Have we got history?

By Brigid Gallagher 18/02/2011

A typical conversation at a party, bbq or cafe….

‘An archaeologist? So, what are you doing back here then? We don’t have anything to dig up. We don’t have history. Wouldn’t you be better back over in the UK. Things are really old over there’.

‘Yes’, I say. ‘It is great in the UK, the Romans 2000 years ago, Iron Age Britain 3000 years ago, the Saxons, the Normans, the Tudors…the Vikings! But we do have history. There are archaeologists here. And they are working’.

Chuckling…’hehe, yeh, a bit of old plate my grandmother threw out, hehe, a bit old fencing wire, hehe, some Maori things. That’s nothing very interesting. Its not very old is it. We have not been here long enough.’

‘Yes’, I say. ‘Things are not as old as Europe or other parts of the world, but if we do not care about the past that we do have, it will be lost forever.

Evidence produced by the past, such as artefacts, buildings and their remains, residues of what people ate are a finite resource, is NOT replaceable. Once it is destroyed, it is gone. There is no getting that information back. The voices of our ancestors, pioneers and informants will have gone.’

A long pause, waiting for comment from my conversation partner.

‘I believe we have a responsibility to protect, educate, inform and engage people with our heritage.

“I specialised in Conservation. It’s a mixture of art and science where we attempt to fully understand the nature of an artefact or site, beyond what the eye can see.

“This is done through analysis and by understanding decay and how these things break up and disappear.

“We can now extract information about past people and cultures, from the artefact and site, before they disappear.

“We can also arrest decay, and then restore or preserve archaeological remains be they Pyramids of Egypt or the old key to the family house or the bones of people that lived before.

I think of it as the forensics of the archaeological world. Just like a crime scene where evidence is lifted.


‘Evidence. You must have seen this on tv.  It is taken back to the lab to be tested and this generates more information to aid Police catch the criminal. I am kind of like the person in the lab doing the cleaning and testing of the evidence or in my case artefacts, and I started my career as the Police person doing the collecting. Only for archaeology, it is the ultimate detective story.’

‘But where is the money coming from?’


‘Who pays for this?’, they say

‘That depends, each situation is different:

it might be the company developing the land who requires an archaeological assessment to meet its planning requirements,

it might be the government or somebody like the NZHPT who views the find or site as nationally significant,

it might be a funding agency like Heritage Lottery or the Marsden Fund who provide money for research projects, that require time, analysis and greater levels of research than you could ask the client or tax payer to pay for.

Each situation is different.’

‘Ok, but we still don’t REALLY have anything interesting here.’

‘What we have here is the incredibly exciting possibility of examining the past… a past that is almost in living memory for some. We can then apply that to the evidence we find in the ground. Not many countries in the world have that possibility.

“The discovery of the field of archaeology came too late. It was fuelled by the exotic; the discoveries of Carter in Egypt, the Greeks, Romans…and then came Ankor Wat in Cambodia, Aztecs and Mayans in Central America, fossilised foot prints of early human ancestors etc etc etc. It is now a subject confined to reading the remains left behind by, in many cases, a ‘dead’ culture. One that we cannot ask questions during a conversation like this.

“We have to use science, analysis, technology and years of built up knowledge to interprete, generate results and come to conclusions.

Did you know New Zealand was the final major land mass to be discovered by humans….in the world! That makes us unique. The evidence of that is beneath the ground you walk on everyday.’

Another pause. ‘But what are you going to do now you are here?’.

‘Look, New Zealand may be young, but it is still archaeologically alive. There were few career paths to tread in this subject when I left New Zealand, that is changing. School peers would laugh at my attempt to understand the past, and how I fitted into it.

“They saw no relevance to their modern existence.

“I on the other hand was unable to move forward without understanding my past, how I was rooted to the land and how we got here. I needed to experience it. Touch the past with my own hands. Feel it and sense it, not just read it.

“Now…well, now I want to rediscover the history and archaeology of New Zealand. I want to find out where archaeology and our archaeologists are at. Although I would love to do some excavations (they are addictive), I would really like to find a way for archaeology and the information that it generates about our collective society to be more visible.

“I would also REALLY like to find a way to make the presentation of the information more relevant to people of my age and younger. I would like all the people who have said to me, and others like them, ‘we do not have history’, and ‘what we do have is not interesting or important’ to realise that what we do have should be respected, promoted and protected…

And so begins my first foray into the blogging world…

0 Responses to “Have we got history?”

  • I studied archaeology during my undergraduate degree. I lost count of the number of times I had this conversation with friends and family members during that time. I’m so glad you wrote this up.

    Welcome to the team!

  • Hey Brigid, what a great introduction.

    There must be some great stories tied in each wave of colonisation of a country as distant from the rest of world as New Zealand, can’t wait to read what archeologists have *ahem* uncovered about them.

  • I’m not an archaeologist, but I am fascinated by the subject. There’s a massive amount of history and archaeology in New Zealand, it’s just more recent than elsewhere.

    When people have told me that there’s no point in archaeology in NZ, I have referred them to a remarkable TVNZ DVD “What Lies Beneath.” It’s almost a kiwi version of Channel 4’s Time Team; just a pity that they only made the single series.

  • Your post was incredibly well timed for me. Less than 24 hours after reading the post, I found myself aboard the Hikitia, down in the Marine Archaeology lab.

    I found it fascinating looking over the artifacts that have been saved, those undergoing treatment and the few examples of items that will fall apart in front of our eyes because of poor handling.

    • Sounds great Greg. Be good to get some coverage of marine archaeology. The effect of salt water on objects is fascinating, if you are into the corrosion of materials that is. Nothing like the effect of terrestrial and esturine environments. I have not had any experience of marine archaeology here though. Such a shame for such a coastal country, and the quantity of wrecks about.

  • Where can you get that dvd “What lies Beneath” from?
    We are getting reruns of time team here in Australia, Wondered where Brigid went
    First became interested in Archaeology after some one gave me a book by the Gears in First people of America series, so looked into USA Archaeology, then was lucky enough a few years back to pick up an almost full run of Journal of New Zealand Archaeology (ex Sandra Bowdler) so for a young country we do have a lot of Archaeology

  • Hi Brigid,

    As a fellow, albeit less experienced archaeologist, I must say this is a great thing you have done. I was contemplating such a blog myself but I am very glad you have beaten me to the punch! You’ve eloquently put what so many of us have had to explain. I wonder, did you come to the NZAA conference in 2009 (I think)?

    Happy blogging and keep it coming.

    • Yep, I was there in 2009. I was fresh back in the country, suffering morning sickness in a big way and staying on the quiet side. Contrary to the word ‘morning’…it aint that! Thanks for the support. Hopefully you will see me here more often! It has been a hectic couple of weeks.

  • Great post Brigid, as someone who changed careers to get back into archaeology, I’ve lost count of the number of party/cafe/bbq conversations like the one you’ve outlined I’ve had to have…. If you want any info on upcoming Auckland Uni excavations, drop me an email.