Archive 2011

Victoria Park Tunnel Pistol found Not Guilty Brigid Gallagher Nov 17


Earlier this year I wrote ‘Criminal minds brings archaeology into mainstream news’ as I was amused by the insight into mainstream media mentality.  The possibility of an unsolved ‘ancient’ murder catapulted the archaeology being conducted as part of the Victoria Park Tunnel development into the NZ Herald, rather than the story of Auckland’s early occupants being the driving force.

The double triggered pistol found in the bottom of a well, with the appearance of 1 trigger depressed, made national news.  This single piece of evidence was enough to turn the tide of media interest in archaeology; with the news reporters imagination being ignited by the prospect of an unsolved crime….and perhaps, danger!

In the NZ Herald it was stated by one of the archaeologists involved, Dr Sarah Phear, that the pistol had been sent to a conservator for treatment.

Well the pistol found its way to my work space at Mishmish Productions for conservation and analysis.  In doing that my brief was to:

  • reveal the original object,
  • type, date and provenance the pistol,
  • stabilise the pistol

My secondary aim was to establish whether there was any possibility that this pistol could have been discharged immediately prior to disposal in the well…and therefore support the idea that this was a murder weapon. 

Like any good archaeological or Police investigation, focussed questions and strategies are key to good results.  Why conduct analysis without genuine questions or purpose?

This weekend, the Victoria Park Tunnel in Auckland opened its doors and it seems pertinent to share the sciences that have been used to investigate and understand the pistol better….and what methods were used to show that it would NOT have been used in criminal activity, in fact any firing activity, just before it was dumped in the well.

 drawings details and xrays copy








Above: The Original Pistol


Evidence 1:

The Burial Environment and Soil Science

The pistol was found in the base of a well in clay, with the handle missing.  The clay surrounding the pistol was fairly anaerobic (had minimal oxygen content) and because of this the preservation of the pistol was relatively good.  There were hard concretions on the surface of the pistol suggesting there was some water percolation through the burial environment.  Movement of the pistol itself once within the well is likely to have been minimal.

Understanding the burial environment and the surrounding soil meant that prior to any analysis or treatment there was a good chance that the original surface, form and any makers marks would be preserved beneath the metal masking corrosion.

Because of the preservation capabilities of the anaerobic clay, and the good preservation of the pistol, it is highly likely that if the missing elements of the pistol such as the handle and hammers were attached to the pistol at the time of disposal, they would also have been found close by, if not in the original positions.

Understanding the nature of buried soils and how they affect different materials found in archaeology meant that reconstruction of the ‘ last hours of the pistol’ were possible, once it was disposed of in the well

The conclusion is that the pistol was discarded after the handle and hammers were removed from it, and therefore not a ‘murder’ weapon.

This is supported by…

Evidence 2:

Corrosion Science

The nature of iron corrosion results in a layering effect, both over and under the original surface of an object, in this case a pistol.  As corrosion progresses, the iron metal attempts to convert to its most stable form, magnetite, the product most stable and akin to the rock from which the iron was originally extracted.

The rate of corrosion is accelerated by the environment and use of the artefacts.  In this case corrosion was consistent across the pistol, suggesting all metal currently exposed was also exposed to the burial clay at the same time at the time of burial.  The corrosion response or appearance is likely to have been different on the areas originally hidden by the handle, if the handle had still been attached at the time of the discard.

 drawings details and xrays copy









Above: Xray from the top of the pistol showing metal corrosion and loss

Any differences in corrosion seen on the surface were related to the techniques used to finish the metal during pistol production.

In areas where corrosion forms in the presence of moisture and oxygen, such as in the internal mechanisms of a pistol that could not be completely encased in the burial clay, voluminous corrosion masses occur, full of holes with low density.  It looks like a hard skeletal like kitchen sponge.  This happened in the void areas around the triggers.  Hence the appearance of one depressed trigger…and hence the CSI verdict.  Murder….

The conclusion is that the pistol was discarded after the handle and hammers were removed from it, and the triggers were corroded into the one trigger depressed position by chance, and therefore not a ‘murder’ weapon.

This is supported by…

Evidence 3:

X-ray Analysis

X-radiography, like in the x-ray of bone, penetrates metal differently depending on its composition, condition and technology or form.  X-ray was used to show how and where the pistol was used, if there are any breaks or areas of fragility in it, if there was any decoration on it and its technology that could not be seen from the exterior and due to masking corrosion.

The x-ray results showed the pistol had been fired and there was loss to the open barrel ends, making them vulnerable during any conservation treatment or rough handling.  There were other areas of loss particularly along the barrel, probably related to increased corrosion due to the way the pistol sat in the well. There was no evidence that the pistol was a sawn off variety, this was the original length.

X-ray also showed technological features such as; the barrels were of the turn off type, developed to make the pistol easier to clean and was the point the ammunition was loaded into the pistol.  The screw threads could be seen, and the nest on to which the musket ball would have sat.  The percussion nipples were visible with the channel into which the powder would be packed prior to firing.  This was an early precursor to the breech loaded firearm.


No decoration or markings were visible, but this may be due to human error in the setting of the x-ray parameters.  Different exposure strength and time reveal different features and information. The machines in the facility I use in Tauranga were showing BIG alarm bells as the parameters I set were not safe for human use (that is, not safe for a person having an xray, but ok for us in an appropriate safe area).

 drawings details and xrays copy1-6

















Left: Technology revealed by x-ray


The conclusion was that this was likely to be a mid 19th century personal defensive firearm, and had not been tampered with prior to discard in the well, ie was not a sawn off shot gun!

This was supported by…

Evidence 4:

Conservation Stabilisation and Treatment

Desalination of the metal occurred over a 3 month period in an alkaline solution, to both aid the removal of salts and chloride irons, but also to loosen the hard concretions on the surface, masking the surface of the pistol.

Following this treatment, and original surface was accessible by mechanical cleaning, and the true and original form of the pistol could begin to be revealed.  The original surface was identifiable, different metals and metal treatments were seen (the barrels are steel Damascus barrels and probably were treated to ‘bluing’ during its life time, the original surface of the box lock had a mottled appearance, suggesting it to had a decorative and aesthetic quality to it…ie it was cared for.

