An investigation into the Archaeologist australis

It is a balmy 0 degrees Celsius on this fine, sunny morning in Christchurch. As I push open the glass door and step into the warm office space, several things become immediately obvious to me. One: the heat pump has clearly been set somewhere around 25 degrees Celsius. Two: there are hi-vis vests, winter coats, and stadia rods scattered everywhere. These two apparently unrelated things give me confidence that I am in the right place, the home of the Archaeologist australis, or, the Common Southern Archaeologist. I, an independent, unaffiliated, unbiased, and completely reliable journalist Bebecca Madam, have come here today with the purpose of finding out precisely what it is that the Archaeologist australis does. I don my disguise, slipping on my checked button up shirt and mud-streaked white hard hat; it works like a charm, 15 pairs of eyes glazing over and sliding back to their computers, their initial alarm abating. It is time for me (independent, unaffiliated, unbiased, and completely reliable journalist Bebecca Madam) to make my move.

My first victim interviewee; a man with pretty good posture sits at his desk, clad in a brown cardigan and clean pants. On his desk are two mandarins (rather the worse for wear) and a loaf of bread from the local bakery. His name is Nigel, and he is an Australian import. Nigel specialises in “clambering down holes into drains” and doing some serious work with GIS programmes. Analysing spatial information is kind of his jam, and Nigel is an expert at georeferencing old maps and seeing how they can help us analyse data collected during fieldwork. I checked in with Nigel to ask what else got his biscuits spinning. Having worked in both Australia and New Zealand, what has been the most exciting moment to date? “Finding out that a site we had excavated had evidence of continuous repeated occupations from approximately 33 thousand years ago until just a couple hundred years ago. Large parts of Australia were actually abandoned during the ice age because they were too dry and became uninhabitable, so this site was really exciting, and we worked closely with Aboriginal guys on the ground. It was such a meaningful project for all of us, and it was very rewarding.” He hurries to assure me that he doesn’t think his current work is boring. In Christchurch, Nigel finds his excitement exploring brick barrel drains around Lyttelton and recording historic jetties from boats (it’s only happened once, but it was definitely exciting).

“Clambering down holes into drains.”

Moving from Australia back to New Zealand my eye is immediately drawn 1 m to my right, where an industrious blonde lady clad in a cozy pink sweater sits at an immaculately tidy desk, a single empty ‘coke zero sugar’ sitting in the corner. This is Jamie from Taupō, and she’s pretty serious business. As I sidle up, she ends her work-related phone call; her face says, “we’re friends, right?” but her words say, “for the last time [name redacted], Bic pens are not archaeological, don’t test my patience or you’ll get it.” Jamie is focussing her time right now on writing some of her longer-running reports, although she does get let out every now and then to record historic buildings. “Sometimes I bring company” she says. “Rebecca is learning the craft as well. But I already warned her, not to take my job” she laughs. “This year I’ve been allowed to start reviewing other people’s work. I try not to leave mean comments. I want to encourage people to do better and learn how to use semi-colons correctly!” Jamie scrolls through her document, showing me every instance of an incorrectly used semi-colon. She has highlighted and commented on every single one ‘please fix throughout.’ “I’d honestly rather be out in the field recording a house right now,” she shares with me in confidence. “Or excavating an umu, which is a Māori oven, basically an old hāngi pit. They are just so… satisfying.” She gestures with her hands; “they are so round. I love them.” I get it Jamie. Circles are such pleasing shapes.

“I’d rather be recording a house right now.”

My mind might be on circles, but my eye is drawn to the carefully arranged rectangular bottles of fountain pen ink on the desk opposite us. The owner is the artful Annthalina; researcher, graphic designer, and built heritage support person- what Annthalina loves the most is telling the stories of everyday New Zealanders. “Christchurch was supposed to be this perfect Anglican settlement, but more often than not strange things did happen,” she laughs. “I try to include the fun stories in our histories as often as possible.” Sometimes Annthalina is let loose into the world, whether to visit the archives, or to help archaeologists with built heritage projects. “I used to go out a lot but not so much now. I’ve been out this week with Kirsa to investigate some old buildings, and I’m really excited to support her. It’s so interesting working as a historian within the archaeological context, because we often get the tangible connection of the research we do, which you might not get in other research jobs.” As a respected, independent, unaffiliated, unbiased, and completely reliable journalist, this is something that really vibes with me. I collect my vibes and leave her to her to it.

“Strange things did happen.”

