University of New England (UNE) holds experimental archaeology workshop

Photo: David Elkins
Photo: David Elkins

If you – O dauntless explorer! – had ventured into the bush around UNE last week, a strange sight would have met your eyes.

A small tribe hunkered around bonfires, banging rocks together to make stone tools.

They carved turkey bones into flutes; moulded pots out of clay; made knives from slate blades, wood, and animal sinews; and hammered copper to make jewellery.

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Who made up this strange clan, lurking within the mysterious depths of New England?

Were they, perhaps, cavemen or cannibals? Headhunters; shamans; or woad-painted warriors? The relics of some fallen super-advanced civilization; or a lost tribe unknown to Western science?

No; they were archaeologists.

Stone Age school

Dr Mark Moore with students. Photo: David Elkins

Dr Mark Moore with students. Photo: David Elkins

Twenty-odd students from around Australia  – budding Howard Carters and Indiana Joneses – had come to attend a four-day workshop, which ran from Tuesday to Friday.

"This is an intensive school for Experimental Archaeology,” convener Dr Mark Moore said.

The course uses modern-day experiments to better understand how people in the past created and used objects from stone, bone, ceramics, and metal.

“The students have been studying all these different materials that we used in the past to make tools and for cooking, and for things of that nature,” Dr Moore said.

“At the intensive workshop, they actually get hands-on experience working with those different materials.”

Brenton Wallis. Photo: David Elkins

Brenton Wallis. Photo: David Elkins

On the first day, Tuesday, the students flaked stone to make a tool kit, as prehistoric Scandinavians would have done.

They used those stone tools to carve knives similar to ones the Inuit make in Alaska.

The students ground slate into knife blades; chopped wood for the handle; split the wood; and hollowed out the end to receive the knife.

Photo: David Elkins

Photo: David Elkins

They then used hide glue (made from boiled-down hides) to attach the handle; and bound the weapon together with animal sinew and pieces of raw hide.

Photo: David Elkins

Photo: David Elkins

The potter's craft

On Tuesday and Wednesday, local potters Rick and Suzanne Hatch, of Weemala Pottery, taught the students how to make Neolithic-style earthenware pots.

"Pottery,” Suzanne said, “is one of the oldest recorders of the history of mankind.”

Suzanne Hatch. Photo: David Elkins

Suzanne Hatch. Photo: David Elkins

“We were re-enacting how people would have made their cooking and eating vessels before there was sophisticated kiln technology,” Rick said.

“The clay technology had to be sophisticated, or those vessels would not have come through the fire.”

The method the Hatches taught was still being used in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s.

Rick Hatch. Photo: David Elkins

Rick Hatch. Photo: David Elkins

“When you're an archaeologist,” Rick said, “you're training in empathetic, informed knowledge how people lived. You can find these artefacts, and if you can't empathize and imagine what you were doing with them, there's no point. By doing this experimental school, they're learning how to be empathetic with how people lived.”

The students learnt how to mix up the clay body, temper it with sandy grit to withstand the thermal shock of heating the vessel over a fire, and form the pot.

"They couldn't have any sophisticated tools,” Suzanne said. “They used their hands and body. They made them by patting a ball over their knees, and hollowing it out.”

Dr Melanie Fillios. Photo: David Elkins

Dr Melanie Fillios. Photo: David Elkins

The students decorated the pots by impressing and engraving with sticks and their fingers, and painted them with slips (a liquid mixture of clay and other particles in water) and oxides.

“This is the way pots would have been made 10,000 years ago,” Rick said. “Some people still make pots like this, but only as art pots now.”

Sam Fulton and Katrina Phillips. Photo: David Elkins

Sam Fulton and Katrina Phillips. Photo: David Elkins

On Thursday morning, the group fired the 30 bowls in two massive bonfires to turn them into proper clay pots – and all fired perfectly.

“You have to treat the pot very carefully,” Dr Moore said. “It's quite a different process than using cast-iron like we do when we go camping. One of them got a crack in it, but nobody's broke, so that's fantastic!​”

Photo: David Elkins

Photo: David Elkins

Cooking with clay

Heidi Drews. Photo: David Elkins

Heidi Drews. Photo: David Elkins

The students then used the pots to cook, Stone Age-style.

Some heated rocks over the fire, and dropped them into a pot of water until it boiled.