Beneath the corrosion on the side of the box lock the original proof mark stamps were revealed, in pristine condition, as though they had been stamped yesterday.  They proved the pistol had been produced in Belgium (Liege).  The markings narrowed the date range of the pistols production down to 1853 to 1877, at a time with these pocket pistols were immensely popular across Europe and being exported by the Liege to the UK and USA and out to the colonies.


The conclusion is that this is a mid 19th century pocket (or muff for ladies) pistol which originated in Belgium and found its way to Auckland, New Zealand.

drawings details and xrays copy













The Conclusion

So here you have it…some of the techniques used in the forensic analysis of an archaeological object.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the verdict is…

  1. It is a box lock, breech loaded, turn off barrel pistol example
  2. It is a personal defensive weapon, called a pocket, trouser or muff pistol, used by both men, women and Police
  3. It came from Belgium in the mid 1800’s
  4. It was fitted with Damascus steel barrels (origin unknown)
  5. It was cared for, for at least part of its life
  6. Its last port of call was Auckland, New Zealand
  7. It was stripped of its handle, hammers and springs prior to discard in a well in St Marys Bay


It was not a murder weapon.

However….this is a fantastic example of a nice archaeological artefact, that was given the opportunity to have much more of its story told than most historical artefacts get given, and contained within it was more than anyone realised (Thanks Clough and Associates and the imagination of the media)….with the help of a range of scientific techniques and skills.  And I am sure there is a lot more information still contained within its silent shell!

Note: The conservation of archaeological and other cultural materials should be conducted by a trained professional.  Ethics, guidelines and best practise are intrinsic to good advice, treatment and method.  For recognised professionals in this field please refer to the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials website and database.  For those who do not see my name…I am a member, I have just not got about to filling out the form!!

The Self Preservation of Grass Brigid Gallagher Nov 04

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The sun is hot outside, the cicadas are buzzing, the next door neighbour is mowing their lawn, the beginning of summer is here….

             You step outside your house into the noise and heat of the day, and….

Mmmm…. that lovely smell of newly cut grass.

Its fresh, green and very inviting.

But the same cannot be said for the small, generally unseen members of our gardens. While we might love the smell of fresh cut grass;  insects and other ground bugs don’t have the same reaction. 

This week Gerald Smith, Associate Professor at Victoria Universities Chemistry Department and Heritage Materials Science programme presented a paper to members of the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials conference at the Carter Observatory in Wellington.

Smith and a team of chemists and heritage professionals, including weaving and fibre expert Rangi Te Kanawa, have been looking at the effect of acetic acid on Maori textile fibre. Known as the vinegar effect, they have been testing the production of acetic acid during the degradation of fibres used by Maori, namely Phormium tenax (harakeke or New Zealand flax).

The physical effects of degradation of these fibres include colour change, embrittlement and in extreme cases, loss.

But they have found through accelerated aging tests that not only is acetic acid produced but also furfural (an aromatic aldehyde derived from a variety of agricultural byproducts) and Coumarin (a fragrant chemical compound in the benzopyrone class). 

Coumarin is what we smell and enjoy when we take a deep breath taking in the aroma of freshly cut grass (it is also commonly added to pipe tobacco and some alcoholic drinks to lure us into partaking)

Coumarin is also what insects smell and then run for cover (I am not sure if that should be taken literally!).

Coumarin is volatile, plus a natural anti fungal and pesticide.  Bugs are repelled by it…but what appealed to me in Smiths presentation… was how in the production of these anti-bug properties, grass is giving itself a chance to heal without the being compromised to the chomping jaws of our garden dwellers.  It is an act of self preservation and…natural conservation.

But what about historic and prehistoric Maori fibre textiles…

Like acetic acid, coumarin is photosensitive (essentially this makes colours fade) and its evolution of hydrogen peroxide also causes more damage (just think of your friends bleached hair and how dry and brittle it gets with repeated application!) to these beautiful examples of Maori taonga (treasures).

Limiting the presence of such chemicals as acetic acid and coumarin can help to preserve beautiful fibre textiles such as kete, cloaks and the like, in private and public collections.

So what to do…even if you cannot smell vinegar or freshly mown grass next time you open a draw with some beloved fibre textiles, in a museum or in your own home…Smith says

…lower the moisture in the air and the temperature if you can, but most of all, get the air moving and flush away those chemicals! 

And next time you walk over that freshly mown grass, take a moment to stop and think.  You are witnessing a wonderful moment in the regeneration of our natural environment.  Grass sending out its signal that it needs time to heal.  And I reckon that is very cool!

GeoCities site to be excavated as the ‘Digital Pompeii’ Brigid Gallagher Oct 02


If you are you are anything like me and you cannot bear to throw anything away from your inbox…this might be the excuse you are looking for. 

The now defunct GeoCities platform has been revisualised as a city map with neighbourhoods and property sites.  35 million people used GeoCities from 1999 to Oct 27 2009, and on that date the Archive Team backed up 650 gigabyte of information.

And now at a team is creating an installation they are describing as “digital archaeology of the world wide web as it exploded into the 21st century”.

In full view, the map is a datavisualisation showing the relative sizes of the different neighbourhoods.  While zooming in, more and more detail becomes visible, eventually showing invididual html pages and the images they contain. While browsing, nearby MIDI files are played. 

The Deleted City project is calling this the digital Pompeii and will allow viewers to eventually wander through history following an interactive excavation.  

GeoCities in the Archaeological Context

Given the use of GeoCities as an early social networking platform the evidence will remain of the people and the past who owned, used or visited each site…and should be able to demonstrate what people ate, how they lived, what they revered and how wealthy they were (to name a few)….with the photos.

In comparing this with a real archaeological excavation where you unpick and interprete the events and chronology of the past by stratigraphic relationships and analysis of the remains of human occupation, or lack of it,

                excavating, analysing and intepreting the GeoCities population should in theory be the same archaeological methodology.

Because people created and added to their sites at different times, in different forms, there should be a good stratigraphic profile to interprete, much the same way as a physical cultural or settlement landscape, rather than a digital one.

Given the wealth of reporting and publications today, it should also be possible to assess the information against its cultural, political, historical or technological value and significance.

But should this be called archaeology?

There is no trowel, no dumpy, no pre ex or post ex planning, no analysis of bone, stone or ceramic, and the demise of this culture occured 2 years ago!

How old does something have to be to be called archaeology?