As I clamber back across the mountain of desks, displacing computers, and monitor screens, I find yet another blonde woman, desk littered with notebooks, loose paper, dust, and takeaway coffee cups. This is Rebecca; self-proclaimed cat-herder, Rebecca spends a lot of time these days doing project management. “There’s just a lot of emails… a lot of my projects are similar so it can get pretty confusing trying to keep track of everything.” For Rebecca, it’s about organisation. “I just need to know what’s going on, I’m standing on a mountain of comms and I have to balance carefully so I don’t fall off of it.” Rebecca’s time is divided between long-running reports, project management, and the occasional piece of fieldwork. “These days when I get out, I’m usually helping someone else on site, or going to Kaikōura. I do a lot of work there, it’s a beautiful place.” Sometimes she gets out to help Jamie with buildings recording, or excavating nice, round, umu. “It’s really nice recording or digging with other archaeologists, you can bounce ideas of each other and offer advice, and everything gets done faster. It’s my favourite way to do things.” Suddenly, a phone buzzes on her desk, and Rebecca lets out a deep sigh, putting on her best phone voice. “Hello, you’ve reached Underground Overground Archaeology, this is Rebecca speaking…”

“There’s just a lot of emails…”

The heat pump sweating has reached peak levels. A kind soul, who has noticed me drowning, directs me through to the coolest part of the building (no pun intended): the lab, a space for processing and analysing artefacts, filled with boxes, dust, and a singular archaeologist. Sporting green hair and a keen eye for fabrics, this can be none other than [checks notes] Neda, and she’s currently busy analysing textiles from a central city site. “I love textiles,” she shows me her hoard, which is extensive, and well labelled. “I get distracted all the time trying to hunt down references for things, like for when woven elastic panels were invented (1830s/40s). Those are found in the sides of your boots, and for glove and cuff closures.” Neda’s typical day incorporates a lot of desk-based paperwork and sending a lot of emails, but her true skill is becoming a 5-minute specialist in things she knows nothing about. “In the last 15 minutes I’ve been obsessed with the idea of taking up weaving so I can identify this niche weaving pattern in one of these textiles…” And does she enjoy working out here in the lab? “Yes, it’s very quiet, and no one can see me.” Message received Neda, I’m on my way out of here.

“I love textiles.”

Coming back into the excessively delightfully warm office space, I spot someone trying desperately to make it to the break table to avoid speaking to me. Like a cat sensing easy prey, I pounce. The interviewee sits tensely opposite me: Tristan, local team leader, field archaeologist, and lithic artefact enthusiast. As with most of the archaeologists around, Tristan splits his time between desk-based paperwork and the occasional spot of fieldwork, often working on large scale projects where there is a good chance of finding Māori archaeology. “I really like the works we’ve been doing out in Belfast; we’ve had a lot of umu/ovens. I like digging ovens. They’re nice and round.” So I’ve heard. For Tristan, it all comes down to the digging and the thinking that accompanies that. Like most archaeologists, he is a social creature who thrives while working in larger groups and loves projects that get the public involved. “Being an archaeologist is about producing knowledge about the past and sharing it with others… archaeology is such a physical and tactile process that you don’t truly experience it without being there and getting your hands dirty. There’s something special about holding something in your hands that has been in the ground for decades, or hundreds or thousands of years.” I can see the absence of tea is wearing him down, so I release him back into the wild.

“There’s something special about holding something in your hands that has been in the ground for decades, or hundreds or thousands of years.”

As one archaeologist disappears into the kitchen, another emerges, already thriving and fully caffeinated. Alana, a West Coast import, takes me back to her tidy desk space, pointing out her 3D printed Capybara, and the photo of her Greatx7 Grandfather. “He was a surveyor. His name was Octavius Laws Woodthorpe Bousfield, which feels like old money vibes, but I think he spent time in jail.” Although she works on all manner of projects, Alana is “happiest in the middle of nowhere, where the rural and industrial sites live.” She turns to gaze out the window. “I will find you, industrial site, and I will record you. And one day, you will be in my book.” Alana is particularly enamoured with industrial sites, such as mills and mines. “There’s a level of admiration I have for the working-class people of the 19th century… The tenacity of early settlers. You just had to muck in and get it done. I like that.” It’s her dream to survey the West Coast, “just walk up and down the entire coastline, and record a bunch of new sites, fill in all the gaps… Jill Hamel has the archaeology of Otago, and I want the archaeology of the West Coast.” Feeling inspired, I shake her hand and move on.

“I want the archaeology of the West Coast.”

