More Tales From Weipa.

Eloise is continuing to sort the shells with the traditional owners with gusto, getting through piles of shell samples. Annelies and I have completed drawing the stratigraphic profiles of 3 mounds and have moved onto 2 more. Our fearless leader Simon continues to excavate a monster mound with another group of traditional owners and Trish is ploughing on with collecting samples for sorting.

Flat out in Weipa.


Having completed his recon of the landscape surrounding where we are working yesterday, one of the new additions to our team Craig has now begun to drill cores and dig pilot holes to get a better grasp of the landscapes evolutionary history.  This will be a big part of the project as the data can be used to reconstruct what the environment was like during the past this is called paleo-environmental reconstruction.

With the addition of Craig we now have a team with a Sedimentologist, a Geomorphologist and 5 Archaeologists. More doctorates than you can shake a stick at. We now officially have more brain power than a military super computer although you can’t have a laugh with a super computer over a few cold ones at the end of the day. Academics need cooling systems too. It makes me, a humble undergraduate, really appreciate the level of skill and knowledge within this team when they all get together in a discussion and I’m lost within half a sentence.

By Bernie

Animal Encounters of the Weipa Kind.

Geoff Bailey and Craig Sloss arrived at Weipa airport yesterday evening, and after they were picked up we went to the Albatros bar for a Weipa-sunset with a beer. For this project Craig will study the coastal geomorphology of the region. Geoff is back in one of his previous fieldwork areas, and is very interested in the new work that is being done. He is also interested in comparing the project’s work at the Weipa shell mounds with similar concentrations of shell mounds on the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea.    

On the way to Wathayn early this morning we sighted a group of kangaroos and wallabies jumping, what a beautiful sight! 

Eloise started sorting shells together with a few local ladies. Shells were sorted into whole and broken shells,  species, and the sediment matrix in the shells was described. Unfortunately Tim had a few problems with scanning this morning, but these were fixed at lunch time. At the end of this day he managed to finish the scan of one of the shell mounds. Simon and a group of local men continued digging trenches, while Bernie and I continued drawing sections at shell mound 80. We started drawing sections at shell mounds 67, 68 and 69 as well, and nearly completed this task. It looks as if we are catching up with the drawing-work! Jerry cleared vegetation off new shell mounds with an automatic wipper-snipper for future scanning and trenching.

Trying to snap a pic of Bauxite Bill.


On the way back to SPQ we spotted Bauxite Bill, the resident salty that hangs around the ship where bauxite is being loaded. Tim immediately stopped the car so Eloise and I could take some pictures. As I mentioned before, never a dull moment during fieldwork in Weipa!!


Things to do in Weipa on a day off.

So the fieldwork is coming together nicely. After a few days of settling in and troubleshooting technical errors associated with new equipment, the team is up and running smoothly. Daily productivity and efficiency of both excavation and recording procedures are becoming more and more effective as each member becomes accustomed to their role within the project. Several operations are in place at once, including; trench excavation, cleaning down, description and sampling for radiocarbon and OSL determinations (optically stimulated luminescence), 3D scanning, and spatial information recording via total station. The way in which the data is collected and stored for later analysis is structured around the objects of our investigation, the shell mounds. The mounds are shell matrix assemblages which are readily identifiable due to their morphology (having a shape, e.g. dome, cone, truncated) which are able to be distinguished from the substrate on which they rest. As the extent of each mound can be measured precisely due to their well defined boundaries, an object oriented database approach is used as opposed to a site based methodology. Essentially, each mound is conceived of as an object made up of several components (which include hearths, artifacts etc) to which it is spatially associated. The database reflects this tree-like concept, making information related to each mound easily locatable. Data such as section drawings and photographs are spatially associated with the mounds in the field, using the total station, which is downloaded and incorporated into the database daily. This negates any repetition, allowing for efficient data collection.