The NZ Historic Places Act says a minimum of 111 years (or pre 1900), give or take a few in certain circumstances.

Australia says 100 years before todays date…the date  rolls year to year.  This year archaeology is pre 1911, next year it will be material pre 1912.

I have excavated a 1950′s terrace house in the UK…and that was archaeology.  Archaeological recording methods used to understand the house were a greater factor in determining its archaeological status, that and its rareity in the City of Bath which is more famous for its Roman and Georgian architecture and habitation.

I would suggest that it is just fine to call this archaeology after only 2 years buried, as long as archaeological methods and recording are considered the best used to better understand this phase in the earths human history. Plus it has the potential for use on other data sets…itunes, geneaology, dow jones index, facebook eventually perhaps. The Rugby World Cup 2011 blog sites!?

This is not digital archaeology as it has been labelled in recent years.  No Google Earth, No Satellites, No Geophysics.  No going back in time to identify and record archaeology that has not been previously  known nor in immediate danger of destruction…

This is data collection, management and social analysis of human cultural information.  The material evidence is here to use.  It is not my cup of tea…there is no dirt, there is no real age.  But I can see the appeal if you like computers, the stories of recent history, and the idea of preserving a slice in time. 

This is the perfect type of project for my inbox to be part of…10 years (almost) of unadulterated conversations…that is a lot of material evidence!

Loss of Earthquake Insurance for Heritage – SIGH! Brigid Gallagher Sep 30

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The incredibly useful and interesting eNews from NZ Archaeology’s Garry Law was in my inbox this morning when I ‘turned on’.  Top of the list is the article;

Biggest Insurer of Church and Heritage site ends Earthquake Cover

It is a New Zealand Herald report from this morning, see here

I am thinking ‘SIGH’.

I am not going to say much.

From a business sense I can hear what the insurers are saying.  There is a lot of money in repairs and loss, especially churches and heritage, in unstable geographic areas.

My biggest ‘SIGH’ is reserved yet again for the Heralds portrayal of Gerry Brownlee, and his short sightedness and apparent inability to effectively communicate or negotiate, again.

The source of my massive expellation (is that a word?),

Several days ago, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee accused the Insurance Council of scaremongering by claiming that New Zealanders may not be able to get earthquake coverage.

Mr Brownlee returned from Monaco last week expressing confidence that reinsurers would offer earthquake coverage once the aftershocks had settled.

Who has the last laugh now?

Not New Zealand heritage, I can bet!

Nor the New Zealand public!

I am shaking my head, and hearing the final nail in the coffin being struck.

Christchurch Heritage in the Media Again Brigid Gallagher Sep 27

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 Christchurch heritage is once again in the news with a number of articles published vocalising concern for the current regime of heritage building treatment and demolition. 

Unfortunately it sounds all too familiar with the same debates, criticisms and problems as the first time round, voiced in the weeks after the February earthquake by professionals and advocates alike; 

The speed of destruction, the lack of care given to heritage fabric during demolition, and poor long term strategies.

The Press, based in Christchurch, has been the loudest voice with 3 articles in the last week, recording dismay and anger at the rate and reasons for destruction, the apparent ineffectiveness of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT), and lessons from overseas experience.

One can only guess at the reason for this new burst of media awareness, but having listened to part of the interview by Kathryn Ryan with Anna Crighton, the Chairperson of the Christchurch Heritage Buildings Fund, on Radio New Zealand this morning, Crighton’s description of Christchurch CBD was extremely sad as she described it as open and flat.

Recent visibility of what a levelled city looks like makes for a striking comparison with Christchurch a year ago, when the historic quarter around High St was full of heritage buildings and character…And as they say, a picture speaks a thousand words.

And a picture can evoke raw emotion and hit you with the reality stick.

Heritage made up a large part of the appeal of Christchurch CBD. Now with varying figures being bandied about regarding the number of buildings that have been and projected to be demolished, the reality may be coming home to more people that, heritage can be an integral part of identity and culture….and it is being lost, fast.

Dr Kit Miyamoto of Miyamoto International brought an international perspective to the heritage question last week.  CEO of an engineering firm that has assisted many cities following major natural disasters, including earthquakes in Kobe, Istanbul and Mexico, he has voiced his concern at the numbers of buildings to be demolished. 

He and business partner Michael King, are reported as saying that they have seen cities in a far worse situation that Christchurch, and that many of the heritage buildings in the CBD can be saved.  Costs are high, but if the heritage fabric of the city is what make Christchurch Christchurch, then every effort should be put in to save this. 

They also advocated for opening up the CBD as soon as possible to discourage the ‘doughnut effect’ which sees a lack of investors entering a work space, discouraging still more potential investors. 

An equally damning effect on the CBD from the heritage conservation perspective is,

‘as individual buildings are levelled leaving spaces amongst the inner city, these result in increased building decay and damage.  Buildings normally protected by their neighbour are exposed to new sources of damage, be it weather or airborne chemicals and particles, accelerating the destruction of already failing buildings.’ (Brigid Gallagher)

Ie. The heritage fabric (the bricks and mortar) that is Christchurch identity, further crumbles on increased exposure.

There needs to be a balance between the use of the CBD, the length of time the CBD is left abandoned, and the numbers of buildings to be demolished or restored.

Underlying this of course is cost and will.

NZHPT, who have been heavily criticised for their apparent apathy this week has replied that emergency powers put in place following the February quake have left them less able to protect.  Chairperson, Bruce Chapman has said that the Trust is disappointed in the numbers being demolished, but the way things stand now the decision ‘comes down to the wishes of the owners.’

Of the 176 that NZHPT assessed Chapman says that they have mainly argued for retention rather than demolition.  150+ have however been tagged for partial or full demolition. The Christchurch City Council numbered about 80 listed buildings demolished by the end of July in another article in The Press in August.

Dr Miyamoto was also dismayed at the numbers.  Of about 2400 buildings in the CBD area, 1200 (50%) earmarked for demolition is ‘unbelievable’, stating that 10% should be a more realistic number.  He says,

‘I don’t understand why this should be. In general your building stock has stood up very well in comparison with other cities and you have good codes and excellent engineers.”

Anna Crighton this morning also remarked that the key to heritage retention and restoration requires the support of the owners.  That, and dollars, which is where the Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Building Fund comes in.

