Big Dig Archaeology

By Brigid Gallagher 15/05/2011 6


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.


6 Responses to “Big Dig Archaeology”

  • I wish there were more efforts like this, I was fortunate enough to go to an open day at a dig site in Mahia, Hawke’s Bay of a whaling settlement. It allows those of us that are interested to get a glimpse into the world of archeology.

    I lived in the UK for a few years and was able to see the Time Team Big Digs mentioned above, and every other episode I could. I also hadn’t worked out that you were the kiwi Brigid from Time Team until this post.

    I’m currently in Canada and the Montreal Museum of Archeology and History is the closest I’ve come here to seeing an actual dig site.

    • Thanks Kirsty and glad you watched the programme. Time Team has been a huge advocate and instigator of change in UK archaeology, its perception, social relevance and accessibilty of information about the nations past. And it has been an honour for me to be part of that.

      I agree that open days on archaeological digs do a lot to help people feel involved in their community and find relevance with their own past. In the UK I have been on sites where thousands have turned up for short tours around a site, and a look what is in the ground. Interestingly, from open days people start doing there own research, asking questions about other sites or locations in the local community, start volunteering on sites or getting into adult education programmes… Great stuff! Increasing awareness of the importance and relevancy of archaeology, and its conservation, is key to good practise, funding, advocacy, education, respect for the past..etc etc

      If there are no digs available for visiting…museums do have one of the most influential environments…but to translate and inspire through their information, display is key!

  • I can imagine, Brigid, that Mexicans or the British, for example, might be disturbed to learn the archeological truth about their forefathers, regarding their brutal social practices. We Kiwis needed Michael King to soothe our self esteem with his History of NZ, which carefully avoided any direct references to cannibalism and ethnocide.
    But you make a good point: science has become a messenger of death and despair, carrying Charles Darwin’s theo-phobic contagion everywhere, and it needs something to cheer up its acolytes.
    The USSR had the same problem, birthed as it was into Charles’ & Karl’s intellectual atheism, which spawned childless marriages, widespread alcoholism and almost total abortion.
    The Soviets began having pseudo religious ceremonies at weddings to try and get people marrying again, and stop themselves dying out. Perhaps you are onto something. If not, check out a local church for a meaningful existence.

  • Truth is the foundation for most scientists gjphilip. You are right…If we can get the balance right between the ‘good and happy for society’ and the ‘bad and sad for society’ (which I guess you are referring to), science and its communication helps to produce informed and interested (perhaps, cheerful as you suggest) people, who feel part of a community, which gives their life meaning.

    • You are right Colin. And the people at the Big Dig were really ethusiastic about his visit when I made contact with them. Unfortunately I did not have a chance to see the episode. Did you enjoy it?

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