The fieldwork continued into the weekend, but a respite was permitted on Sunday for some regional reconnaissance (sightseeing) north of Weipa. We visited Old Mapoon for lunch, on a brief jaunt (a mere 160km round trip). The excursion opened our eyes to the real extent of the western Cape York landscape where mere centimetres on a map translate into hundreds of kilometres. We stopped at Cullen Point, overlooking Wenlock and Ducie River mouths (whose breadth extended to the horizon) where we collected shells washed up on the beach and ate packed lunch under the shade. Upon returning to base we had a few hours to ourselves before we retired to the Albatross Bar to enjoy a cold drink, welcome some new additions to our project (welcome Geoff and Craig!) and watch the sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria. I could think of worse places to spend my Sunday evening.

By Casey

Geoarchaeology in tropical Northern Queensland, never a dull moment!

Although today was very hot and humid, it was another very good day in the field. Since yesterday we have been carefully recording the stratigraphy of the shell mounds to understand how they are positioned in the landscape. It’s very interesting to observe the geomorphic surfaces on which these mounds were positioned, which seem to vary along relative short distances. At this moment we just use paper and pencil for the drawings, but these drawings will eventually be digitized. In this way they can be used as an illustration and/or can be incorporated into the GIS database.

So far, fieldwork around Weipa has been a great experience! Interesting research challenges and working in a beautiful landscape full of termite mounds and trees with curly branches. A few days ago we had a very interesting encounter…. Ants suddenly appeared everywhere across legs, arms, back, neck and head….. We did not understand where these nasty creatures came from. Careful screening of the surface did not lead us to the source of the red-green insects. Ultimately we started looking up to the bright blue sky. Right above us we discovered a tree full of ant-nests hanging down from its branches…. Flying ants, never seen that during fieldwork in theEastern Sahara! Great new experiences can’t think of a better way to spend my summer holiday!!

By Annelies

Techno Bush

ScanStation2 ready for action.

ScanStation2 ready for action.

While loading the truck with gear for the days work it became clear that this project is like no other. What is perhaps the most exciting aspect is the equipment at the disposal of the archaeologists conducting this study.
Traditional archaeology is usually associated with a method conducted with spade, mattock and trowel. Squares of a predetermined size are measured with tape and oriented with a compass and spirit level and then duly excavated. Although this method is still a part of this project, with some extra muscle provided by some local traditional owner lads, the Archaeologists are utilising a range of high tech gear worthy of a sci-fi movie. This modern technology is being used to allow unprecedented accuracy of measurement and an enormous scale of study which brings the Archaeology of Weipa to the forefront of Anthropological study.
One such piece of equipment is the Leica Viva ST15 Total Station. This machine sits atop a tripod and fires a laser to a prism mounted on a pole which it then uses to calculate the exact distance relative to a pre set point. Combined with GPS technology this allows the exact position of a point of interest, such as a stone artefact, to be recorded and superimposed on a map of the area to understand the relationship between all parts of the archaeological site. What is better about this model is it is robotic and will automatically follow the prism atop the pole while the operator moves across the landscape.
Even more badass is the Leica Scanstation 2. This unit also sits upon a tripod like the Total Station and also fires lasers at a target of interest, such as the shell mounds Weipa is famous for. However, the Scanstation fires tens of thousands of lasers at the object which it then uses to build a three dimensional image with millimetre accuracy.
For the intrepid Archaeologist there are three touch-screen Trimble GPS units. These show the position of the individual with a Trimble on a map of the area which had the positions of all the sites of interest recorded with the Total Station previously so one can find their way to any point with ease. This is especially for the poor fellows who have to walk the better part of a kilometre to their workstation.
All this tech makes for exiting prospects as to what can be achieved on this project but also has been known to cause grown men to act like kids in a candy shop. However, more high tech machines are on the way so stay tuned.
By Bernie

Another Day Another Adventure.