So far 2 buildings have been earmarked for restoration, and that more were on the table, ‘as we speak’.  The 2 named in the interview were the New City Hotel in Colombo Street and the Masonic Lodge in Lyttleton, both of which have met certain criteria to be eligible for funding.  Others apparently will not.   There is currently $4.5million available.

Crighton concluded with the opinion that,

 those people who did make the decision to apply for heritage building restoration funding and receive it, would be, in the future, in possession a very rare asset. 

Dr Miyamoto concluded,

 ‘New Zealand’s EQC insurance structure is very good and is an exception globally.  It gives you a lot of options other countries don’t have,” he says. ‘The city still has the potential to become an international model and provide a blueprint for earthquake recovery. If further demolitions are halted right away he could see as a part of that model the city could distinguish itself with a high retention rate of its unique character base.’

Doesn’t that sound like a good idea for a country world famous for its innovation?

Recently appointed Archaeology Curator, Dr Louise Furey, gives the facts on New Zealand prehistory Brigid Gallagher Sep 21

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It makes a huge difference when listening to a radio broadcast if the person being interviewed sounds as though they know what they are talking about, and can communicate their thoughts across in a calm, clear and knowledgeable way.

This Sunday’s interview of Dr Louise Furey, the recently appointed Curator of Archaeology at the Auckland Museum is a great example of this.  Played on the Graeme Hill show, Radio Live, the interview was varied, fascinating and a great advertisement of New Zealand national identity.

Throughout the interview Louise displayed both humour, gravitas and at times moderation. Her evident high regard for New Zealand Archaeology and Maori prehistory was inspiring. For those who have read Digging the Dirt previously, Louise was the archaeologist on the Marae DIY episode which saw the restoration of Ongarahu Pa in Western Bay of Plenty.  She portrayed these same traits in that TV appearance, when she was labelled a taonga by Julie Sparham, Pirirakau.

The interview started with the sense of a smile when Louise answered that she was very pleased to find herself in the position of archaeology curator having previously coveted it. 

And then began a journey that saw her answer wide and diverse questions from

various parts of the Pacific, artefacts, migration and settlement evidence, early contact evidence between Maori and Europeans, landscape innovation and development , rock carvings and their preservation, fringe archaeology and the celts, marine archaeology, requirements of developers on building sites with possible archaeological deposits under the Historic Places Act, survival of archaeology in our largest cities, the Christchurch earthquake zone in the South Island, and finally wound back to the Northern end of New Zealand at Ruapekapeka Pa, where she reminded us that the first recorded trench warfare in the world is preserved and in amazing condition.

Always on the lookout for evidence of New Zealand’s exciting archaeology, it was fantastic to listen to someone who is still clearly, after years of working in New Zealand archaeology, passionate about it. 

Based on her ability to communicate the subject, and the evident knowledge and enthusiasm she possesses, this broadcast shows Louise is clearly an asset to the latest renaissance of the Auckland Museum, and I would suggest to our nation, as a keeper of history, culture and society.

These are some of my favourite quick facts:

1. We were the last great land mass to be discovered, by anybody.

2.  East Polynesians arrive in New Zealand about 13th — 14th century AD.

3.  Pearl shell lures indicate an East Polynesian origin, and in Tairua, the archaeological context it was found dated to late 13th to 14th century AD. The extinct Kakapo was also found in this context.

4.  Blue water, 2 way voyaging was occurring in the Pacific at the time of New Zealand’s first settlement, based on artefactual finds from Island groups.

5.  Settlement across the Pacific halted for about 1000 years in Samoa, which Louise likened to time for a long cup of tea, during which time Lapita pottery decoration and technology changed.

6.  Pottery is not found in New Zealand prehistory, but neither was it found in the immediate ancestral home of Maori.  It was found in their ancestor’s home!

7.  The gourd and kumara are good indicators that E. Polynesians reached South America. 

8.  Mitochondrial DNA analysis of chicken bones excavated in Chile shows Polynesian genetic indicators.

9.  The introduction of metal to Maori material culture by Europeans had one of the greatest effects on artefact style, type and development.

10.  Red fabric was commonly given to New Zealand Maori by Cook as it was highly desired due to the mana associated with the colour.

11.  Pa sites, which are often as accessible as looking out of the car window on a country road, are unique to New Zealand.

12.  Many Pa have now been dated and cluster about 1500 AD.  The reason for this change in settlement remains unclear.

13.  North Otago and Canterbury limestone overhangs and caves are ideal for rock carving survival. Much of New Zealand’s landscape is not suitable for survival, therefore carvings are likely to have eroded away, rather than not been there at all.

14.  Utilitarian objects remains relatively unchanged through New Zealand Prehistory, most change is reflected in decorative objects.

15.  Louise categorically stated that there is no evidence of New Zealand occupation prior to Maori.  The earliest evidence found archaeologically is that of East Polynesians.  East Polynesians had the technology to navigate great oceans. Celts at that time did not.

16.  Parts of Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch should have good archaeological survival under current buildings. Archaeology should be done prior to Christchurch redevelopment, especially around the cathedral where the first settlement is situated.

17.  Ruapekapeka Pa in Northland has the first recorded trench warfare evidence in the world.

Wow, I feel inspired!

Happy Birthday Otzi Brigid Gallagher Sep 19

Latest reconstruction of Otzi for the Otzi 20 exhibition

Latest reconstruction of Otzi for the Otzi 20 exhibition

20 years ago today the mummified remains of a man, nicknamed Otzi, was discovered by hikers in the Italian Alps. This find has to be mentioned because it is simply fantastic and quite unique so far, and has led to many many archaeological scientists and preservation experts coming together to understand the life and culture of this one man, who lived 5,000 years ago.

The days following Sept 19 1991 are also one of those periods in time that made an impact on me as a 17 year old New Zealander studying hard at Papatoetoe High School, thinking about the future, post school education… and an ancient human being discovered on the other side of the world, outside all parameters of time that the 6th form was studying that year.

It wasn’t the actual discovery that was exciting, but the realisation that there was this whole unseen world within archaeology which saw past the obvious physical form of an artefact, monument or site, to the bits inside the artefact, at the chemical and molecular level.   Here was an incredibly well preserved person, who looked so, well preserved…and then the papers told us the scientists could probably tell us what he had for his last meal. 

