Weipa, Take Three (by Casey Beresford)

Well here we are again in Weipa for another field season! I have to say it’s really great to be back again and I’m enjoying the climate (i.e. warmer than the 10°C or so in Auckland where I’m from!), and the company of everyone involved in the WARPPED project who have travelled from all corners of the globe to be here.

The results from the last couple of year’s fieldwork in Wathayn, on the Embley River have been very interesting. The radiocarbon dates taken from the shell deposits excavated in 2010 and 2011 demonstrate some interesting patterns resulting from different taphonomic and post-depositional processes operating at different times and in different parts of the landscape in Wathayn. Untangling how humans and the environment worked together to produce what we see today (and are able to excavate) continues to be a key focus of our research framework and guides our excavation methods. With this in mind we have generated some new approaches to our survey methods to make comparing shell deposits easier, faster and importantly, more consistent.

How do we collect geographic information for features and items within the landscape at Wathayn?

The robotic total station which we use for collecting our survey data has no capability within itself to “know” its geographic position in the world. Instead it creates an arbitrary landscape between two “known” points which are entered manually (e.g. GPS coordinates) to calculate an unknown. Essentially the total station uses trigonometry to measure the distance and angle between the two “known” points to calculate the location of an “unknown” target. A target might be a pole with a prism attached to the top that a person can move around. By levelling the pole and correcting for the height of the prism from the ground, we can use the total station to calculate a geographic position within the landscape. The total station is very accurate and precise at calculating the unknown position, however, it is crucial that the “known” GPS coordinates are also both accurate and precise, with a low margin of error. This year the coordinates for the geographic control points used by the total station are gathered using a GNSS system. GNSS uses satellites from America and Russia to triangulate geographic locations on Earth. In Wathayn, we have set up a localised base station to collect real-time differentially corrected coordinates so that we are able to know our true geographic position when collecting data in the field. This is crucial as excavation naturally involves removing objects from one context to another (e.g. digging sediment and moving it using buckets to a spoil heap), however, the initial placement of these objects (whether it be charcoal, an artefact or shellfish remains) is essential for understanding how a combination of human and natural processes may have interacted to create the landscape features which are visible today. Once an object is removed from its context, much of its information potential in terms of understanding human-environment interaction is lost. Therefore, we need a highly accurate and precise method for collecting the spatial information associated with different items in the landscape as this contextual information can only be collected once.

Using the robotic total station to “draw” stratigraphic sections

Archaeological information is not often recorded in a consistent manner, making interregional analysis between different institutions and projects difficult (sometimes impossible!). Last year we used traditional methods for recording the internal structure of the shell deposits, using graph paper and pencils to record the different layers and features present in the section of the trench walls. Drawing the sections by hand is time consuming and difficult using a line levels and measuring tapes. As you can imagine, there can be a lot of variation in how the different layers of shell and features within each deposit are represented by different individuals. Representation of a particular stratigraphic layer may vary depending on an individual’s level of experience or their learned academic discipline, not to mention whether their handwriting is legible or not! The stratigraphic information was later digitised in the lab once we left the field. This year we are trying something new, using a robotic total station to “draw” the stratigraphy. After excavation and cleaning down of the exposed sections, the survey team (after some discussion), places coloured nails along layer boundaries and around features in the trench wall. The total station is then used to measure the coordinates of each nail. Each point is assigned a number of characteristics (or attributes), which define the layer above. These attributes are tabulated and stored within the total station alongside their associated geospatial information. For example, some of the attributes for defining a layer include: soil colour, texture, fabric, boundary form and description, as well as proportion of shell relative to sediment and degree of fragmentation. At the end of each work day, this data is transferred to a computer and converted to a shapefile which can be inserted into a 3D landscape and the points converted to line features. The stratigraphy then becomes a 3D object which can be rendered and georeferenced with colour and/or texture information collected using photographs and charts. This approach has many benefits. Some examples include: no need to use a line or spirit level in the field, more than one stratigraphic section is able to be viewed at the same time and at any angle, descriptions are associated with the drawing, and 3D drawings are able to be saved, accessed and viewed by many people at once, simply by copying and distributing the map files. This is the first time that we have attempted to use this method and the results are looking very promising!

Last Day Reflections

Today was the last day of our fieldwork at Wathayn. Hard to believe that it has been nearly three weeks since we stepped out of the plane into warmth of FNQ. The “build-up” has begun and each afternoon the air is still and heavy with anticipation…but it will be another month or two before it REALLY gets humid, just about the time that Simon Holdaway and I will return for another reconnaissance trip – lucky us!!