Some sizzled chicken and lamb on anvil stones. Others wrapped meat or trout in clay, and cooked it directly over the coals, as gypsies do hedgehogs.

Photo: David Elkins

Photo: David Elkins

The archaeologists drew the line at hunting down and slaughtering their meals; the food came from Woolworths and local butchers. They had, though, to be their own butcher, using their stone tools to cut the meat off the bone. 

Dr Melanie Fillios and Lachlan Bishop. Photo: David Elkins

Dr Melanie Fillios and Lachlan Bishop. Photo: David Elkins

The bones became jewellery. Students scored around the perimeter of the chicken leg bones, and snapped it off to make little beads. A couple also made an instrument out of a turkey bone.

Photo: David Elkins

Photo: David Elkins

“We got a finished flute,” Dr Moore said, “but none of us are musicians, so we're not exactly sure how to play it. We haven't got a nice whistle out of it.

“I'm sure with the musicians that we have in Armidale, there'll be somebody out there who could show us how to play it!”

On the last day, the students made copper tools and jewellery.

Photo: David Elkins

Photo: David Elkins

The five internal students had used the lab furnace to melt copper into different alloys.

Now, students hammered it into copper tools by annealing it – heating it in the fire.

When quenched, copper becomes cold but soft, so easily malleable.

Brenton Wallis. Photo: David Elkins

Brenton Wallis. Photo: David Elkins

Meet some of the students

Photo: David Elkins

Photo: David Elkins

Steven Ahoy, an Armidale local, was the first local Anaiwan student to take part in the unit. 

“I've been a cultural sites officer in the community,” Steven said. “We work underneath an archaeologist for land developments. I'm trying to get the next qualification and further my career in archaeology.

The workshop, he said, was great.

“It gives me a better scientific understanding to what my people did traditionally. It makes me a better person and role-model for my community.  I can pass the knowledge onto the next generation, and keep the traditional stone-making alive.​”

Steven Ahoy. Photo: David Elkins

Steven Ahoy. Photo: David Elkins

A former nurse from Lismore (who wanted to remain anonymous) wanted to volunteer on archaeology sites in her retirement. This was her first semester.

“I figure if there's a whole stack of people volunteering – and there are – on archaeology sites, the one with the degree in archaeology is likely to get a look in!”

Renae Foster, from Gladstone, central Queensland, has studied archaeology for a year and a half.

Renae Foster and Dr Mark Moore. Photo: David Elkins

Renae Foster and Dr Mark Moore. Photo: David Elkins

“I'm trying to do as many base courses as I can, to figure out what I'm interested in, and where it takes me,” she said.

She was particularly interested in “the different methods that we can attempt and experiment with as a group, and seeing what other people are trying and failing or succeeding at”.

Justin Morgan, from Merivale, southern Queensland, changed careers to become an archaeologist, after 20 years in science and IT.

“I've always been interested in other cultures, history, and other peoples,” he said.

He plans to go to Turkey, and work at Çatal Hüyük, a 9000-year-old Neolithic town, while getting his PhD.

His wife is Turkish-Australian, so he has family over there, and he's worked on sites in both countries.

Tracey Dillon. Photo: David Elkins

Tracey Dillon. Photo: David Elkins

Tracey Dillon, a former occupational therapist from Woy Woy, is in the second year of her archaeology degree, having already done a Masters of Museum Study with an archaeology component.

She has a lifelong interest in history and archaeology.

“It's for the love of it!” she said. “It's deepening my knowledge; it's non-vocational.

“I feel I can be dumped anywhere, and if I have a rock, I will be able to survive!” she said. “Some of the reading can get a little bit dry, so to actually be out and about doing something is great fun! 

“Making the stone knives is so much harder than I thought.  The level of expertise that the people who originally did it is phenomenal!  I take my hat off to them.”

George Taylor. Photo: David Elkins

George Taylor. Photo: David Elkins

George Taylor from Glencoe is doing his Master's degree in archaeology, at the age of 70.

He started with a Biology degree from Wollongong, and graduated from UNE last year with an undergraduate diploma in archaeology.

“I've always been interested in the human journey,” George said.

“Imagine you're on one side of a window today, and the other side of the window is the past.  In between you and the window is a curtain, and if there's a small opening, that's you looking into the past through that very small opening.

“Experimental archaeology allows you to open that curtain, so you can see into the past better.”