I wanted to be one of the people who finds out about that!

So now, after 20 years of research and conservation, with a recent commission to reconstruct the face of Otzi, which was published in the NZ Herald earlier this year, the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology has created a special exhibition, ‘Otzi 20’, to share ‘the most recent scientific studies’ and other ‘lesser known aspects surrounding this sensational find’. 

The website that accompanies the exhibition takes you on a journey from the point of first discovery, through the various facts and research that were revealed during subsequent analysis.  The website is the source of much of the information in this report and the images…thank you.

The website could leave you feeling as though you want to know more (it definitely does me), but I guess that is the hook…you will buy a ticket to the exhibition and see more for yourself.  But over it all it does well to present through text and photos, the context Otzi was found, what happened next, and the analytical discoveries…however I was disappointed with, and this may be largely subjective, the information regarding the preservation, or conservation, of the actual artefacts.  The ones that have been carefully pieced together, reconstructed and stabilised, and are likely to fill a fair bulk of the exhibition.

But what we do know now from the 20 years of research is that Otzi is likely to have died in the spring or early summer, he was 45, about 1.60m tall with brown wavy shoulder length hair, with a beard.  He had brown eyes.  He suffered from degenerative joint conditions.  His teeth were good with no decay and he may have been involved in small scale metal working on the South side of the Alps, and the soot on his lungs suggests regular use of an open fire.  He had the beginnings of a brain tumour, though his death is more closely linked with an arrow in the shoulder, hand to hand combat shortly before death and blunt trauma at the back of his head, either from an attack or a fall, which left him bleeding and a skull fracture. Otzi did have time to pull himself onto a rock, on which he was still lying in 1991, and lay out some of his possessions around him, before death came.

The Synopsis

Otzi was found by German hikers Helmut and Erika Simon on September 19 1991, at an altitude of 3,210 meters (10,500 feet) — almost as high as Mt Cook — in the Otztal Alps in South Tyrol, Italy.   Thinking they had found a fallen hiker, they took photos, and reported it to the Police.

The position Otzi was found, trapped in glacial ice

The position Otzi was found, trapped in glacial ice

4 days later, under the leadership of Rainer Henn of Innsbruck University Institute of Forensic Medicine, with cameras capturing the event, Otzi’s body was cut from the glacial ice in which he had been entombed. Otzi was carried in a body bag, with some of his recovered possessions (others were previously removed in a rubbish sack), down the mountains.  

6 days after discovery, archaeologist Konrad Spindler from Innsbruck University, looked at the artefacts found with Otzi and based on the form of the copper alloy axe, suggested that he was at least 4,000 years old.

14 days after discovery the first archaeological survey was conducted at the find scene.  This lasted 3 days and aimed to locate the position of the body, associated finds and a contour plan of the site. Due to the early onset of winter, a second archaeological investigation did not occur until July 20 1992 and lasted until August 25.

On September 25 2000, Otzi was completely thawed for the first time, after being stored in cold storage since discovery. This was the opportunity to start the analysis of his gut and intestine content.

Why was he so well preserved?

The thing about many mummies is, that because they are so well preserved, albeit it in a desiccated or shrunken form, they spark the imagination and allow anybody to connect with the mummified person, far more than an object ever can. 

Otzi - an example of a natural and wet mummy

Otzi - an example of a natural and wet mummy

Otzi himself is a very particular mummy in that his skin remains intact, he appears relatively hydrated or moist, and these factors allow you to believe that he may only be asleep (although undernourished I will admit).  He has also allowed scientists to implement a complete research study of his remains, unlike most found, say in Egypt, because they remain relatively unchanged.  The reasons for this are that Otzi is both:

 A natural mummy — the result of natural environmental processes rather than human intervention.  Many mummies are the result of post death burial rituals, desiccation and particular storage or burial conditions, imposed on the body by other members of their society.  Fats and oils may be applied to the skin to aid preservation, and organs removed or rearranged. In a natural mummification, the body has not been deliberately preserved.  

A wet mummy - is one that retains humidity or moisture in the individual cells.  This level of hydration has meant that Otzi has retained elasticity in his skin (making it still appear nourished) and means that scientists could rely on the cellular tissue and the body contents to perform high spec analysis, with greater reliability and decreased error factors.

The reason that both of these particular mummy types have occurred is:

  1. Otzi died on the mountainside rather than within a settlement. Therefore he does not appear to have been through any burial rites or deliberate interference post death. X-ray analysis and forensic investigation of his anatomical structure, morphology and condition has lead to the conclusion that he was wounded in the left shoulder by an arrow.  There is speculation that a rival hunting party may have been to blame as it was common practise of hunters of the period to aim arrows at the left shoulder of an animal to take it down. X-ray analysis revealed a flint arrowhead in the shoulder, and this lead further investigation of the area revealing a small incision in Otzi’s skin where it entered.
  2. It is generally thought that soon after death Otzi was covered with snow and ice which have acted as a protective layer over time. Climate data has shown that at least 2 warm periods occurred after Otzi’s death, in the 3rd century BC and Roman period ~ 50BC — 400AD, it is unknown what the effects of these was.  It is clear that Otzi escaped movement by glacier due to his position.
Otzi's hand perfectly preserved

Otzi's hand perfectly preserved

Luckily for us, these events did all occur together, and as a result the world has had the chance to get a snap shot in time.  Radio carbon, C14, dating from 4 different institutions have confirmed the date of the snapshot as 3350-3100BC.

That is approximately 600 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed, and 700 years before Stonehenge in England.

For us in the Pacific, this is about the same time that Polynesians appear to start their voyage into the Pacific.  There is evidence of settlement in Australia and Papua New Guinea in the article ‘Pre-Lapita Valuable in Island Melanesia’, by Robin Torrance.  Later in 3200BP theTe Ara website says that this date marks the movement of people by sail from the Solomon Islands into the Pacific Ocean, to settle Melanesia.

But what about Otzi now?

After much debate surrounding ethics, professional guidlines, research and public interest Otzi is on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.  The website describes his resting place as needing to simulate the environment in which he was found and preserved so well.

In this case a chamber has been constructed to maintain Otzi’s climate at -6 degrees C with a relative humidity (moisture saturation of the surrounding air) of 98%.  His chamber has a low lit 40 x 40cm window, determined due to conservation constraints…the bigger the window the greater probability of environmental fluctuations.  The small window and low lighting also encourages respect and privacy for Otzi, as a human being, the website suggests.

