Western Australia

On the Road. An Australian Archaeologist In-Transit


Literally pulling on my boots. Note that in addition to their obvious aesthetic value, these are also steel-capped for safety and include bonus resistance training for my legs.

As a more theoretically inclined archaeologist my usual habitat is my university department but today I actually pulled on my work boots and set out for two weeks of consulting fieldwork in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Somewhat unfortunately for readers of this post, the 11th of July was actually my travel day. Working in remote areas as an archaeologist usually means at least one full day of travel just to get to your base (for many consultants in Australia this will mean a mining camp). Today I haven’t actually left the state but was still in-transit for about 5 hours. In this short post, I want to share a few images and experiences from my work day to give you a sense of some of the more mundane, everyday realities of doing archaeology in Australia.

Luggage is always an interesting logistical concern on fieldwork, you need to be prepared for almost anything and bring it all with you, but cable ties and well-honed tetris skills can solve almost any issue we encounter.


There is nothing quite like driving >100km after spending a few hours in a plane, but the pay-off, getting to work in an amazing archaeological landscape will be worth it.


I definitely won’t be looking this happy tomorrow when I wake up at 5am (FYI, sunrise here in the Pilbara is around 6.45am at the moment; ouch!) and then spend the morning reviewing our field safety procedures and organising equipment before driving out to one of the sites we’ll be working at with local Traditional Owners for the next two weeks.




‘Helicopters, High Vis and Heritage’ A Day of Archaeology at Terra Rosa Cultural Resource Management

Hi there! I work for a now not-so-small heritage consultancy in Fremantle, Western Australia. Together with my 50 + colleagues, we work for, and with, a number of Aboriginal communities across the state to identify, record and provide recommendations for the preservation and management of their tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Today, I’m out working with two other archaeologists, Ben and Sarah, and an anthropologist, Zsuzsa, in the spectacularly beautiful and ancient Pilbara region of Western Australia. We’re involved with a long running survey for a 200 km long haul road for a mine site, which crosses through the traditional lands of two Aboriginal native title groups (for confidentiality reasons, I won’t name  either the groups or the mining company involved). We’re currently working with six traditional owners from one of these groups – two of whom are community elders and are an absolute fount of knowledge. They know this country and it’s complex cultural history like nobody’s business, and I’ve often thought that our modern handheld GPS units are pretty rubbish in comparison with the spatial awareness that these guys have! We are extremely privileged to be able to work with and learn from the Traditional Owners of the country that we’re in as their understanding of the landscape makes the archaeological remains we discover come to life in a way that would pass us by if they weren’t there. Here, the archaeological (and ethnographic) sites that we identify are like jigsaw pieces which together form a dynamic cultural landscape.

The very beautiful Pilbara (though a bit flatter than where we were – up in those hills in the distance!)

So far we’re on day 6 of this 8 day long ‘swing’. We’ve walked just over 15 linear kilometres of a haul road, and about 4 square kilometres of associated borrow search areas for road-base and water targets without coming across anything terribly unexpected. A few isolated flakes here and there, a couple of small artefact scatters, the latter of which have been flagged as field site points for later investigation. The survey area is pretty isolated and the terrain is pretty tough – often steep, spinifex covered banded ironstone ridges and mesas, cut by rocky, densely vegetated gullies. As we’re not able to get our 4WDs in, we’ve been helicoptered in and out and around the place. Our chopper pilot is amazing – he’s ex-military so has been able to land us on some pretty ridiculous hill tops and into some tiny gullies.

Meg, Sarah, Zsuza and Ben with the tiny chopper on a mesa summit. Note Ben starring as King Kong.

