Educating Ruins

My Day of Archaeology 2015 is a frantically busy one.  And that actually makes it an enjoyable (if somewhat stressful) day!

I work as the Manager of Education & Public Programs for Sydney University Museums, which includes the Near Eastern, Egyptian and Mediterranean archaeological collections at the Nicholson Museum, and the Australian Indigenous and historical collections of the Macleay Museum.  I am trained as a Classical Archaeologist, getting my PhD studying the Hellenistic world in the Eastern Mediterranean, so for people like me with a Classical bent, to have a collection of antiquities of the scale of the Nicholson Museum in Australia of all places is extraordinary.  Likewise the collections of the Macleay Museum are mindblowing at times, and my colleague Matt Poll (the curator of Indigenous collections in that museum) is curating an exhibition titled ‘Written in Stone’ to open on 21 August which features Aboriginal stone tool technology from around Australia .  For an archaeologist like myself who works in Cyprus, to be able to walk into the next room to see antiquities from Cyprus from the Early Bronze Age through to the Middle Ages is a truly privileged position.


My role at the museums is to develop and teach the collections to museum visitors, from pre-schoolers, through to school groups, to undergraduate students, through to adult and retiree groups.  I am a strong advocate for the concept of public archaeology (hence I love the idea of Day of Archaeology each year) and feel passionately that it is the responsibility of every archaeologist to publish not only academic papers and formal reports, but to also engage with the community as strongly as possible – through community reports, site tours, educational programs, social media, and any other opportunities that arise.  We are a passionate group of people, so let’s share with the community what is exciting about archaeological inquiry!  Museums represent a perfect means of that public engagement, particularly at university museums where I see part of my duty to act as a connection between current research and the general public and using the collections is a means of sharing that process.


With school groups being a large part of our visitor make-up, I work very closely with the History Teachers Association of New South Wales.  And coincidentally today is the first day of their conference which is taking place on the campus of the University of Sydney.  So today I am hearing talks at that conference (indeed Matt has just spoken with teachers about the ‘Written in Stone’ exhibition at his session), and preparing myself for a talk that I will present tomorrow morning at the conference.  At the moment I have a powerpoint open and when I am finished this entry I am straight back to work on the talk.  My topic for the conference lecture interestingly is not directly archaeological, rather I am talking about depictions of Pompeii in popular culture through the centuries.

The historiography of archaeological investigation, and the impact of the ancient world in popular perception (reception studies) have long fascinated me, but with the structure of the Australian history syllabus, all students will study Pompeii as a core study for their Higher School Certificate.  It means students can get a good grip with a famous site, and approach the archaeological, epigraphical and historical evidence critically, as well as learn about the evolution of the history of excavating there.  Popular perceptions of the ancient site is not a large component of the syllabus (although it is there), but it something of a personal interest (you will be amazed how many archaeologists are film buffs!).  So the paper I am preparing will take a look at Pompeii through the eyes of visual artists, writers (from Bulwer-Lytton to Charles Dickens), musicians (any excuse to watch ‘Pink Floyd in Pompeii’ again, and film makers.  From the 1913 silent film version of ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ to the recent movie starring Kit Harrington (via Doctor Who and Up Pompeii!) I want teachers to explore how the story of Pompeii has meant different things to different generations and how students need to be self-aware of modern baggage we bring to our historical interpretations.  But more importantly, its also a fun talk.  Did you know, for example, that British fireworks entrepreneur James Pain produced Pompeian ‘pyrodramas’ in England, the USA and even here in Australia in the late 1800s, that featured everything from dancing girls to fireworks?  It was a popular presentation at New York’s Coney Island between 1879 and 1914!  Fascinating to see how modern audiences responded to the story of Pompeii in film, spectacles, paintings and novels, and also how the ideas of historians and archaeologists were interpreted (or misinterpreted) by artists.



We ourselves at the Nicholson Museum have contributed to this with our current exhibition ‘Lego Pompeii’ which features part of the ancient city recreated in Lego blocks!

Lego Pomp

On top of the lecture, I am also giving teachers a guided tour of the Nicholson Museum this afternoon, and of the Macleay Museum tomorrow afternoon.  It is a great chance to get people into the museums who may not have seen the collections before, but also to talk first-hand with them about their educational needs and how best to get their students to analyse and interpret material culture in a classroom environment. Its also nice to meet the teachers without 100 Year 7 students ready for an excursion standing behind them!

My major fieldwork project is co-directing the Australian excavations at Paphos in Cyprus under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus.  I have written about the excavations in previous years.  The University of Sydney has been excavating the site of a Hellenistic-Roman theatre and the surrounding precinct at Paphos since 1995, which means I have been to Cyprus at least once a year, annually for two decades now.  It is an amazing place to work, and I am currently planning a small trip in mid-September to spend sometime working out logistics for our next planned field season in 2016 (yes we will be advertising for student and volunteer positions soon if you want to join us).


Working on the same project over a long period of time has given us a real depth of understanding of the nuances of the site: the architectural changes over six centuries, the changes in trade networks reflected in different ceramic usage and the questions of Roman urbanisation and town planning.  It is an excited phase of the project, where we have now built up a broad level of knowledge but are publishing as many of our findings as we can as quickly as we can (not always easy with limited resources).  I had earlier this week finished a paper providing an overview of twenty years of working at the site for a journal.  The deadline has long passed (sorry to the editors), so it has been a big relief to finish it off.  A colleague of mine has kindly reviewed the paper for errors and edits, and so I am half-way through the process of making recommended corrections.  Once it goes to the editors it will probably require further changes, but that is all part of the process of peer review and making a stronger and more coherent paper.  Ironically at the same time this article is beginning the cycle, I earlier this week sent the final proofs of a paper on the Hellenistic period phases of the theatre I co-wrote with one of the Directors, Professor Richard Green and our project’s architect Geoff Stennett, off to Denmark for inclusion in a volume on ancient Greek theatre.  So the next time I see the paper in couple of months will hopefully be in hard cover book format!


Sometimes it feels like as soon as you finish one article, another paper is due.  But the research and presentation is one of the aspects of archaeology I really enjoy and personally wish I had more time for.

So my Day of Archaeology is rather similar to most days in my career (if somewhat busier than normal).  Writing, editing, preparing a public lecture, taking tours and discussing educational options with teachers.  Because deep down all archaeologists are educators.  And so Day of Archaeology really should be every day!