Tucked away in a corner is a desk decorated with an excellent pot plant and a high-capacity external hard drive; with her back to the glass-walled meeting room, privacy is a thing of the past, but this doesn’t faze dedicated historian Lydia- her whole business is the past. Even 10 years on, many projects coming across Lydia’s desk are quake response developments, but she also sees a lot of infrastructure and sub-surface site investigations across New Zealand. For Lydia, it’s about finding connections. “I like when the same names come up and you can still see those names around Christchurch today. It might have been 100 years ago, but it’s still a part of our city now, their descendants still live here, and they are still putting their names on things.” Lydia is a big endorser of Google Earth (not sponsored) and finds it a handy place to store large amounts of information. “I’m really interested in family connections and spatial reflections of that… who was getting free rent because they married into a family, who lived in the same neighbourhood as their sisters… I’m really interested in those sorts of geospatial connections.” Time to geospace my way out of here and make some more connections of my own.

“Who was getting free rent?”

Immediately my eye is caught by a figure pushing a chair laden with cardboard boxes, from the office back to the lab space. I follow my journalist senses (kind of like the Spider-Man tingle) and track her back to the lab. Wendy is the Lab Queen, and this is her land. She keeps the lab in premium shape; keeping it clean and tidy, uncluttered, unburdened by waylaid artefacts, and unsullied by loose dirty tools. Wendy spends most of her time “washing really old dirty broken dishes for someone who didn’t do it a hundred years ago!” This is next-level problematic flatmate content, which I sympathise with deeply. What kinds of things does Wendy see most often? Everything and anything, (particularly bones and ceramic) but only very briefly. She ends up doing a bit of everything these days – photographing artefacts, updating artefact catalogue spreadsheets, but when she gets the chance, Wendy likes to change it up and do some more technical work, such as handling metal artefacts (fancy spoons, watch components, jewellery) that are kept in silica gel that has to be checked every 6 months, to ensure the artefacts are protected from corrosion. But her favourite thing to do is reassemble broken ceramics. “It’s very satisfying to put the pieces together and see what the item used to be, and watch it come back together.”

“Washing really old dirty broken dishes for someone who didn’t do it a hundred years ago!”

Back in the office, a head of purple hair catches my eye. This is Carly, who hails from Washington State, and she’s in the middle of a pretty intense email chain. “I do a lot of client communications,” she explains, “and I like to have everything in writing, so there is no confusion later on.” As a team leader, she is the queen of internal meetings and answering all manner of questions, “ranging from how to do something on our project management software, to how to describe the cut of a feature. I’ll answer anything. I’m ready.” Carly is big on writing archaeological assessments; for her, it’s all about the mystery: reading the histories the historians have written, looking at the previous archaeological works, and trying to figure out the archaeological values. “I feel like a detective. A desk detective. What will still be there? What condition will it be in? What is its value? It’s one of the things I enjoy doing the most.” When she’s let out into the field, she prefers working on sites where she might encounter Māori archaeology. “There’s more of a mystery – you can find something and have absolutely no idea what it is, or what it was used for, but someone brought it here for a reason!” Suddenly an incoming email catches her eye. “Oh, sorry, I’d better answer this. The paper trail waits for no person.”

“I feel like a detective.”

Immediately over the way sits dark haired Amy, wearing a cozy green sweater against the freezing cold outside, with a bakery treat in one hand and a coffee in the other. Amy spends a lot of her time jumping in and helping other people when they need an extra pair of hands. Usually this means she’s out on site, braving the elements, but sometimes she gets to help Clara out with artefact stuff, which can be pretty cool. Amy loves a good piece of archaeological theory. “I am obsessed and in love with it – I love a good theoretical reading and discussion.” For Amy, it’s about how to use the work from our predecessors effectively today. “I love legacy data, but in relation to field notes, rather than artefacts! Working out how to use that legacy data is super interesting to me. I’d like to look at ways to use legacy information in a meaningful way despite its limitations. It doesn’t matter what we do, there will always be missing information… your data will always be lacking for people in the future. That’s why I’m super excited about fieldnotes, and the opportunity to discuss and encourage conversation around how we can facilitate making the best archive we can. The record we create will eventually be the only record that exists.”

“I am obsessed and in love with it.”