Our starting point for the day is at the summit of a low mesa, which has been pegged out by the mining company as a borrow search area. Ben and I were in the first flight out (it’s only a four seater and Ben’s a tall boy), and we noticed a couple of interesting looking rock-shelters as we flew overhead in the chopper. We asked our pilot to land us in a nearby creek bed so that we could check them out while he’s picking up the rest of the survey team. The long-legged Ben managed to scramble up the slippery scree slope much quicker than I am (I’m a much more miniscule 5’3”, so it takes me a little longer to rock climb), so it’s not long before I hear a startled “oh my god, Meg! You need to get up here!” crackling over the 2-way radio. Curious, I quickened my climb and found Ben crouched over an overturned bark bowl. It was about 70 cm in length, and solidly made from the bark of a white gum tree. We turned it over, and found that the entire internal surface had been intricately carved with a geometric line pattern. By this stage one of the Elders, John*, and Glenys* had arrived in the chopper so we called them up excitedly.

Example of a yandi bowl (also known elsewhere as a coolamon). These are cut out from the bark of eucalyptus trees, using the natural curve of the tree to create the curve of the bowl. The one we found was carved on the inside surface and was, sadly, being eaten away by termites (Image Source: The Australian Museum 2013)

“That’s a yandi bowl”, asserted John, a grin from ear-to-ear with the thrill of the discovery. He was blown away, having never in his entire life seen one ‘out on Country’. “It’s a big one too… would have been used to carry a baby”. Glenys agreed, immediately whipping out her phone to take pictures to show her family. As more and more of the survey team arrived at the site, more and more artefacts were identified within the rock-shelter; flaked artefacts, basal grinding stones and mullers (like mortars and pestles), potential hearth features, and fascinatingly, some small parcels of paper bark which had been niched on a cavity in the wall, tucked beneath several more basal grinding stone fragments.  After we had established a boundary for the rock-shelter and taken some preliminary notes and photographs, it was time to move on to investigate the second rock-shelter, approximately 150 m to the north-west.

Forever outpacing the rest of the team Ben once again led the charge. Seconds later “You guys will never believe what’s here!” crackled over the radio. “What, have we got a set?!” hollered Dani*, another one of our Traditional Owners. “Yep. Got a set!”, came the reply.  A second yandi bowl, this time with a very old, rusty tin billy can. Now, I should clarify here that finding one, let alone two, yandis is incredibly unusual, as wooden artefacts do not typically preserve well in the Pilbara, and especially not in an area which has and continues to be formed by large volumes of seasonal water movement (that these are likely to be no more than about a century old helps, though the first bowl we found was slowly but surely being eaten away by termites). Needless to say, the entire team was on a high at this point. Once again, we established a boundary and took photos.

Having now spent a couple of hours at these sites, it was decided that it was about time to push on with the rest of the survey. After taking a quick 15 minute morning tea break, we were choppered up to the top of the mesa and I lined people up 15 metres apart for the start of the days pedestrian transect. Walking a corridor like this one is a little more challenging than when surveying a block area as we don’t follow a due north-south or east-west direction. You need a couple of people who are able to navigate along an imaginary path which meanders all over the place – often up cliffs, down gullies and through dense patches of vegetation where walking around a tree might suddenly throw you 10 or more metres off course. For this transect, I was walking the southern boundary of the corridor, whilst Ben took the northern one, with Sarah and Zsuza keeping an evenly spaced line so that the rest of the survey team were able to clearly see where the corridor was changing. Where there’s a change in direction or people start to angle off their lines, we’re then able to easily reposition to ensure that a decent inspection of the ground is made. It can be pretty laborious and frustrating work (I currently have palms and two knees full of the tiny needle-like spinifex silica tips), but the small thrill you get when someone calls out “I think I found something” doesn’t really ever go away – or at least it hasn’t for me.

We continued along the corridor for the rest of the day, identifying three pretty sparse, medium sized artefact scatters, two more rockshelters (this time both with flaked artefacts and grinding materials), and a large number of isolated artefacts.

A pretty nice isolated flaked artefact (scale = 10 cm).