We’ve had a great field season: 20 mounds scanned, photographed, described, mapped, excavated, logged, sampled and…photographed again, all in the space of just 16 days. A fantastic effort by the great group of workers we’ve had with us each day from Napranum: Ross, William, Douglas, Graham, Floyd, Jack, and absolute dedication and hard work from our wonderful group of student volunteers – Annelise, Casey, Bernie and Eloise. You’ve probably got to know them almost as well as we have, through this blog – I’m sure you’ll agree it’s been great to learn about this project through the personal perspectives of these budding archaeologists. Tim, the “super” tech, has been unerring in his driving of the laser scanner. Shezani Nazoordeen and Siobhan Walker from Riotinto have also played a big part in keeping everything running smoothly, making sure that our vehicles were fuelled up, the water bottle were filled, the lunches packed, and the workers picked up from Napranum every day, as well as taking part in the fieldwork. And we’ve been really pleased to have Beatrice, Caroline, Elizabeth and Steph with us every day, sorting the ever increasing mountain of shells we’ve collected from the mounds. Justin Shiner, Riotinto Specialist Archaeologist and Partner Investigator on this project, has been tireless in his efforts to manage this project, at the same time as keeping up with all of his many responsibilities. As the primary liaison person between the company, the Indigenous Traditional Owners and us, Justin’s management skills were tested to the max…and he came up trumps!

While the data (all 35 GB of it!) remains to be crunched, we will leave here with a much deeper understanding of the relationships between the physical and biological environment, and the people who lived here in the past, and constructed the mounds. There are landforms that indicate that the environment around Wathayn has markedly changed over the last few thousand years. Craig’s lines of auger holes point to one and perhaps two former shorelines, marked by low gravelly and sandy ridges, much like those found at Red Beach, on the northern shore of the Mission River, today. The innermost shoreline may even have been a low sea cliff cut into the bauxite when sea level was 1-2 meters higher than present, around 7,000 years ago. Two lines of shell mounds sit atop these geomorphic features, suggesting people were attracted to them in the past. Since then the shoreline has prograded as the estuary filled with fine grained sediments, and saltmarsh and mangroves now separate people from the open marine environment favoured by Anadara in this region. While we await confirmation of the temporal pattern of mound construction through radiocarbon dating of the charcoal and shell samples collected from the mounds, it appears that past sea level change and shoreline evolution have played a key role in determining people’s access to resources, i.e. the Anadara that ended up in the shell mounds at Wathayn.

We finished up at Wathayn with a visit from students and teachers from Western Cape College. They listened attentively while Justin, Auntie Beatrice, Simon and I waxed lyrical about Wathayn and the story that was unfolding, particularly about the environmental change over the past few thousand years. Next time they go to Red Beach, they may see it with a changed perspective!


Then back to the Community Relations building for a BBQ lunch with our Traditional Owner hosts to thank them for allowing us to work in their country. We’d also like to thank all the staff at Riotinto, especially the Community Relations people who have put up with us invading their offices for the past three weeks – life will be more peaceful here next week!

Final cleaning and packing away of equipment, checking of data files, saving and backing up the backups, labels on boxes of samples to be uplifted when we’ve left….and we’re done….till next time!!

See you all next year!!

Trish Fanning, co-director, WARPPED

9th September, 2011

Blue Bums and Little Critters.

They are everywhere!

In the air, in the trees, on the ground, under leaves, under rocks, in bedrooms…even in the bathrooms!


They can bite and sting you and some can kill you; some of the bigger little-critters can even eat you.
They have lots of legs, some have wings, some are hairy, some are slimy, some are scaly and some have all these attributes!

Big little-critter skin.

I have encountered some dead ones and lots of live ones.

Here is a run down of my top 10 little critter encounters (In no particular order)

1 ) The most exciting dead little-critter was a dark bluish grey slimy one that had recently been run over close to where we have been working, This little-critter could kill you (if his guts weren’t hanging out)
Death Factor: 5/5 Cute Factor: 2/5 Gross Factor: 3/5 Annoyance Factor: 3/5

Scaled little-critter


2 ) My next in the top ten little-critters that I have meet was fat (for a critter) slimy and alive. He was hiding in my gear tent one morning; out he hopped in search of breakfast or to be breakfast (But what ever eats this little-critter will be killed by his toxic slime) I hear that some people have been known to lick there backs for fun?
Death Factor: 3/5 Cute Factor: 1/5 Gross Factor: 4/5 Annoyance Factor: 3/5