The sound of pieces of glass tumbling together onto a tray catches my attention. This is Clara, the historic artefact specialist. Hot water bottle in her lap, slippers on her feet, and a loose trowel on the table next to her, this is Clara’s Artefact Corner. The big focus for Clara is storytelling, looking at the historic artefacts and letting them tell a story of the site. “I’m about to start analysing 30 boxes of metal,” she notes drily. “Some stories aren’t the most fun.” A big part of Clara’s job is public outreach, which she is particularly passionate about. “It gives a lot of meaning to our work, it gets people excited and interested, and it’s very rewarding.” Clara opens an article she has ready on her computer. “I’m really excited about pluralism right now, which is the idea that people can have multiple identities depending on the social setting they are in, and that material culture should reflect this change in setting, and context. I’m trying to work this theory into my work as much as possible at the moment.” Standing suddenly, she moves to ring the bell that sits in the middle of the office. “It’s Quiet Time, everyone!” Message received, Clara. Time to move on.

“I’m really excited about pluralism right now.”

Using my roller chair to propel myself across the office (earning a severe glare from Clara – sorry, I forgot it was Quiet Time) I roll directly into the path of my last two interviewees. First, a well-bearded man, wearing an excellent blue woollen sailor’s sweater, remarkably resembling Captain Haddock from Tintin. This is Hamish, and he’s in the middle of digitising a strat drawing. Hamish spends most of his time these days keeping on top of his paperwork, and when he gets out of the office, he’s happy to go anywhere. Hamish isn’t just about meticulous record keeping, he’s also about preserving archaeology in situ. “Most of the time we end up having to remove archaeology, so it’s really special when I can record it and leave it in the ground for future archaeologists.” What Hamish really specialises in is recording stratigraphic profiles. “It’s all about the layers. Layers help inform us about the site formation processes.” The longest strat he’s ever drawn was nearly a kilometre long, along the Esplanade in Kaikōura. His favourite strat drawing was around 20 m long across Gloucester Street. “It had some really nice layers, and it went through a fire tank as well, and that’s the only record of that tank now.” Time to let Hamish get back to his elaborate and complicated strat drawing on illustrator.

“It’s all about the layers.”

As I journey down through the Box Corridor and come out into the scanner-breakroom-kitchen-entrance area, I run into Julia, scanning her way through an entire project worth of notes and drawings.  Julia is the stage crew of the Underground Overground Archaeology team, the oil that keeps the engine running and the wheels turning. “I’ll do anything asked or required” she tells me, between scans. “I aim to have everything where and how it should be; no task is too small or large.” Julia is something of a jack of all trades, ready to drive any vehicle, take on any task, though she confesses she does not have a licence to fly a plane (yet!). In a practical sense, Julia keeps supplies topped up, forms scanned into storage before they are lost forever, and reports printed and delivered where they need to be, but Julia’s big love is supporting and nurturing personal growth. With three grown children, and classes on developing life skills and support, she has a lot of experience looking after groups of people or individuals. “I’m all about helping people. We’re all human, and we all have the same fundamental need, which is to know we are loved and are enough.” Feeling bolstered with new energy, I thank Julia for her time, and leave her to battle the scanner.

“We’re all human, and we all have the same fundamental need, which is to know we are loved and are enough.”

I glance quickly out the window; the sun is nearly setting, and if I stay out too long, I will turn into a pumpkin, which is something that happens to all journalists. Quickly then, one last archaeologist. I turn to the woman next to me, a head of curls and a desk full of pot plants. This is Kirsa, and she is the UOA branch manager. “It’s my job to take care of my team. I love talking to everyone about what they are working on and helping them solve problems.” For Kirsa, it’s all about tackling challenges, and problem solving. “I like that I never know what I’m going to deal with on any given day. I might start the day reviewing an assessment, but by mid-afternoon I’m neck deep in a company policy. It keeps me on my toes.” When she gets a chance, she’s big into buildings, and wood. “I love to figure out building phases, how or why a building was built the way it was, how it developed over time.” Kirsa recently completed her Masters dissertation on wood. “I researched the 19th century Canterbury timber economy and tried to understand the provenance of Canterbury’s timber. Secretly I wanted to learn how to ID timber, that was my ulterior motive.” That seems like a perfectly reasonable ulterior motive, Kirsa.

“I love talking to everyone about what they are working on and helping them solve problems.”

Suddenly, the sun begins to dip below the horizon, and the clock strikes 5 pm. It’s time for me to go. Standing at the front door, I gently place my white hard hat on the break table next to the door, and survey the crowded room of industrious individuals, each bringing their own special interests, skills, and experience, to this important job. I haven’t managed to reach every person during my short time here, but I’ve met enough to know Annthalina was right. “We’re a strange bunch. We make it awkward, but we’re worth getting to know.” I smile benevolently, and slip out the door, unnoticed. My work here is done. Bebecca, out.

Bebecca Madam

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