At about 3pm we called it a day in the field and people started heading back out to camp. It’s about a 10 minute chopper ride and with the number of people in the team it takes 5 trips back and forth to get every person, plus our six 20 L water drums. We’ve been out since 6.30am and the whole team is physically exhausted. But, alas, there’s still no rest for myself, Ben, Sarah and Zsuzsa! Late afternoons (before dinner) are spent “dumping data” – We spent about an hour every day making sure that all our photographs and GPS track logs are saved onto the master trip computer, and that all our photograph logs, isolated artefact forms and notebooks are completely filled in and accurate.

Sarah and I diligently managing our data

The rest of the night is spent on a social, communal dinner in a specially set up caravan (the camp we’re staying at is not a permanent set-up like many others are), and I’ve followed that up by reviewing the day’s work in a summary that has just been sent back to our office in Fremantle. My tiny caravan room looks like a bomb site, with equipment and maps spread out everywhere – I’m about to start planning out tomorrow’s schedule. If I get the okay from the client, we’ll get started on a detailed (what we call a site identification level) recording of the two rock-shelters we found this morning so that we can get the yandi bowls salvaged and conserved for the Traditional Owners, at their request.

And then, to bed! I’ve got a 5am alarm set, and no doubt the new day will reveal even more exciting discoveries…

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of our Traditional Owners.

Archaeology and Mining (and Reptiles!) in Western Australia

I have been working as an archaeologist at an archaeological consultancy firm, since late last year and today is a rare day for me – a day in lieu! As this hasn’t been very exciting, I will document the day for which I earned this time off..

Since joining my work place, most of my work has been based in our Melbourne head office. We take on a variety of clients, and one of our biggest projects is based in the Pilbara desert, Western Australia, where a number of iron ore mines have been, or are currently being, constructed. The Pilbara desert is also home to some of our richest and previously undisturbed Indigenous heritage, and there are several practices that mining companies must observe prior to developing the land in accordance with Western Australian Indigenous heritage legislation. This is where we come in.

For most of the year, my work has included managing the data that has been sent back from the field in the Pilbara and writing reports (there are lots to be written!), most of which are applications for Ministerial consent to disturb archaeological sites. Following the completion of one such report and the receipt of Ministerial consent to conduct excavations at a number of sites, I was sent with one of our teams out to the desert to take part in these excavations. This was my first time out to the Pilbara, and I was quite nervous! Western Australia is home to some of our deadliest snakes, and the first thing I saw when I arrived at our accommodation was a sign outside my door reading ‘beware of snakes’. It struck me then just how far from the office I was..

The day on which this photo was taken was characteristic of my two week ‘swing’ (or fieldwork stage) out on the mining site. We generally rose at 5.15am, leaving us time to eat breakfast and pack our lunches before meeting the rest of the team at 6am. We usually arrived on site by 6.20am, working through until 4pm. This photo was taken towards the end of the swing, and on this day we were working in a lovely, large and shady site and were conducting excavations. We found a range of cultural material at the site, making it a particularly interesting working day, and the three archaeologists present took it in turns at excavating, sieving and site recording. Also on site were field representatives of the mining company and the Traditional Owners, who we work very closely with in all areas of our archaeological site investigations.

Working in the Pilbara also meant working closely with wildlife! A number of snakes were spotted on this day (thankfully, not by me), and we received a visit from this curious gecko during our lunch break.. After a cuddle and a photo opportunity, he was  returned to his rock in the sun where he watched us work for the rest of the day, apparently finding our ‘day of archaeology’ as interesting as we did. After packing up our equipment, we then headed back to camp for showers, dinner, and a mid-strength beer or two.

And now that we’re safely home in Melbourne, here comes the really fun part – writing up the excavation report!


A Day in the Life of Gaye Nayton, Heritage Archaeologist

Hello from Perth, Western Australia where I want to introduce you to a day in my life. As an archaeologist I am a bit of a hybrid beast. I work as a consultant archaeologist/heritage consultant and run my own consultancy. I also carry out academic research, having a PhD from the University of Western Australia and authoring the first book on WA historical archaeology. I also work as a public archaeologist running public outreach programs and I am authoring a book on WA historical archaeology aimed at the general public. You can check out my varied archaeological personalities at my web page at www.gayenaytonarchaeology.com.

