For a change of pace, a group from Underground Overground Archaeology spent last week out of the office, and out of Christchurch at the New Zealand Archaeological Association Conference on Stewart Island. The New Zealand Archaeological Association (known affectionately as the NZAA, and not to be confused with the automobile association) is the national organisation for archaeology, and is the primary group devoted to promoting the archaeology of Aotearoa. It’s membership includes both professional archaeologists like ourselves, but also interested amateurs, other heritage professionals and groups with a vested interest in archaeology. Every year, the NZAA has a conference, and members from all over the country (and further afield) gather to share and discuss their work. Among the many things archaeologists debate and fail to agree on is the collective term for a group of archaeologists, but I like to refer to it as an assemblage of archaeologists.
This year, conference was on Rakiura/Stewart Island, and Michael, Kirsa and myself braved the sickness-inducing southern waters to attend. The people of Oban and Stewart Island were great hosts, and in particular local iwi members shared a great deal of knowledge about Rakiura and its history. It was a pleasure to be there, and a few archaeologists who had done work on the island put together a series of public talks, to share our findings with the locals. Conference usually consists of a few days of papers/presentations across a range of topics and locations. This year the papers ranged from excavations on an early Māori site in the Bay of Islands, to tin mining on Stewart Island’s south coast, to occupation and landscape modification on the islands of Vanuatu. Subjects included stone fishing net weights, new techniques of radiocarbon dating pā palisades in the Waikato, DNA identification of previously unidentified animal foods in early Māori middens, the Ng (King) Bros Chinese market garden site in Ashburton, and the archaeology of servants quarters in Dunedin. Among the presentations were those by Underground Overground alumni Kat Watson and Jessie Garland who presented separately on their doctorate research on the buildings and artefacts of Christchurch, building on their work from their time here. I spoke about recent archaeological investigations I’ve been involved with here in Christchurch. The papers are a great way archaeologists to keep up with the wide range of work going on across the country, and to keep abreast of new developments in the field, particular in relation to ever-changing technological methods. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come across something in the field and gone “hrm, this reminds me of that thing such-and-such talked about at conference”.
The archaeological community is small (the NZAA only has between 300-400 members) and everyone knows each other, so conference is as much a social occasion as a professional one. Discussions bleed on from papers to the pub, as the community shares war stories and recent finds, argue about minutiae and various theories, and generally enjoy spending time with old and new friends.
The association also typically organises a field trip to local archaeological and heritage sites, because archaeologists are big nerds, and even when ostensibly ‘on holiday’, they like to talk archaeology and see archaeology. This year we took a boat trip with local guides around to Paterson Inlet, to the site of a winter base for Norwegian whalers operating in the Ross Sea between 1923 and 1933, now protected as an archaeological site under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014. We also visited the Ulva Island ecosanctuary, saw dolphins, weka, a leopard seal, mollymauks, sea lions, tieke, and other smaller birds aplenty. Not technically archaeology, but a major part of the discipline is investigating human interaction with other species and the environment, and also, birds are cool.
Conference is typically in a different location each year, and the field trips are always a fun opportunity. Archaeology and archaeological landscapes exist everywhere you go in New Zealand, and no matter where conference is held, there is a local element, because we all walk through a land steeped in heritage and archaeology. It was a great conference, in a great location, and thanks to the people of Oban and Stewart Island for having us!