being excavated from sites at South Walker Creek. These fossil deposits are rare because they preserve a tropical megafauna. Not many megafauna fossil sites have been found in northern Australia. Many of the fossil bones have puncture marks made by predatory crocodiles including the extinct giant freshwater crocodile, Pallimnarchus. These crocodiles would have inhabited the billabongs and creeks, hunting at their edge for unaware megafauna that would come to drink.

Reconstruction of Pallimnarchus. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.

Research into the megafauna is helping us understand their responses to environmental change during the Quaternary Period and hopefully it will answer the many questions surrounding their extinction. If we can track down our past, we can better understand how our present has been shaped by the extinction of the megafauna and hopefully use that knowledge to prepare for the future impacts of environmental change.

Can you think of any impacts to our environments today that affects our living species?

Project DIG is a partnership between Queensland Museum and BHP that will digitise and scan our collections and research for people worldwide. Check out our Tropical Megafauna in 3D!

Top Image – Reconstruction of megafauna from the Darling Downs. Image Credit: Robert Allen © Queensland Museum.

Exploring family history through artefacts

Hannah Craig-Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland

Archaeologists explore the past lives of people using many different approaches, depending on their particular area of research interest. In historical archaeology, identity, is one concept often explored, and made up of  facets including gender, religion, class, age, occupation, ethnicity, and social networks (King 2006:312; Lawrence and Davies 2011:223; Terry 2014:39). Identity is integral to one’s sense of being and can be explored archaeologically from the material goods acquired and consumption practices (Cochran and Beaudry 2006:200). Here, the sense of identity of family from early 20th century Ravenswood (a gold mining town in North Queensland) is explored through the artefacts found in association with their home.


Ravenswood is located approximately 100km inland from Townsville. Gold was first discovered in the area in 1868 (Hurle 1917:338), and from humble beginnings of a canvas and bark hut town, grew a large and prosperous settlement of great significance (Bell 2000:7). As a historical town, Ravenswood dates to between 1870 and 1917, however it has continued to be inhabited to the present day, with several minor booms during the 1930s and in the 1980s (Bell 2000:31; 35). Ravenswood saw several boom and bust periods mostly related to the challenges the miners faced regarding the difficulty of extracting gold from the ‘mundic’ (pyrite or sulphide) ore (Menghetti 1990:78; Roderick 1975:154). These difficulties, however, ensured that Ravenswood was at the forefront of technological advancement for gold extraction, and it was the first place in Queensland where the chlorination process, and later Wilfley tables were utilised (Bell 2000:7). Despite the Depression in the 1890s, the introduction of the cyanide process resulted in greater gold yields, and in 1898, Ravenswood had had its most productive year yet (Roderick 1975:164). In 1899, the New Ravenswood Company Limited was registered, led by A.L. Wilson, and Ravenswood’s most prosperous era had just begun. At it’s peak, the goldfield hosted a population of 4,707 people in 1903, half of which were women and children (Bell 2000:190; Roderick 1975:154).

The Edwards Family

The Edwards family lived in Ravenswood from c.1901 until 1915, during the town’s ‘heyday’. The family consisted of Henry John Edwards, an engine-driver, Annie (nee McPherson), a dressmaker, and their children: Gertrude May (Gertie, born 1889), Theodore Henry (born 1891), Eliza Irene Madge (Irene, born 1893), and Elizabeth Mary Ellen (Nellie, born 1900). There was also another son, Arthur Stanley, born 1895, who unfortunately died in 1899 approximately 3.5 years old. The Edwards were a working-class mining family, and they lived in a house on Church Street (outlined in red on map). The site of their homestead was surveyed and excavated in 2018 by Niche Environment and Heritage.

Ravenswood town map, 1980

Ravenswood map

The artefacts from the site, in conjunction with the historical record, tell a story about the inhabitants. Overall, the assemblage indicates a working-class family that aspired to middle class values of respectability. The ceramics purchased were mostly everyday items like  plates, bowls, platters, saucers, and teacups, except for a few sauce tureen fragments. This suggests  that while the Edwards were unable to follow fine dining rituals established in Victorian society, they did what was possible within their means.

A care for appearance was also apparent in the assemblage. A fine-toothed comb was recovered, demonstrating a concern for hygiene, and several accessories including possible brooch pins, a mother-of-pearl cufflink, and a few bottles of “Hauthaway’s Peerless Gloss” shoe polish were also present.