Slimy little-critter

3 ) Ants with green bums, they might sound like something from a Pixar movie but these little nasties make nests in trees, and then fall out in the wind landing on the ground, they climb onto you, then bite (sort of like a pin prick) they go for places that cause most pain; like groins and behind my right ear.
There must be about one zillion of these little-critters every square meter around here. Not as bad as the bull ant apparently, they are known as meat eaters.
Death Factor: 1/5 Cute Factor: 4/5 Gross Factor: 3/5 Annoyance Factor: 5/5

Pixar little-critters

4 ) The unseen menace that can bite you without pain or discomfort and I think it attacks in the night in my room. How do I know its a little critter and not a big critter? I still have my limbs and there is the odd red lumpy thing, I guess they could be spiders, but as yet I have not seen who is doing the night damage.
Death Factor: 1/5 Cute Factor: 1/5 Gross Factor: 4/5 Annoyance Factor: 3/5


Nasty little-critter


5 ) Cockroaches the size of small rodents that can move not only devour food scraps but also open your fridge and empty its contents.
Death Factor: 1/5 Cute Factor: 1/5 Gross Factor: 3/5 Annoyance Factor: 4/5

Even little-critters from the water like to have a go at you.

6 ) A large (about 2 meters long) brown slimy one. Well I didn’t actually encounter him I only saw evidence that he was getting bigger.
There is so many little critters for him to eat I am sure he sheds his skin on a very regular basis.
Death Factor: 5/5 Cute Factor: 2/5 Gross Factor: 3/5 Annoyance Factor: 2/5

A growing little- critters skinBig little-critters skin.

7 ) This sad little-critter lives in my bathroom tap. He plopped one day when I turned the tap on and proceeded to go down the plughole for a swim. I see him every other day and he seems to be a happy wee thing although probably sick of soapy water.
Death Factor: 0/5 Cute Factor: 5/5 Gross Factor: 0/5 Annoyance Factor: 0/5

Soapy little-critter

8 ) To keep my tap dweller company is a colony of pale green geckos that keep the really litter critter population down in the bathroom.
Death Factor: 0/5 Cute Factor: 4/5 Gross Factor: 1/5 Annoyance Factor: 0/5

9 ) The coolest living critter was a really big green slimy version of the tap dweller, this one also liked to hang out in a toilets (I didn’t know frogs were like that.)
I thought it was an ornamental air freshener until I noticed it pulsing.
Death Factor: 0/5 Cute Factor: 5/5 Gross Factor: 0/5 Annoyance Factor: 0/5

Lazy little-critter

10 ) Finally flying-critters. Some you hear but never see, they fly right past my ears sounding like large bumble bees, but nothing is there as I go screaming into the bush waving my hands around my head. Horse-flies that make circuits of the brim of my hat looking for a landing spot to attack your flesh. There are Dragonflies as big as small birds, very cool, especially considering that they don’t bite.
And there are a million other unidentified flying-critters that constantly harass and attack you when ever you feel that you might start to enjoy the bush.
Death Factor: 0/5 Cute Factor: 2/5 Gross Factor: 3/5 Annoyance Factor: 5/5

Flying little-critter

I finished my task of laser-scanning shell mounds today and celebrated the Weipa way by devouring freshly harvested local shell fish: Blue Bums (tasted/texture a bit like squid) and Mud Clams (like oysters but a bit chewy) both very nice and cooked in a fire.

Yum Yum Blue Bums and Mud Clams

Well this is my second tour of duty in this very hot little-critter infested land, I hope to be back again next year and continue my quest for encounters of more little- critters and maybe enjoy a Blue Bum or two along the way.


Tim Mackrell

A Ton Of Fun…

90 minutes till download complete ….
At the end of every fieldwork day we have been downloading all the data from the days total station points, E4 CFG files (basically these make a spreadsheet in Microsoft access), the 3D laser scanner, the multiple digital cameras, the DGPS and numerous sample bags. As you can probably guess this is often a very lengthy and involved process, however it is incredibly necessary.
As we are in the last few days now this process is even more involved as we have been checking and re-checking all the data to ensure there have been no errors or omissions in the data. At times this process can be quite intense and everyone has specific jobs. The most time intensive of all the data downloads would have to be the total station download; as we are currently averaging between 200-400 points a day (depending on how many times we have to change stations as our line of site is very blocked by trees). The process of downloading total station data involves copying all the points from the total stations internal memory to a USB stick and then copying them across into ArcGIS. Once at this stage the real work begins, all the points need to be read from our written record in order to associate them with their shell mound by each code point type. A code point is basically a name chosen for each point from a master list that describes what a point is, for example we have been using such codes as trenchupper, elevation section, RC shell, OSL or Scanner target. Once this process is complete we can finally start our backup download, a process also done every day.