When people think of archaeology and archaeologists they think of digging but the truth is most archaeologists spend 90% of their time in the office or lab. I thought for the Day of Archaeology I would take hourly photographs throughout my day to show how my day panned out. I could have been on a site but statistics are against it and this day like many others is going to be spent mainly in the office working on reports. My sister Jackie is helping out my Day of Archaeology project by hanging around and snapping photos every hour. (more…)

Rescuing Local Heritage, Western Australia.

The Bibra Lake area of Western Australia, formally known as Walliabup Lake, was first provided as land for pioneer settlers in 1843. The first settler to the area, in that same year, was Benedict von Bibra, a Fremantle carpenter, after whom the lake is now named. In the following years other settlers chose to make the lush area their home. Land around Bibra Lake was utilized for market gardening and later dairy cows in order to supply Fremantle and Perth with fresh produce and milk. It also attracted many pioneers for picnics and recreation, as well as having an established tea rooms.

One of the founding families were the Tappers, prominent in Fremantle and associated with the maritime industry. After one of her sons died at sea, Mary-Ann Tapper was determined that her youngest son, Daniel, would not face the same fate and saved to purchase land at Bibra Lake. Her plan succeeded and the family established themselves with land at its south. Starting out as market gardeners, Daniel eventually included dairy cows in order to supplement the families living. Eventually the site of their homestead became the center of the local community with a petrol pump, telephone exchange and post office.


Jetlag and a very full day – GIS manuals, Egyptology and conference preparation


Yesterday was a very busy day, thus I am only now able to submit a post here!


I got back from a two-week holiday to Western Australia on Thursday. My Dad and I went to visit his brother who moved to Perth from the Isle of Man 40 years ago, and his family. We had an awesome time, saw lots of places and wildlife: Roos, Quokkas, Koalas, the lot 🙂

A herd of Kangaroos at Rockingham Golf Course

A herd of Kangaroos at Rockingham Golf Course

Myself and a hungry Quokka on Rottnest Island

Myself and a hungry Quokka on Rottnest Island

My family out there is lovely! I am still rather tired and recovering from a long journey back, which commenced on Wednesday afternoon: 5h flight from Perth to Singapore, then 13h Singapore to London-Heathrow. Then another 3h back to Liverpool by train. My poor Dad had to fly back to Hanover, which is close to Peine, Germany, where I am originally from!

The thing that struck me, whilst visiting Australia, however, is the general attitude towards archaeology. Whenever I mentioned my interest in visiting a particular museum, or seeing anything related to archaeology, I was told that “Australia doesn’t have very much history at all”, and that “surely, there is not very much archaeology around”… I was rather shocked and saddened by this, given the huge amount of aboriginal culture in Australia. I did point this out, and obtained some understanding, but the attitude of Australians towards Aborigines is a very problematic topic in general. When visiting the Western Australian Museum in Perth, however, I saw a very well-displayed and super-informative exhibition on aboriginal culture in Western Australia. Shame it didn’t seem to be too-well visited! 🙁

Back to work!

I had to get up extra-early yesterday (29th July), as I had to get straight back to work: I work as a Supervisor in Geomatics for Oxford Archaeology North, specialising in open source GIS. I totally love it and really do think it’s the way forward, especially given that proprietary software can “lock in” archaeological data, which can lead to data loss – something that should be avoided, I guess we all agree! Over the past couple of years we have been using open source GIS software, such as gvSIG (both the “original gvSIG” and the OADigital Edition), Quantum GIS, GRASS,  in addition to some 3D GIS visualisation tools, such as Paraview. Furthermore, we have been testing and using database software, such as PGAdmin (PostgreSQL and PostGIS), and illustration software, such as Inkscape successfully. I must say that all of the software we used has come a long, long way in those past two years, and at OA North, we use open source tools more or less as a standard and I can confidentially say that it is replacing the proprietary software previously used, such as AutoCAD and ArcGIS.