Fragments of a Sauce Tureen in the Kaiser Pattern by Burgess and Leigh
Fragments of a Dinner Plate in the Phoebe Pattern by Wedgwood & Co. Ltd.

The presence of the women in the Edwards family is visible in the artefacts recovered. The daughters can be seen in the various doll and toy tea-set fragments, as well as a perforated seashell that may have been a homemade pendant, perhaps commemorating a holiday to the coast. Annie’s occupation as a dressmaker is also well-documented in the archaeological record. A multitude of sewing paraphernalia including pins, eyelets, hook-and-eye clasps, buttons, press studs, tacks, and thimbles, was recovered from the site. It is also evident that at least one of her daughters followed in her footsteps with Irene’s work commented on in the Northern Miner for a needlework competition (17 May 1901).

The Edwards children’s education was also represented in the slate board and pencil fragments. Ink bottle fragments and a paper tack were also recovered demonstrating literacy in the family. According to historical archives, Ellen (Nellie) Edwards was enrolled at the Ravenswood school in 1913, aged 13 years and 5 months. In this record, the family’s religious denomination is listed as R.C., meaning Roman Catholic. During the surface collection of the site, a non-ferrous metal medal of the Immaculate Conception (a Miraculous Medal) was collected. This artefact provides physical evidence of the Edwards family’s faith.

A Perforated Seashell
A Mother-of-Pearl Cufflink
Fragments of a Hauthaway’s Peerless Gloss bottle
Excerpt of Admission Register Ravenswood State School 1903-1926


This is but a glimpse into the lives of the Edwards family, and research is still ongoing, but it demonstrates how the finds from a site, together with the historical record, can tell a story of the people of the past and their identity. From the ceramics and personal items, it seems that while the Edwards could be considered working-class, they had a level of affluence and social mobility that allowed them to aspire to and achieve certain middle class ideals. Perhaps this was achievable from Mrs Edwards’ occupation and reputation as a dressmaker, which bolstered the family’s income and social wealth.


Bell, P. 2000 Ravenswood Conservation management Plan. Unpublished report to Ravenswood Restoration and Preservation Association Inc., Ravenswood.

Cochran, M.D. and M.C. Beaudry 2006 Material Culture Studies and Historical Archaeology. In Beaudry, M.C. and D. Hicks (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology, pp.191–204.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hurle, H.H.C. 1917 The Discovery of the Ravenswood Goldfields. Read at the Meeting of the Historical Society of Queensland.

King, J.A. 2006 Household Archaeology, Identities and Biographies. In Beaudry, M.C. and D. Hicks (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology, pp.293–313.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lawrence, S. and P. Davies 2011 An Archaeology of Australia Since 1788. New York: Springer.

Menghetti, D. 1990 Ravenswood: Mining, Tourism and Heritage. Historic Environment 7(3&4): 77-81.

Roderick, D. 1975 Ravenswood 1868 – 1917. In B.J. Dalton (ed.), Lectures on North Queensland History. Second Series, pp. 147–167. Townsville: James Cook University.

The Northern Miner, 17 May 1901, p6.

Digging in the archaeology collection

Nick Hadnutt, Curator, Archaeology, Queensland Museum

During a routine audit of the Museum’s ancient stone tools, I happened across a stone axe with some interesting text upon. Investigating the text connected me with a World War 1 hero.

One of the roles of a curator is to investigate and research the collections they are responsible for in order to better understand them. In doing so, new connections, data and contexts are being discovered and recorded for future generations. Some of these connections are made through pure happenstance. It is this circumstance that has led to significant contextual information being added to an unassuming collection item in the archaeology collection at Queensland Museum.

Each year, Museum staff conduct audits of collections to confirm their security and condition. Recently, I audited the prehistoric collection. This international collection of 900 artefacts ranges in date from 5000 years B.P. (before present) to over 200 000 years B.P and includes Palaeolithic handaxes, arrow and spears heads, reindeer antler picks and a Neolithic bracelet or necklace. These fascinating artefacts represent the development of stone tool technologies over hundreds of thousands of years. In addition to the significant individual artefacts in the collection, the collection contains artefacts have been donated by some of the leading researchers from the earliest beginnings of this field of study in the mid-19th century, providing a physical link to those pioneering researchers.