Today began as all normal days do here in Weipa, with us loading up the cars and heading out to Wathayn. Once we arrived for our day of excavation we discovered a very large spider (well in New Zealand terms anyway) which had to be scared off before we could get into our digging gear.
Problematically by lunchtime we realised one of the trucks had taken off with our lunch in the back! The local boys were lucky and had their esky in a different truck while we archaeologists starved. Our lunch finally arrived back at site by 2pm which made our afternoon of digging slow to begin with.
Work today was very varied with laser scanning, total station work, trench digging, trench cleaning and profile drawing. For today I was in charge of cleaning some of the trenches dug out yesterday. This is very labour intensive work as it involves digging down 20cm into the sterile surfaces under the shell mounds, which is hard, densely packed, and today completely filled with rocks. We dig down this far so that when we date the mounds using a highly sophisticated method, it is as accurate as it can be. Under this dating system you can get a date to say the mound is no older than this. To further date the shell deposition other dating methods are used.
The trip back home today was very interesting; we had to slow down to avoid a Wallaby chased by a family of pigs. There were two adult pigs and at least eight gorgeous piglets all chasing this Wallaby in a very humorous procession.
Overall today was a very successful day and all of us here in Weipa are looking forward to another day great day tomorrow.

By Eloise

A Birthday To Remember

Picture this – you’re in the northern Queensland tropics, enjoying the generally ambient biota (complete with such happy hazards such as crocs and bushfires), by partaking in a spot of archaeological fieldwork. You’re preparing a shell mound for 3D scanning and excavation, by trimming away the scrubby vegetation from the mound surface. You’re wearing gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, pants and a wide-brimmed hat. The sun is shining and hot, sweat is dripping from your brow, shirt clinging to your sweaty skin. The eucalypt canopy above affords little shelter from the suns penetrating rays. You place your cutting implement on the ground, lean back…stretch out…and take a deep breath of the warm, humid air. You look around at your two companions and see dirty faces and hands and watch one wipe at the sweat on her face. It leaves a straight black mark across her cheek like war-paint. You look around the landscape taking in the slight downward slope where you stand, across the coastal plain, to the mudflat where dense mangroves grow. You consider your presence in the landscape and about people and their interaction with this same area in past times. Nerves and excitement flutter in your stomach alongside curiosity for what this excavation might reveal.

 Others from your project team are involved in different tasks some two hundred or so metres away. Engrossed, they are scanning mounds, logging data points, as well as digging, and transporting shell and sediment. You look down to see your secateurs glinting, juxtaposed against the fragmented shell surface, and reach down to retrieve them. As you straighten (contemplating your next move), you feel a sharp prick on your neck. Followed by another, and then another! One of your companions yelps and jumps into the air, the other starts waving and dancing about madly. You flail at your shirt where the sharp jabs prick you, patting yourself down, experiencing stabbing sensations underneath your belt and on the sole of your foot under your left sock. Frantic, you attempt to flick the source of the problem from you (easier said than done!), as these offenders move quickly. You notice your companions as they both squeal and run/jiggle/jump away from the vicinity. You follow them, whilst moving in some sort of twisted ballet attempting to locate the offenders. Finally, you identify the source of the jabbing sensations. It is small and green has six legs and bites. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for yourself and your companions, a cloud of green ants has graciously descended from the trees above to bite at your sensitive regions! As you swipe at your pant legs and twist to slap at your back, you smile and think to yourself…what better way to spend my 21st birthday than in the outback, being attacked by a bunch of ants…
Happy Birthday Eloise!
Casey Beresford

First Day Completed

We are in Weipa!

The crew from NZ, Australia and the Netherlands arrived Sunday and we spent our first day getting organised and visiting our Wathayn field area. Thanks to our industry partners, Rio Tinto Alcan, we have office space available to organise the charging of the equipment we have brought from Auckland and Sydney. Key pieces of equipment for us are the scanner which we will use to produce 3D volumes of the shell mounds we are studying and a robotic total station that helps us to map the locations of the various things we are recording.


We spent the morning working in the office and then the afternoon visiting the Wathayn Out Station. We visited the sites that we sampled last year and worked through the recording procedures that we will use in the coming three weeks of work. We also started cearing dead vegetation from the surface of two of the mounds. We need to do this because the scanner records the all of the vegetation that the lasers encounter.

Weipa Fieldwork begins next week

We will begin the 2011 season at Weipa on Monday August 22.

The NZ crew leaves early Sunday morning and will arrive in Weipa late in the afternoon. As we did in Fayum Dig Diaries, we plan to blog each day about our field research explaining the aims of the project and providing a description of our daily activities.

Send us any comments and questions you have during the time we are in Weipa. Our field season this year is three weeks long.