Archive February 2012

Auckland Museum Research and Scholarship Medals, and the future Research Centre Brigid Gallagher Feb 29

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During a night of celebration, expectation and promise at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the Trust Board and key figures at the Museum, including the recently appointed director, Roy Clare, re-instigated the Auckland Museum Medal Awards. 

Lauded as a return to the original intent of museums, to care for and conduct research on its collections, there was a distinct feeling of change for the better amongst the speakers. 

Four eminent New Zealander’s who have dedicated of their lives to excellence in research and scholarship were recognised with all involved in some way in the furthering our understanding of the history and heritage of New Zealand.

Those honoured were:

-          the late Dame Judith Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha Binney, author and historian

-          Professor Russell Stone, historian and professor emeritus at Auckland University

-          the late Professor Roger Neich, ethnologist at the National Museum Wellington and lately of Auckland Museum

-          Dr Nigel Prickett, archaeologist, became an associate emeritus of Auckland War Memorial Museum

Each of these people have been major contributors to New Zealand’s science and humanity sectors, with the relationships, traditions and material manifestations of the Maori world and Pakeha central to their work. 

I was very honoured to be invited to see Dr Nigel Prickett receive his award.  He was the first person to take a punt on me as a 19 year old wannabe archaeologist when he took me on to volunteer in the archaeology department. This ultimately led onto the next 4 years with the collections, and my first job after graduation.  I know first hand from experience the value of working with and handling the museum’s amazing collections, as well as being surrounded by a wealth of knowledge from the different domains of science.  It has been inspirational, and confirmed for me the potential museum collections have with the right guidance and enthusiasm.

Equally fantastic was hearing the stories of the recipients, such as a rousing and passionate speech by Dame Judith Binney’s partner Sebastian Black, Professor Stone who played homage to New Zealand’s participation and loss of life in the World Wars of the 20th century, and the wife of Roger Neich who focused on his love of family, rather than the respected scholar.

Sir Peter Gluckman was the key note speaker demonstrating his usual flare for communicating his vision for the future of science and  museums.  Whilst he continued his theme on the use and value of complex science, he advocated the advancement of science, in all its manifestations, defining it as a high value component to a world class city, to which Auckland should now be striving.

He also caused considerable thought around the inherent risks generated through decision making involved in the presentation of science and knowledge.  Using the concept developed by Funtowicz and Ravetz, his discussion on the principles of post-normal science where evaluation of value, evidence and relevance…including uncertainties…was thought provoking, and a paradigm that allows museums to create exciting research opportunities and best engage with communities through knowledge and display.

This is a recognisable quality of many of the physical sciences, including archaeology, geology and biology, where the assessment and evaluation of risk, probability and value are key components, but has at its foundation knowledge, facts and measured base line information.

Whilst it may appear that post normal science stems away from the notion that science is static with pre-determinable data, Gluckman was under no illusion that excellent research, scholarship and knowledge was at its heart; principles that were on exemplary display by the awardees.

In his final summation, to the effect that museums should be seen as repositories for the future, not the past.  That they are a place of life, not a mausoleum, Gluckman resonated the announcement later in the evening that the Auckland Museum is committed to launching a Research Centre in the near future. 

The Auckland Museum Research Centre has been heralded as a facility to underpin its renewed value placed on science and knowledge.  Once a bastion of research, the collections number into the 3 ½ million mark and Mr Clare was loud and clear in his desire to better utilise the collections available. 

     -   To use the collections to make new discoveries,

     -  Encourage new research such as that conducted at the Kermadec Islands last year to record marine and study its marine life, and Ahuahu in February this year by archaeologists with Auckland University,

     -  Use the collection to engage with Auckland and the global population

The Executive Summary of the Auckland Museums 2012-2013 Draft Annual Plan backs this up, and seen online here:

Establish a Research Centre in Partnership with other Educational and Cultural Institutions, adding strength to the stewardship of out collections and reinforcing the city’s positioning as a ‘learning and innovation cradle’.

Curator of Archaeology Louise Furey has said that ‘In essence it should provide a platform where the museum can work with external collaborators on research and will enhance the reputation of the museum and its collections… the museum and its board is recognising scholarship and research as an important part of the credibility of the museum.’