During the course of researching and documenting this collection, a small Neolithic axehead caught my eye.  The attached registration label records this artefact as a “Flint Celt”, recovered from Harbonnieres France. The terminology is not unusual – many early records of axeheads record them as “Celts’ referring not to a people but the tool use. Professor S.B.J  Skertchly, in his 1911 Museum Catalogue, describes the use of the word “Celts” as referring to the “low-Latin word Celtes, a chisel” (ref here). A handwritten inscription on one side of the axehead reads “E1563 Harbonnieres Coll. By L.R. Blake, M.C. 1918” (see Figure 1). This inscription raised my interest. Firstly, the date placed the collection of the artefact during the period of the First World War. Secondly, “Harbonnieres” is a French township and was positioned within the 3rd objective set for the massive Allied push on the 8th August 1918. Was it possible Blake collected this ancient artefact during the action that saw the beginning of the end for the German army? The “M.C.” possibly stood for Military Cross, which is a third level decoration awarded (in 1918) to officers for an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy – in other words, a significant award. In summary, a Neolithic stone tool, collected on the frontlines in France during the final year of the war by a decorated soldier. This written inscription was enough to prompt a search for more information regarding Blake and his interest in stone tools, resulting in my connection to an incredible story. I needed to know more about Blake.

L.R. Blake, M.C. is Captain Leslie Russell Blake, born 28 October 1890 in Hawthorn Victoria (Dartnall, 2012), the youngest of 6. Tragically, Blake’s mother died of cancer when Blake was 20 months old. Blake’s father re-married and, just as tragically, passed away from tuberculosis when Blake was 7 years old. Blake and his 2 younger half-sisters were sent to Queensland to live with their aunt. By 1907, at the age of 17, Blake had completed his education and was appointed to the role of Geological Surveyor with the Queensland Department of Mines. A few short years later, at the age of 21, Blake was appointed geologist and surveyor to Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Blake was the youngest member of the expedition party. The highly renowned and successful expedition charted Macquarie Island and the Antarctic coastline and investigated the ocean between Australia and Antarctica. Blake’s role was to map and record Macquarie Island and its geology as well as collect geological samples. His work was of such high quality and incredible accuracy that his maps were still used for navigation in the 1970’s. By February 1914, Blake returned to Australia and commenced as field assistant in the Queensland Geological Survey working in Queensland’s goldfields.

In August 1914, England declared war on Germany and Blake attempted to enlist, however, medical issues prevented him. Undeterred, Blake successfully enlisted in 1915 and, with the rank of Sergeant, was placed in the Field Artillery Brigade 5, Battery 13. Blake embarked on the 18 November 1915 from Sydney, aboard the HMAT Persic (A34) bound for Egypt. However, just before embarking, Blake became engaged to Eileen Elliott. They decided not to marry until he returned from war. The embarkation role lists him as “7306 Gunner (Gnr) Leslie Russell Blake, 5th Field Artillery Brigade”.

We know a little of Blake’s movements due to his exemplary military record. Blake received a number of awards and was promoted twice during his service. He was commissioned with the rank of Second Lieutenant and then Lieutenant in August 1916. In October 1916, Blake was Mentioned in Dispatches whilst in Pozieres. His citation reads ‘Showed conspicuous and consistent gallantry, supplying excellent reports and obtaining valuable information’. In early 1917, Blake transferred to the 2nd Division Artillery Headquarters as a staff reconnaissance officer. He received a Military Cross shortly after ‘For conspicuous gallantry in action. He carried out reconnaissances under very heavy fire with great courage and determination obtaining most valuable information.’ (Source: ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 62). He was wounded by shrapnel in September 1917 but re-joined his unit in January 1918. He received a further promotion to Captain in May 1918, again demonstrating his skill, courage and intelligence. A photograph of Capt. Blake was taken by official photographer, friend and fellow member of Mawson’s Antarctic Expedition, Capt. Frank Hurley, which appears in the Memorial’s collection at E00661 (see Figure 2). Unfortunately, in October 1918, shortly before the conclusion of the War, Blake was badly injured behind Allied lines during a German artillery barrage. He passed away the following day aged 27.

The flint axe is recorded as having entered the Museum collection on 5th April 1922. It was donated by Blake’s employer, the Geological Survey of Queensland. It is possible they were sent the axe as a matter of interest after Blake’s death or perhaps he mailed it to them whilst on campaign. Regardless, this small, ancient tool has connect us with a modern hero and explorer, demonstrating the power of objects to convey incredible stories.