My friend and colleague Christina Robinson and I were given some time to document our combined knowledge in order to make it accessible to both colleagues within the company, and also the wider archaeological community – what is better than a free guide to open source GIS, which allows you learn to use free, powerful GIS software, and edit and analyse your own survey data! 🙂 We have produced guides and manuals during the past couple of years – they are available for free download on the OA library website and released under the creative commons license. Here are the manuals we released so far:

Survey and GIS Manual for Leica 1200 series GPS

Survey and GIS Manual for Leica 1200 series GPS

Hodgkinson, Anna (2010) Open Source Survey & GIS Manual. Documentation. Oxford Archaeology North. (Unpublished)

Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Using the Helmert (two-point) transformation in Quantum GIS. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd.. (Unpublished)

Robinson, Christina and Campbell, Dana and Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Archaeological maps from qGIS and Inkscape: A brief guide. Third edition. Documentation. Oxford Archaeology North. (Unpublished) – this is the third edition, re-released today!

And here are two brand new guides, produced on the Day of Archaeology and made available today:

Robinson, Christina (2011) QGIS Handy Hints. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd. (Unpublished)

Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Download of the Leica 700 and 800 series Total Station. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd. (Unpublished)

Please download and  use these and extend your skills; please burn them and let us know, we are grateful for your feedback! Some more guides/manuals are currently in production and will be added to the library, so please watch this space!

Lunch Break – (not really) time for some Egyptology

I briefly escaped work at lunchtime in order to go to the bank – I had to make an international transfer, the only way (annoyingly) to pay for my speaker’s fees for the upcoming 16th International Conference on Cultural Heritage and New Technologies, Vienna, November 2011. My paper on “Modeling Urban Industries in New Kingdom Egypt” was accepted for presentation, my abstract an be found here. I will be presenting my current research on the distribution of (mainly) artefactual evidence from Amarna, ancient Akhetaten, in Middle Egypt. Using open source GIS (naturally), I am studying the distribution and density of artefacts relating to high-status industries, such as glass, faience, metal, sculpture and textiles within the settled areas of Amarna, in order to establish how products and raw materials were controlled and distributed.

Distribution of the evidence of glass- and faience-working within the North Suburb at Amarna

Distribution of the evidence of glass- and faience-working within the North Suburb at Amarna

This paper presents part of my PhD research on high-status industries within the capital and royal cities in New Kingdom Egypt, Memphis, Malkata, Gurob, Amarna and Pi-Ramesse. I have now completed my third year of part-time research and am hoping to finish the whole thing within the next two or three years. We will see, thought I’d better get on with it!! 🙂

I am a member of the fieldwork team at Gurob, and I am very much looking forward to our next fieldwork season in September this year! Check out the project website for reports of past fieldwork seasons and my work in the industrial area, which I also presented at The Third British Egyptology Congress (BEC 3) in London, 2010.

After-work seminar and more open source GIS

We had an in-house, after-work seminar at 5pm, at which Christina and I gave our paper on “Open Source GIS for archaeological data visualisation and analysis” to colleagues, which we presented at OSGIS 2011 in Nottingham. You can watch the webcast of the original talk online (scroll down until you find it), unfortunately it only works for Windows, though. :'( The paper, which was presented on June 22nd 2011, is about our successful case study, moving Geomatics at OA North to open source GIS and away from proprietary software. We even won the prize for the second-best presentation! It went down well with colleagues, and after a discussion we moved on outside for a barbecue, which was very nice, as it stayed warm all day (unusual for Lancaster). I had to eave rather early unfortunately, as the commute back to Liverpool takes about 1.5 hours. At least I was able to relax and read George Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons”on my Kindle!

Our Presentation for OSGIS 2011, Nottingham

Our Presentation for OSGIS 2011, Nottingham