This is all good stuff, and I just hope it can deliver.

Excavations at First Mission Station (1814) and Prehistoric Garden Island Brigid Gallagher Feb 22

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A very important part of being an archaeologist is to leave the theory books at the desk, and go out into the field.  Whilst grounded in science, archaeology is underpinned by an understanding or a willingness to understand and appreciate culture, society and politics of past human inhabitants. 

Archaeological fieldwork and excavation is integral as it provides the raw data for analysis,  but the process itself requires time to gain confidence to dig through the layers, and understand the significance and potential of each layer. 

This week and last, Otago and Auckland University students have been out experiencing excavation, for many the first time, with University staff and other archaeological professionals. The two field schools have been investigating two very different historical and cultural landscapes in the North Island – but each equally interesting for different reasons.

Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to visit either of these excavations but like anybody else with access to the internet, I have been kept up to date and informed with team members producing regular updates on their blog sites.   

The fact that blog sites are being set up alongside normal recording systems definitely reflects changing dynamics within archaeology and the increasing desire and call to publicly share information and results.

Oihi Mission Station 1814-1832

The joint Otago University and Department of Conservation field school is sited on the Oihi Mission Station, located in the Marsden Cross Historic Reserve in the Bay of Islands.  On the western side of the harbour leading into Paihia, Russell (Kororareka) and Waitangi this is an immensely important site within New Zealand as our first permanent European settlement site.   The background to the reasons for the excavation, and what is hoped to be achieved is here.

The excavation blog that was produced by DoC archaeologist Andrew Blanshard ran from February 7th to 15th, and he writes that it is pertinent that the excavation began the day after Waitangi Day, an integral day in the marriage of Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand history. 

Oihi Mission Station     The site of Oihi Mission Station  

Other key note first for New Zealand history are:
          1.  On Christmas Day 1814, the Rev Samuel Marsden preached his first sermon on this land, and is shown below in a painting of this day with Marsden at the podium and to his right is Rutara dressed in British reglalia (Alexander Turnbull Library).  The 2ooth anniversary of this event is upcoming in 2014.

          2.  The mission is home to New Zealands first European style school, which the archaeologists believe they have found.  Artefacts that support this include many slates and slate pencils.

Speaking to one of DoC’s archaeologists who had been on site for the first few days by phone, I was struck by the excitment in her voice at the structures and artefacts she had seen and was hearing about.  The stone foundations of two buildings plus their nails, an intact hearth from a once vibrant, warming fireplace inside one of the mission buildings, a toy cannon last played with by a child over a 150 years ago, flint used to fire muskets, and the possibility of earlier land modification on the site in the form of Maori terracing.  A bronze bracelet has also been discovered. 

To view pictures of some of these go here.

Being as this is the first settlement in New Zealand, it is not difficult to imagine the strange but wonderful mix of two cultures at this time.  A point at which modern New Zealand begins its journey with the site of these excavations being a pivotal transition point in New Zealands history.   The reserve is definitely worth a visit!   This is a site that I will want to read more about in the future as the post excavation analysis and subsequent stories of the people associated with the mission unfold. 

                                     And in a different landscape completely…

Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island), c. 1300′s? –

The Auckland University fieldschool is underway on Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island) off the Coromandel Peninsula, with Auckland Museum archaeologist Louise Furey and Ngati Hei  A pristine Island, there is a long recorded history and evidence of Maori gardening and settlement, including Pa. The aim of this fieldschool is to reveal more about gardening practises on the Island through New Zealand prehistory and archaeology that is eroding out of one of the dune systems.

What I really like about this blog, is the information about the excavation methodology and strategy are interwoven with the personal thoughts and activities of the writers, mainly of whom are students on the island to learn.  The reflexive quality of this type of archaeological recording adds an interesting perspective to the excavation process, and itself becomes data to be potentially considered later in the post excavation phase of analysis.  

Having worked within this method of archaeological recording while working at Catalhoyuk in Turkey, its advocate Prof. Ian Hodder of Stanford University, has  utilised this theoretical concept to both critically examine Catalhouyk which at its origin is Neolithic, some 9000 years old, and better integrate, or eliminate, the cultural or subjective perspective individual interpreters of archaeological information bring to the analysis and interpretation of sites…whilst maintaining excavation strategies founded in good scientific practise.

