New Zealand Archaeologists at the ‘Coal Face’

By Brigid Gallagher 14/06/2011

Last week the New Zealand Archaeological Association (NZAA) Conference was held in Havelock North. A great venue to get a picture of some of the projects and relationships archaeologists are involved in; it demonstrated that archaeology and heritage are alive and kicking here in Aotearoa.

It was really good to listen to, discuss and witness themes and initiatives keeping archaeology relevant to modern life. Presentations ranged from:

  • coastal erosion and climate change, to
  • genetic disease predisposition in Polynesian groups, to
  • problems of storage and collections policies for museums and archaeological collections, to
  • the recording of at risk sites and the most appropriate ways to approach this.

There were prehistoric and historic sites, archaeological and anthropological research, iwi perspectives and scientific perspectives. 

Maps, documents, survey, excavation, digital technology and dissemination were all on display.

Benefits to, and roles in, nature conservation, indigenous initiatives, tourism, commercial developments and disaster management, were represented.

There was a mix of detailed analysis for the ‘professionals’, and pop-arch — easy listening and informative archaeology for the masses.

Themes crossed a broad sector of society and groups including some fantastic iwi driven projects, collaborations between archaeologists and iwi, and how science and humanity orientated bodies can come together to bring a synthesised and holistic approach to better understand the past and heritage of this country. 

Intrinsic to many of the discussions was the current role of archaeology, with the sometimes underlying and sometimes dominant issue of public and community awareness, education and visibility.

          How to get the story of archaeology out there. 

          How to tap into community to share knowledge and excite others. 

          How to better promote the skills and potential of archaeologists and sites.

          How to better link into already recognised and validated projects and institutions. 

          How to increase the voice of all heritage professionals, in their many guises, to be more effective in modern Aotearoa.

          How to best care for the land we inhabit.

Archaeology provides data that informs and reflects on our collective past.

This conference reaffirmed for me that the information it generates adds another layer to pertinent modern issues in NZ. 

Bicultural relationships, multicultural effects, settlement patterns, biodiversity, geology, geomorphology, climate change, coastal erosion, medical diseases such as gout and diabetes, diet, architecture, and ancient DIY are all present.  

A prominent New Zealand archaeologist said…’What people do not realise is that New Zealand archaeologists are working right at the coal face.’ 

I came away impressed, and have to agree with her.  In today’s multi-cultural New Zealand, archaeologists are required to be professional, political, culturally aware and sensitive, managers, advocates, scientists and communicators. Many archaeologists are out in the field, not tucked away in offices. Transparency and accountability, not traditional requirements of the job, are also required in this time of user pays.

It is a tall order, and not one that is easy sailing all of the time.

Like other sciences, it might not have been where archaeology started but this looks likely to be its future….

….Over my next few entries I will attempt to communicate some of the current themes presented at this years conference.