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One of my pet subjects is public or community archaeology. Not surprising given my years with Time Team, so…

This week is National Archaeology week in Australia! Ok, so it is not New Zealand, but the event that has taken my eye, and is happening this weekend, right now….it is the BIG DIG.

Located in Sydney’s The Rock’s district, in a partnership between the YHA and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, the Big Dig Archaeology Education Centre is a massive educational and excavation undertaking. It is described on its website as

          ‘the largest archaeological urban development ever completed in Australia. It demonstrates that the conservation of in-situ remains as part of a modern building can enhance visitor experiences and interest, as well as preserving sometimes fragile archaeological remains in an accessible and meaningful way.’

What have they found?   Or perhaps, why is this excavation important to conserve or preserve? ·

  • In 1994 excavations began in an area that is located between Gloucester and Cumberland Streets in the Rocks.
  • The initial excavation was a big salute to public/community archaeology with 400 volunteers and 20 archaeologists involved. ·
  • The result is the ongoing excavation of foundations from over 30 homes and shops, the earliest built in around 1795, and some 750,000 artefacts. It represents some of the earliest European settlement in Australia.

Is it Important?

This is a very rare opportunity to continuously dig and research the information gathered from a site, AND because of the later introduction of the education center, set within the YHA, is able to promote and inspire future archaeologists and heritage professionals. Because the site is in one of Sydney’s tourist areas, it increases the visibility and social relevance of the site as more public and tourists visit.

Is this Important?

Absolutely. One of the key attributes very often overlooked by professionals…not generally because of intent, but perhaps forgetfulness…is that archaeology is incredibly tactile and emotive.

Like many experiences and memories that are lasting; it is the touch, the smell, the taste, the feeling that impacts greatest. Archaeology is the same. The process of excavation or digging is incredibly tactile.

Feelings described by volunteers on a site, or a new archaeologist fresh into the field, are often raw and emotive. People feel something for the past by the process of feeling it. It’s tactility. The sense you are revealing the past for the ‘very first time’.

Theoretically, if you bring people to a site, help them to feel part of the site and its history, the more they will go on to respect, care and conserve artefacts, sites, archaeology, history…themselves.

This experience of archaeology is becoming increasingly significant to society.

In parts of the UK, there have been huge successes in bringing juvenile offenders to archaeological sites, such as in the city of York. By physically getting them down on all fours with a trowel in hand to excavate, with a nervousness or uncertainty which naturally comes with revealing or finding something that is considered ancient….seems to bring out humility and respect.

It fits in well with the ‘getting back to nature’ attitude and concept of ‘gardening therapy’ which psychologists recommend to clients. The act of cleaning back dirt is distinctly therapeutic.

In my experience of all 3 Big Digs that Time Team UK has created including; ·

  • The Big Dig (test pitting all over the UK, working with people in their back yards to reveal the past, culminating in a huge community excavation on a Roman site in Swindon) ·
  • The Big Roman Dig (Visiting and participating in excavations on Roman sites from all over the country in 8 days to tell the story of the Roman occupation, with a constant ‘main’ site excavation running through the whole period at a Villa site in Dinnington, Somerset) ·
  • The Big Royal Dig (A 4 day event in 3 royal locations, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Palace and Holyrod, Scotland, to piece together changes in landscape, use and architecture over time).

 These Live events (and as far as I know, not shown here in NZ) have seen large numbers of volunteers, locals, young and old, professionals, specialists and celebrities come together to bring archaeology to the British public…as it happens. They have been a successful exercise in terms of public or community archaeology.  It has been inspiring for me as a professional to watch the enthusiasm of the public, adults and children.

Back to Sydney’s Big Dig…I love it!

          1. Bring together a whole bunch of people who are passionate about archaeology and the past.

          2. Add some people that speak with passion, clarity and knowledge about the findings.

          3. Add a lot of dirt, a quantity of artefacts and structures, a GPS total station, a digital camera, a note book or context sheets for recording.

          4. Combine a few planners/illustrators, a surveyor, a photographer and a whole lot of field archaeologists/excavators/diggers.

          5. Set up some artefacts specialists, historians, computer imaging gurus, other relevant brain boxes.

          6. Put in some conservation/preservation experts, analytical specialists, communicators and educators.

          7. Underpin it all with good theory, best professional practise and guidelines.

What have you got?

1. Inspired, interested and caring society

2. Fantastic syntheisis of specialists and experts

3. Site preservation and dissemination

4. Widespread media release and social relevance

5. Education to all With the Potential of Economic Return!

LOVING IT! This is Science on the Cutting Edge.

1. Be accountable,

2. Be visible,

3. Deliver.