      Excavation in Building 77 - 4040 Area

Excavation and discussion on Ahuahu this week                                Excavation and discussion at Catalhoyuk

Whilst the Ahuahu site is being dug over a week or 2, and Catalhoyuk has a 25 year working visa, the mention in the blog site of Ngati Hei representatives, Peter and Peter Johnson whom I met recently on an excavation in Hahei, brings to mind the positive and informative discourse and multivocality (lots of voices and opinions) that can occur between science and humanities through archaeology.  With, in the main, more reasoned and satisifying conclusions.

The blog also lists some fundementals in the science of archaeology which form the basis for the sites intepretation such as the;

          -  soil levels and its relationship with the gardening structures,

          -   stratigraphy, survey and the importance of scale and accuracy in drawings,

          -  the structures, housing platforms, stone alignments, pits, stone faced terraces…the features for analysis

What information comes along post excavation will be very interesting indeed…once again archaeological analysis, intepretations and stories, based on the evidence collected in the field, are what often bring alive the people and places of the past after the thrill of discovery is over.


Updated DoC blog: the second week of the Oihi Bay/Marsden Cross Mission Station excavation is now here…rain, an occupational hazard of archaeology has been causing problems and excitement.  Finding in situ wood, the remains of New Zealands first school house, is certainly a highlight!  Found in the foundations for the building, the archaeologists have been able to start piecing together the stratigraphy of the site….the order in which soils, buildings, their construction  and layers containing evidence of human occupation were laid down.

Minimise the Pain! Archaeological field work techniques, Part 2 Brigid Gallagher Feb 17

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In Part 2 of my crib sheet to help the aches and pains of archaeological fieldwork…         

          3.  Hoeing – it is all in the abs!

Forget the gym, this is the ultimate abdominal work out.  Whilst hoeing looks as though it is another shoulder and arm action, to get effective hoeing in anything other than sand, its the abs that need to take the brunt of it.  At the end of a good session of hoeing your arms should be aching from your triceps down to the wrist, and the stomach muscles even worse. 

The hoe edge should be parallel with the ground, then with a small forceful down ward pressure drag back…clenching the stomach  muscles and triceps to keep the hoe from bouncing up again.  It may only mean a few mm’s are scraped away but the effect should be a clean surface over a larger area very soon. 

Working in lines across the site the waist will also be worked… the more the front stomach muscles hurt, the more you turn sideways onto the hoe to use the waist muscles.  The only minimiser of pain that comes to mind is to spread the feet one in front of the other with the front thigh absorbing some of the pressure being exerted. 

So the conclusion is there is no way to minimise the pain, enjoy it, and know that there will be rewards when you next try on clothes that are slightly too small!  And if you do it enough, one day there will be no pain, and a well cleaned trenched in a short time…ready for an archaeologist with a fab body to investigate the features and produce great photos.

         4.  Brushing – Flick, flick, flick.  Tap, tap, tap…its in the wrist.  

There is nothing worse than looking at an area or structure that has been brushed clean and the features or details are not visible, the colours are dull and there are specks of dirt, mortar, sand etc across it.  For 1. it is a waste of any pain felt, and 2. you just have to do it again.  Double the pain!

Essential during cleaning of many structures and hard surfaces so many people use the whole arm to brush the dirt, moving from the elbow, rotating the shoulder socket.  This action involves the movement of the whole arm causing more strain on the upper back and shoulder than a flick or tap technique.  Dragging the brush along the surface of any archaeology churns up new surface dirt, or redeposits it from another part of the brush. 

To really clean a surface, structure or a vertical section firmly place the bristles (or slap the bristles) on the surface being cleaned, rotate the wrist 90 degrees and flick the wrist up taking the loose dirt with it.  The more you get sprayed with the dirt being removed, the better your technique.  

Flick, flick, flick the horizontal surfaces, and tap, tap, tap the vertical sections or walls…this technique loosens and dislodges the offending dirt and specks and helps them fall to the ground…keeping the colours fresh and the details visible. 

Using the wrist to brush instead of dragging the arm means alot less muscle action and usually means you only have to brush the area once, not go back for dirt that has been reapplied or missed.