For the long term preservation of Otzi it is crucial that his surrounding environment remain stable, with little to no fluctuation.  Organic materials, in this case skin, are incredibly susceptible to deterioration if the conditions in which they have been contained in their burial environment suddenly changes. With fluctuations or sudden exposure to change, deterioration is in fact accelerated.  With Otzi’s high water content, exposure to ambient or outside air conditions, could have activated an evaporation rate that would have left Otzi shrunken, twisted, and desiccated.  The physical results of this would have been cellular collapse, cracking and flaking of the skin, and lessened scientific potential.

As Otzi is being made available to future researchers by its governors, ensuring that he remains in a pristine condition (as far as possible) is crucial.

As for the list of what he was found with, it included arrows, first aid kit, coat, hat, leggings, storage containers…please go to the website, it is amazing. 

He had blacken lungs from open fire use, tattoos at points where ancient human osteologists have concluded he had joint problems, his mitochondrial DNA indicated central European origin…there is even pollen analysis which reconstructs the landscape environment he lived in for the last few weeks…and a section referencing publication of research and analysis results.

And as for his final meal as I was promised as a teenager…Otzi’s second to last meal was mountain goat, probably eaten as a dried jerky…and last was venison, forest berries and einkorn ( a type of wheat)…yum!

I’m A Celebrity, Make Me An Archaeologist! Brigid Gallagher Sep 18


As if the archaeological world were not excited enough by the news this year that Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) and Megan Fox (actress from the Transformers Movies) are thinking about a move into archaeology…

Now the English Rugby Captain, Lewis Moody, here for the World Cup, is expounding his interest in the subject.  In the headline for his interview  with the UK newspaper The Daily Mail this week it was announced,

‘Lewis Moody — I always wanted to be an archaeologist — I think I watched too many Indiana Jones Films!’

So what is this sudden public display of affection for archaeology by the celeb set all about? 

Is it a flash back to childhood fantasy and dreams that are often revealed by everyday New Zealanders and Brits when I say the words,  ‘I am an archaeologist’? 

Are the exotic and adventurous escapades that Indie and Lara Croft find themselves in also inspiring and influencing these young thespians and sports heroes, as they do thousands of tourists that visit the Deserts of Egypt, Indian temples  and Cambodia’s, Angkor Watch each year?

Is the idea of a tv documentary or action film journey into the ancient, mysterious past or treasure hunt followed with all expenses paid wanton abandon, a professional dream come true.  With a few choice sound bites declaring integrity and intent, this might be a good career move to wet the interest of production executives? (Apologies if any is cynicism detected).

Or is it as simple as this…that archaeology is cool, and now that it appears on such a regular basis on the likes of the History Channel, Discovery, National Geographic and some mainstream channels…it has made it more accessible than it has ever been, and even cooler?

So what are the Celebs Interests?

          Lewis Moody is quoted in his interview as saying, ‘As a boy I’d spend hours digging holes in our garden and get really buzzed finding clay pipes and old bottles. I watch Time Team with Tony Robinson religiously.’ 

The Analysis: A reality based factual series, without all the whistles and bells of Indie, Lara and Martial Art moves is the motivator….real people, all weather, variable exciting on the finds front and alot of dirt and humour wins the day.  Go Time Team!

           Daniel Radcliffe, was reported as saying to interviewers when asked what he had planned now the Potter series was done,

‘I watch a huge amount of stuff on the Discovery Channel and have started considering doing an Open University course because I’m becoming more and more fascinated by archaeology.’

The Analysis: Not so much a commitment to archaeology as an interest at this time, but Daniel will have been influenced by UK archaeology programmes Time Team, Meet the Ancestors, Two Men in a Trench, Time Flyers, Digging for Britain…and even Bonekickers.  Like Moody, he will be aware of the difference in archaeological reality from big budget blockbuster adventures, and factual tv investigations and scientific application.

Saving the best for last…

          Megan Fox was quoted in an article on the Celebs Gather website a few days ago,

“If I was lucky, then what I want to be doing is I want to be an archaeologist. And I want to still do that now. It’s the best.”

In the full interview with Scott Feinberg (see 11min55 onwards) Megan said that she obviously did not have time to spend years getting a degree, but she would love to shadow somebody on a dig…and said ’I think it’s amazing: it holds the answers.”

She also admitted she was obsessed with Ancient Aliens [the series] which she could watch over and over, and that she wants to go on a dig without cameras for her first time, to see the real stuff that they [archaeologists] aren’t willing to show the rest of the world. 

‘They hide all the real stuff they don’t want to show us because humanity would panic’, she said.

It was reported in 2009 and 2010 that Megan Fox had repeatedly turned down offers to play the ‘new’ Lara Croft due to the constant comparisons with Jolie.

The Analysis: Lashings of biblical expectation, ET fantasy, conspiracy theories, secrets and exciting quests appear to dominate for Megan, ideas that the archaeological world should fear.  These are the things people see on the big screen and hear about in tabloids.  They captivate the imagination, but will probably lead to later disappointment if she finds herself trowel in hand…though the hope for her employer is that she can still present it well?!

What does it Mean?

Given there are only 3 people in my analysis…probably not a lot.

But on the face of it we have:

2 men, 1 woman

2 Brits, 1 American

But more importantly; 2 different cultural, social and political contexts.

In the final analysis it is the opinion of this archaeologist that all 3 celebs are saying,

  1. We see you archaeology, you are on the radar, and it has relevancy to us…so it must be cool.
  2. We watch tv and film, therefore it is important for archaeology to be there.
  3. Following a journey of discovery is fun and rewarding, even if the finds are small and personal rather than huge and unique.
  4. Archaeology and its detective work are changing our ideas and respect for the past.

As for some of Miss Fox’s thoughts…perhaps she is right on some level, that archaeologists have not traditionally had a commitment to feed out their discoveries and findings and therefore appear secretive…but this blog is not going to go into some of her other thoughts at this time….

Where Next?

To either continue being inspired, or to start the road to being inspired by archaeology, here is a webpage funded by the US National Science Foundation on the SAA (Society for American Archaeology) website which lists movies with archaeological content. 