Eloise, here in Weipa awaiting the Microsoft download time to just stop jumping and finish already.

Warp Speed

Its full speed ahead, all hands on deck and various other maritime clichés during the last week here in Weipa. The organised chaos is proceeding at full steam with everyone well and truly locked into Archaeology mode. Our newest member, Fiona continues to collect samples from the excavated shell mounds to take into the lab in which she will carry out radio carbon dating. This method involves counting the proportions of different carbon isotopes to calculate the date of the object that contains carbon.
Today was rather mild (in North Queensland terms) although there will still episodes of scorching heat where the sun seems to find you wherever you go, something my Scandinavian skin colour doesn’t agree with. Lucky for us we have all the sun protection available to man thanks to our Rio Tinto Partners and we have all escaped sun burn. Once more we had a birthday on site, I myself turned 22 today. Unfortunately I was not treated to a tiara like our friend Eloise but i did have a cracker of a day and may celebrate at the pub with a quiet beer tonight (after work is finished). Also, the girls made me a lovely card on the way back from the field.
For a present I am charged with playing with one of my favourite gadgets tomorrow, the fluxgate gradiometer. This machine detects localised changes in the magnetic field which can correspond to buried archaeological features such as the effect of fire from a hearth. While a very useful archaeological tool the machine does look like it belongs on an episode of star trek.

Bernie the Birthday Boy

A Mound of a Time

This weekend we were fortunate enough to visit another part of the region, an area called Lueang, located across the Mission River. We travelled in two 4×4 Landcruisers to the site, which was a pretty bumpy ride across an unsealed trail. We traversed empty river and stream beds, and took detours around fallen trees. The environment was burnt and ashy, the eucalypts showing signs of burning right up into the canopy, indicating a very hot fire. The purpose of the trip was to gain a better idea of the geomorphology of the region, and to potentially locate a modern analogue for palaeoenvironment sindicated by preliminary auger holes dug at Wathayn. We visited both Bouchet and Red Beach (named after the small red bauxite pisoliths which scatter the beach), and saw Anadara shell cemented into beach rock. These have been sampled for radiocarbon dating.

A lot of shell.

Another exciting aspect of the trip was to visit some of the sites which Geoff Bailey has previously visited and excavated. As we drove down onto the extensive mudflat, we saw three huge shell mounds, much larger than those we have excavated, located right next to the river. These mounds were at least 5m high, with steep sides and a flattened top. We also saw the bush turkey mound which Bailey, Chappell and Cribb excavated in 1993. This mound was originally excavated to distinguish the cultural features on the landscape from those which we naturally created (for example by storm or wave action, or animal activity). It was great to visit some of these sites, especially as Geoff was with us to explain about the historical context of the excavation and some of the theories of then and now. Sadly we bid adieu to both Geoff and Craig yesterday. So with only four days to go and one day allocated for packing up, there’s still a lot left to do. Sampling, drawing, scanning and collecting data points…but we’re on a roll and the project is looking really good. Until next time…
Casey Beresford

Something about Time…

To start another fine, sunny and hot day here in Weipa this morning we had a team meeting to take stock of where we are in our fieldwork and what areas we now need to focus on. Creating a simple but efficient table on the old humble white board, it seems where are on track and just need to keep powering through with just over a week left in the field.

A pre-site meeting.

Work was hard today, though very productive. As it is now September, Weipa has entered what is known to the locals as the ‘build up’, meaning the weather is getting hotter and hotter and the people sticker and sticker before the wet season comes. With tasks divided to focus on advancing all areas of our dig we made a lot of progress today, particularly in the date sampling and stratigraphic drawings of the mounds.
Shell sorting with the traditional owner ladies (as seen on youtube or just below) continued today with a very interesting find. Discovered today was a type of barnacle, which tends to attach to larger shell species and can be used to indicate a generally cleaner water environment with low wave action helping to form an idea of the past marine environment.

Also very interesting are some of the geomorphic indicators that Craig has interpreted from his numerous auger holes. Current indications show that the area where the youngest shell mounds are (from last years dates) was an estuarine mud flat creek with a big long shallow intertidal beach ecosystem was inexistence that at some unknown time gradually pulled back towards the current coastline. So as it’s looking now the next seven days are looking to be quite exciting, productive and informative.

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