But remember on a vertical section to start brushing at the top!  Move the dirt down the surface to the base…once, not over and over again. 

           5.  Cleaning the section – Verticality is the ultimate goal 

Mantra: Not everybody is good at cleaning a section or baulk.  Hands up… I am one of them.  But with practise I should get better. 

Cleaning a vertical section has so many benefits that it is worth going through the physical rigour, and mental pain!  

                              a.  reading the stratigraphy is so much easier

                             b.  dimensions are accurate

                             c.  section photos are so much better, as the lens has the ability to exaggerate any poor excavation.

                             d.  the site looks clean, and if you ever need to go back to an area to check your layers, contexts, profiles or strata it does not generally have to be cleaned up again….except in sand, gravel or other loosely compacted or fine grained sites.

The technique: attack with the cutting edge of a small spade in a diagonal direction from the top of the section, whether there is archaeology at that level or not.  It will all be studied and recorded. Follow up with short jabbing movements with the pointed end of the trowel down the section or continue diagonally.  Finish with the straight edge of the trowel across the face of the vertical section to clean and define if the substrate allows it.

Clean, short, sharp movements with the back side of the spade parallel with the side of the trench will save time and get to the essence of a section – it has to be vertical.  Not bowed, wiggly, wider at the top, sloping to the base…vertical.  The eaiest way to avoid this is to look at the section face diagonally from the top.  Close one eye if need be.  Its very easy to produce a section that slopes in at the base if you are always looking straight on at it.

This is not always comfortable working; the muscles between the shoulder blades generally hurt, but there is some satisfaction in the initial attack at the top edge. The wrist and forearm take the main brunt of section cleaning when working with the pointed end of the trowel to clean around stones and artefacts protruding from the face, and your knuckles can get ripped and bloody.

Changing hands and shaking out the fingers is the best remedy (with some well positioned band aids).  This is one of the main causes of claw hand because of the tension of the muscles between the hand-wrist-forearm, and and a regular change in movement (hence the shake out) is important.  If you have shaky hands at the end of the day…more micro pauses are required.

          6.  Crouching, bending, kneeling – do what is comfortable, but always bend through the knees.

Its an age old story, but bending with your knees is a real saviour in archaeological fieldwork, especially in the long term. 

The other is to watch and learn from cultures that squat.  The skills of squatting are the same as crouching; mastering this means long hours of comfortable archaeology.  The body gets itself into a comfortable position with minimal inpact on the joints and muscles.  It takes practise, but on site squatting competitions can improve skills.  In British archaeology it is a sin to sit while excavating, and kneeling is only just tolerated by some…crouching and squatting is an essential skill. 

Long hours of crouching can lead to stiffness when unfurling the body again, and the top of the back across the shoulders can ache.  Aching shoulders can be helped by releasing the trowel or tool in use and letting your arms go soft on the ground beside or in front while remaining in the crouch position. Gently moving the head from side to side can also help.

Sometimes you just have to kneel.  Aching thighs and calves can be relieved and the tension across shoulders is relieved.  This is best on the knees in sand and other soft soils…but whatever the surface being kneeled on, in time you will get knee callouses if you do not have a kneeling mat.  Kneeling mats are sometimes seem as the soft option, but why have callouses if you don’t have too?

          7.  Conclusions?  I am getting older, my body is getting older…its time to take care of it.  But mostly my mantra regarding archaeological fieldwork is….


At the end of a day, soak in the bath or stand in a hot shower.  Let the water run over you from head to toe….and at the end of an excavation…massages and facials are definitely required.

And do not leap into trenches.  My physio will be able to best say why.

Minimise the Pain! Archaeological field work techniques, Part 1 Brigid Gallagher Feb 16


In December my youngest daughter turned 2.

Whilst this is not so extraordinary, for me it feels we are at a major milestone…a point where she is making the transition from my baby, to my little girl. 

She suddenly says everything at full volume, punctuates her feelings with a very big, growly ‘NOOOO’ and when you try to help her she responds ‘me do it’, with the hint of a whine.

She also loves her time at day care, has a best friend to whose house she is quite happy to play at without mum or dad, and at least knows what the toilet is, and what she ‘should’ be doing on it.