And for those of you, archaeologist, celeb or regular earth dweller, who want a lovely read by Brian Fagan (Emeritus  Professor Anthropology, University of California) here is, “So You Want To Be An Archaeologist?”.  It starts,

‘It might not be as glamorous as you think.’

And contains this wonderful paragraph of wisdom,

‘Please, don’t be content to become a technician and quietly vegetate. What archaeology needs more than anything else is team players who are leaders, people with multidisciplinary expertise, a sense of humor, and the ability to be versatile. You may never have a job with a pension or security of employment, which adds new challenges to the already difficult path that lies ahead, but you should have a fascinating life, full of rich challenges.’

And if life as an archaeologist still does not live up to your expectations, perhaps it is the turn of the archaeological community to shout ‘We are archaeologists, Make us celebrities!’

The Ups and Downs of Keyhole Archaeology Brigid Gallagher Sep 09

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Wouldn’t it be great if every project, every experiment and every meeting we had was fantastic, ground breaking, memorable, MONUMENTAL.

The reality… this is not reality!

For every fantastic, great, ground breaking (no pun intended), memorable, monumental, incredible, earth shattering (no pun intended again) archaeological site in the world…there is probably 10 if not 100 small, ordinary, even boring and unmemorable sites.

Honestly, I cannot remember the finer points of every site, every cultural or time period, or project I have worked on. 

It is not that some projects are more important than other’s, it’s just that some stand out. 

Myself, I am a visual thinker.  I visualise moments (situations, jokes, physical actions), geographical features or a scene (groups of people, clothing, atmosphere, text) to feed the memory and trigger other thoughts. Often this peripheral information my brain contains activates with clarity and definition the ‘real’ or necessary knowledge I require to perform each project…and later recall it.

I am not a psycho-analyst, nor do I understand the way individual brains function or process information, but it is fascinating how and why we remember certain things, and discard or temporarily put on hold others.

The Site

On the face of it, tonight’s Time Team episode titled ‘Called to the Bar: Lincoln’s Inn, London’, should have had all the necessary elements to make it personally memorable:

  1. In the centre of London, which is always exciting to excavate
  2. Gorgeous buildings, there is nothing quite like being literally surrounded by beautiful architecture with centuries of history, knowing that the like of the Tudor Kings and Queens of England are likely to have been here
  3. The site is monumental as part of the oldest and most distinguished law societies in the world, you can literally smell the importance and austerity
  4. The largest public space in London next door (Lincoln Inn’s Field), supposedly overlying the eastern boundary of the middle saxon settlement Lundenwic (c. 6th century, meaning London trading town), a public place of execution by the Tudors, and used as an evacuation point after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The site appears to have it all.  However with all good things…there can be draw backs. 

The Reality

This site is an example of limitation placed on urban archaeological excavation areas due to either surrounding development and associated services, or the protection of other features in the surrounding environment.  And this is probably why this site has become in my mind just one of the many I have been part of.  It happens often.

The reality of the excavation was that small areas only could be excavated (thanks to a sprawling historic London plane tree with a network of roots and building locations), noise levels needed to be kept to a minimum due to the very important work going around the excavations, and when trenches were opened outside the Court in the Field, everyone was widely separated, which always leads to less bonhomie than other less spacious sites….though there must be some!

 Another reason for its lack of detailed memory in my mind, and a general problem encountered in many urban excavations with a long history, is that each subsequent period or episode of building or rebuilding can either damage or remove evidence of previous settlement or building evidence.  Meaning, your chances of finding that memorable find or structure is statistically lowered.

When you have small trenches in urban areas that have been successively built on over say 600 years, and in recent years (relatively) have been equally disturbed by the laying of underground services and utilities, you basically have a 3-d jumble of a jigsaw to untangle….that is to identify and interprete.   

The benefit of a large trench or excavation area to view the different levels of strata that result from various phases of settlement, occupation, development and redevelopment (ie damage, destruction and modification) is that you have a greater chance to identify key cultural or historical layers from which you can relatively date features, either before (below) or after (above) it.

Looking back in time through small trenches is a bit like looking through a key hole.  You only get part of the picture, without the context to give the picture meaning or sense. 


This is why absolute dating methods are so important…in this case dating by known artefact types.  The discovery of artefacts of known dates means that you can establish an ‘end date’ (terminus post quem) for any particular strata or occupation layer.

In this case dateable artefacts recovered from the trenches were identified as:

  1. 1 fragment of late prehistoric pottery suggesting that prehistoric activity is likely in the wider area around Lincoln’s Inn
  2. 2 fragments of disturbed Romano-British pottery suggesting Roman activity in the general area — not surprising given the proximity of Londinium
  3. No saxon pottery was found
  4. Medieval pottery found with a stone window mullion has been interpreted as par t of the early medieval hall associated with the earliest law court buildings, from c. 1422
  5. The majority of pottery found was post medieval green glazed fineware known as ‘Tudor Green’, dating from the 13th to 16th centuries with slightly various fabric and glaze technologies.  It has been interpreted by Wessex Archaeology, who completed the post excavation archaeological report, that these represent the rubbish discarded during this period of use of the law courts, and would have continued into the 18th century.

So although this site will never be held up as a ‘I can’t believe I was there, that was amazing, we added so much new information to our understanding about the past’…we were very lucky to have the opportunity to investigate a site with such a prestigious and continuous history…and is a great example of so many urban or limited excavation sites that archaeologists work on all over the world including here in NZ.

Why we need these sites…

They may be small, they may not have the whistles and bells of an Egyptian Pyramid, but they are hard work, they are a testament to the skill and intricacies of field archaeologists who can untangle a jumble of strata, damage, redevelopment and contexts…plus they fill in the blanks on the historical map and just may in the future lead to the next big find!   

If a fantastic, great, ground breaking (no pun intended), memorable, monumental, incredible, earth shattering (no pun intended again) archaeological site was investigated every day..what would we look forward to!  Even Indy needs some down time…it just doesn’t make it to film.

Collaborative Archaeology and Restoration on Marae DIY Brigid Gallagher Jul 06


One of the missions I originally set for myself on Digging the Dirt was to show that New Zealand was archaeologically exciting and dynamic.  Tonight’s instalment of Marae DIY on Maori TV has to be a great example of this.  As part 2 of a double feature the Marae DIY team are undertaking the restoration of an archaeological site, Ongarahu Pa in the Western Bay of Plenty.

