Well that was a longer break than I thought. The original plan was to type up the summary of the weekend as soon as I got home but the home trip took a lot longer than I thought. Add that to the impending (at the time) exams and I just didn’t get around to it. Holidays now though, so here I am.
So, what was the weekend like?
We stayed at the YHA at the Rocks, Sydney, under which is the site. Back in 1994 The Big Dig happened. 20 archaeologists got together to excavate what is now known as the Cumberland/Gloucester St site. It was the site of some of the earliest European settlement in Sydney (and, in fact, Australia) and included housing, shops, and a hotel. A huge amount of artefacts were found and contrbuted so much to our understanding of the Rocks, and Sydney as a whole. Assumptions were turned on their heads, questions were answered, and more questions were raised. It is one of the most valuable sites in Australia for Historical Archaeology, arguably the most valuable. In 2009 building began on the YHA above it. In order to maintain the site the architect designed a building with foundations that impacted only 1.5% on the ground, allowing for substantial in situ preservation of the archaeology. They also incorporated the archaeology into the design of the building by showcasing the site itself (and not just the artefacts) in the entry way. Every visitor to the YHA passes through the site and can look on the remains of the past exactly where they existed in life. They can even watch the diggers at work if they want. The Big Dig has been repeated quite a few times since 1994, and in the last few years they have opened the dig up to the interested public. People can apply to work on the site for the annual Big Dig weekend and the lucky ones enjoy a weekend of archaeology, food, and museums.
The first day was simply meeting people and getting to know each other and a basic understanding of the site. I was probably at a slight advantage here as my Archaeology of Sydney unit included study of the Cumberland/Gloucester Street site, but the range of experience and the quick learning and eagerness of everyone meant that by the end of the weekend we were mostly on relatively equal footing. The volunteers ranged from archaeology students like myself (and a girl from my Sydney class), to a high-school kid and his mum, a post-grad student from Canberra, multiple historians and historical society members, and other people who were interested in archaeology but weren’t trained. The food was great and we made sure to play Indiana Jones movies at night (while loudly proclaiming how bad his ‘archaeology’ is and laughing at the terrible German accents). Coincidentally, the Vivid Festival was on at the Harbour at the time, which made nights on the rooftop terrace absolutely magical. If you click on that link make sure to look at the photos because it was incredible.
The next day we got stuck into the archaeology. I got put on artefact cleaning first, which I was quite happy about. We were cleaning artefacts found by the last person to dig on the site, Tony Robinson of Time Team fame (and Black Adder, of course). A good few hours of dunking pot sherds in water and scrubbing with a toothbrush and it was time for lunch. We had a look at what the diggers had found – mainly more pot sherds but a few bits of glass and brick as well.
After lunch I moved on to digging and it was surprisingly not as hard on my back as I thought it would be. We were just scraping away at a surface collection, not a stratified area. This area had been scraped back before but because the site is on the side of a hill, topsoil and its inclusions gets washed onto the site when there are heavy rains. Our job was to scrape the site back to the bedrock again and collect any material that had been washed into the site from the higher-up sections. The biggest problem I had was that when everything is covered with a layer of mud, it’s really hard to tell what’s a brick and what’s just a rock. We had a lot of rocks to clean the next day but I figured a rock in the bucket was better than an artefact in the bin.
Come dinner, we headed to the The Australian Hotel next door for wood-fired pizza and the beer that I had been thinking about since lunch time.
The next day was spent doing much the same thing. I spent the morning cleaning my rocks (and, to be fair, some bricks and ceramic) but then in the afternoon I got the chance to work on wall-reconstruction with a cool guy whose name I cannot for the life of me remember. At some point in the last few weeks someone from a school group had been standing on the remains of a house wall (they’re only about a foot off the ground so it’s not as dangerous as it sounds). There’s not a lot of space in the area so it’s understandable why they would have been standing on it, but the upshot is that the wall partly collapsed and had to be reconstructed in line with the building techniques of the day. This pretty much meant collecting the rocks that had made up the wall, using old photos of the area to work out where they went, and fixing in place with a mixture of sand, water, and lime. It was messy work and a lot of fun.
Since it’s really important to finish the job completely by the end of the weekend, after lunch I went back to washing artefacts.
Once all that was done we had wine and cheese and a summary of the weekend. We’d had a few interesting finds – a complete tomato sauce bottle from the late 1800s/early 1900s, and a Maori greenstone fishing shank – but mainly it was ceramics and broken glass. A lot of it still hasn’t been catalogued yet, let alone dated, so we’re planning on meeting up at the YHA some time to July to have a cataloguing working bee.
In the meantime I’ve had exams for both my classes (pretty sure I passed but I haven’t gotten them back yet), gotten my essays back (distinctions for both, maybe I’m not as terrible a student as I think I am) and holidays have begun. I’m using the holidays to work out my honours thesis. Martin’s convinced me to do one. I’m thinking I’ll look into some kind of maritime industry in the Illawarra, but which one? And how to look at it? Hence the reading.
Anyway: this is me signing off for the time being. I’ll try to blog something about what I’m reading during the holidays, otherwise it’ll be next semester that I’m back. For now, here’s some links to some blogs I’ve been reading:
Francis Pryor – In the Long Run
Francis has been one of my favourite archaeolgists and authors for a good few years now, ever since I bought Britain AD at Kinokuniya. He works on Time Team on multiple kinds of sites but has done a huge amount of work in prehistoric archaeology and drowned sites.
Not the Discovery Channel
For some realistic, non-Discovery-Channel considerations of archaeology (ie. not magical Nazis or alien pyramids).
An anthropology blog, but anthro and arca cross over in so many ways that it’s really very relevent.
Already a great blog to follow simply because it covers so much ground so succinctly, but it gets a huge round of applause for this page that lists all the other archaeology blogs that he knows about. And I’m mentioned in the list!