So while she is quite happy to be racing ahead into the next big adventure in her young life, its also forcing me into the next phase of my life (collective sigh please)…and quite basically that means….

Back to work!

…. with new brain matter that needs to be stimulated and old matter that needs a bit of jigging up.

My organisational skills are also getting honed again…though over the past number of weeks this has meant that by evening when I generally write Digging the Dirt, you would have found me cast on the couch wondering how long can I hold out to bed without being labelled the household bore.

But mainly I have discovered,  work means pain!

My once active, outdoorsy body which could dig, trowel, crouch, shovel, leap, push and bend for hours in all weathers,  has a few new muscular aches and groans.  The old claw hand has not returned but the muscles in my lower back, shoulders and knees are letting me know they are alive and kicking….and have been under used lately.  

So after a few weeks of fieldwork,  I have gone back to basics and thought about the physical movements used in archaeological field work, and how best to use the body and reduce stress on my muscles and joints…plus get lovely neat sections and trenches. 

And this is Part 1 of the crib sheet I am creating:

  1. Shovel throwing — its a flick of the wrist, not an arm swing from the shoulder.  

Bring the loaded shovel or spade up and push out from the body, followed by a short jerk of the wrist when the dirt is at the apex of the movement. While the head of the shovel or spade is held up the dirt is released into the air.  This has 2 positive effects.

      -      The bicept and wrist takes much of the load, rather than the upper back, making it a more efficient swing which can be continued for longer through the day.

      -      The deposition of the dirt is more precise.  As the dirt leaves the shovel it maintains itself as a single mass until it drops neatly on to the spoil heap or into the wheel barrow.  The dirt is not sprayed all over the trench surface.  The further the elbow is extended from the body, the further the dirt will travel after the wrist jerk.

Practise makes perfect and it was a common competition on UK archaeological sites to show who could throw further, with the least spill of dirt, and at the chosen target.  The wheelbarrow, for example, would then be moved further and further away, up to 15 m or so at times. One of my good friends and past adverseries, Phil Harding on tv’s Time Team,  sums it it up rather nicely in this youtube clip I found while researching excavation techniques.  He always did pip me at the post…and does love his shovel, as you you will clearly see.

YouTube Preview Image

         2. Trowelling -  take control of the trowel, it is not fragile

The flat edge of the trowel is firmly placed parallel with the ground.  With a small downward movement  the trowel is then brought for a short distance back towards the body, and a slice of dirt can then be flicked off.   

Down, trowel, and flick!  Repeat. 

This is generally a movement in the wrist, with the addition of some broad sweeps of the entire arm.  Trowels should not be dragged through dirt, unless the substrate is sand, then a cutting or slicing action is used. 

This technique creates a clean surface with fresh colours to view, not sprinkled with dirt that has fallen over the trowel edge due to too much dirt being moved at once, or the dragging the dirt over the cleaned layer ‘fuzzying’ up the colours or features.

Trowelling can be painful!  The greater the compaction of the ground, the more downward force you need to put on the trowel, the more it is felt in the wrist.  Muscular pain in the forearm is common, but by using a wrist flicking technique rather than whole arm movements the muscle strain in the upper arm can be minimised.

                  3.  Mattocking – trust the mattock!

Using the forces of gravity, the mattock descends from height with minimal downward force.  As the flat end meets the ground it is ideally at right angles to the ground.  This technique means the mattock should stop when there is a change in resistance in the subsurface strata, primarily due to changes in composition and densities, and therefore define events and cultural layers. 

This theory does not work in sandy sites, and cannot be maximised when the ground is full of stone and rubble

By using a descending pendulum action the body exerts less effort and energy, and is able to find a working rhythm. This technique can be continued for a much longer time than when force is also put into the downward stroke and you actively attack the ground.  There is relief for the body when the mattock head is pushed up to full height and left to fall naturally to the ground for the next strike. 

It is also amazingly accurate, and with experience stops at the next chronological layer in the ground.

This technique also means less pain.  The natural gravity dependant method causes musular pain at the top of the arms, shoulders and upper back.  When the mattock is also forced down into the ground the aches and pains spread into the mid and lower back, plus the buttocks as you absorb the force of the downward strike and impact.

Next time: Hoeing, brushing, section cleaning and crouching, bending and kneeling

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