This is the first of this type of restoration to be attempted by the series makers. The first episode last Wednesday saw the collaborative community project bringing together iwi, council, NZHPT, scientists, engineers and a television crew to:

Landscape and stabilise the Pa site, add planting and erect manuka palisades.

What struck me watching the episode was that collaborative discussions involving heritage do not happen very often in the public arena in New Zealand;

Where you see and hear real thoughts and opinions, about a subject that is often fraught with different perspectives, and potentially, desired outcomes.

What seemed to be common to all of the people interviewed on the programme, and to my mind aided the success of the project, was that everybody was working to a common goal:

The stabilisation, protection and educational aspect of a Pa site

Unity of this kind can never be underestimated on any project, and is particularly exciting when there is the opportunity for and recognition of knowledge to be shared.

Archaeology in the New Zealand context (and also in many countries where colonisation has occurred), is inexplicably inter-twined with anthropology, ethnography and history.  Because of this, and this really should be the exciting bit,

Oral histories, written texts and science can sit side by side.  This in turn can lead to better communication, understanding and education…for all involved.

Luckily for me Dr Louise Furey, the archaeologist on the programme, and Julie Sparham, Pirirakau, gave an interesting presentation about the collaboration to the New Zealand Archaeological Association conference last month, where they continued to demonstrate positive relationships being built between iwi and heritage specialists. 

The Format:

Through the format of the episode (I don’t know if it followed the regular format — but was distinctly recognisable as a tried and true example used on the UK archaeology series Time Team), conversations and scenes switched between the

iwi voice and perspective, the site and DIY team, the ‘Pakeha’ voice and perspective (including the council, archaeology, engineering etc) and back to the DIY team and site again.

It felt like this cyclic technique worked because it allowed for the layering of small pieces of information, but showed a clear link between them, which led us through the episode, creating a multi-disciplinary and bi-cultural story.

There was also plenty of digger action, DIY and building dilemmas, and people standing in the trenches leaning on shovels.  What I am getting at, is real life action which anybody who has worked outside, in the garden, renovating their home or working on the road, would identify with.  In fact I would bet that if the kids are up at this time of night, they would like the digger action and great big holes being dug too!

And in true telly and multi movie style the episode ended on a ‘wanting more’ scenario…

previously undiscovered archaeology had been found….!

Excellent…the next programme for the reveal is tonight.

Different Perspectives

Viewing the Pa through different eyes and perspectives was probably my favourite element of the episode, and what made this a programme feel that it could only have been made in Aoteoroa — New Zealand (that and the bi-lingual content).

These voices allowed the layers and context of the archaeology (and I am focussing on archaeology because that is what I do) to be widened with allegory and personification of the site.

A favourite moment for me near the beginning of the episode saw presenter Te Ori Paki observing that the trenches felt like arteries to the pa; pathways for the blood to nourish the pa, the tangata, the whenua.   

He and fellow presenter, Aroha, were struck by the massive amount of manpower it must have taken to construct them.  They voiced the thought that these very wide and deep trenches were symbolic and a great indicator of the lengths that people go to, to protect their families, land and resources.

This ability to feel a connection with the past and ancestors is something that I have found to be a major force within archaeology time and time again.  It really is very difficult to be on an archaeological site, digging beneath the surface, and not feel something of the people that lived, worked or walked there.  It is not specific to the tangata whenua of Aotearoa, it is built into all of us as humans.

The Archaeology

Whilst iwi and the presenters may have undertaken a personal journey during the filming, never far behind was archaeologist Louise Furey.  She was required to be there under the Historic Places Act, but her knowledge of the local landscape and evidence of prehistoric Maori occupation and land use added a scientific and educational element to the episode. 

Archaeologically the Ongarahu Pa site is considered significant because it has some of the best preserved pre-Pakeha trenches in the country. 

The archaeological content in the episode was wide ranging:

  • Louise speaking with the people on the site that she needed to be informed of any sub-surface digging before it was done, and she needs to check the ‘hole’ for any archaeological evidence, and to record it, before it was filled in again.
  • Explanation of how the stratigraphy and soil texture/composition changed when archaeology was present.  The normal topsoil then subsoil profile did not fit.
  • A conversation between Louise and a male worker on site about fortifications.  They appear to be standing next the deep outer ditch when he asks about the use of the ditches.  She explains they are the fortifications, and as they are dug out the soil is thrown up to create the bank around the Pa, alongside the ditch.
  • Features known to be present on this type of site, including pits, postholes and gardens.
  • Conservation elements, such as the laying of a geotech barrier that will announce to anybody digging on the site in the future where the disturbed and non-disturbed ground ends and begins.
  • Methods of digging, such as hand digging over machine digging — and the care required when digging: to only take out the feature fill.
  • What is required to appropriately record archaeology, including photography, measuring and written descriptions.

The Archaeological Cliffhanger….

Then at the very end of the episode, it is noted that some of the post holes dug for palisades do not fit the normal stratigraphic profile….

It is all dark fill material, to 1.80 m deep.  And the camera zooms in to show some shells in the side of the post hole.

C14 dating is mentioned.  Sampling of the material is suggested.

The camera pans across the immediate landscape to show a slight longitudinal depression in the land, and Louise explaining that it appeared there was a feature that had not been previously recorded, and it seemed to follow the general line of the already existing ditch…

Tune into tonight’s Marae DIY episode!


This should be taken slightly with tongue and cheek…, if the production team want to talk about the massive undertaking of digging the deep fortifications with digging sticks…then please do not have the camera directed at the blade of a spade.  Because using a spade would be a LOT easier than using a ko!

Future Collaborative Projects??

At the NZAA conference Julie Sparham called Louise ‘taonga’.  This is not a label given lightly I am sure.  Hopefully it serves to demonstrate that relationships and respect can evolve between iwi and some archaeologists and heritage bodies.  Which also hopefully means the future looks exciting and dynamic for New Zealand archaeology! 

I think the most appropriate ending to this conversation is a quote by Julie Sparham, Pirirakau (Ongarahu Pa caretaker and Environment Manager for the Pirirakau Incorporated Society, Western Bay of Plenty) on the episode last Wednesday:

This is where you come from.  This is our history.  This is how you have become who you are.

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