Ask the Archaeologist is moving!

With the all-too-near release of Ancient Australia Unearthed, I will soon be moving the Ask the Archaeologist blog to the AAU website. But don’t worry – you can still follow progress and submit questions!

Visit the Ancient Australia Unearthed site, and join the adventure!


RQ #1: Does age = value?

Thanks to H. for submitting today’s Reader Question:

Is it possible for an artefact to hold any value if its story has been lost? 

Take pennies for example. Quite a few features on a penny can help indicate its age, but for this instance, I’ll simplify our only understanding to what the date tells us. The date on a penny is its story. If you had a penny from 1820 but the date was scraped off, then the penny’s value would be nothing more than an average penny, but if the date was not scraped off and the date – 1820 – is clearly visible, then this penny would be worth far more. Without the story/date the penny would have no significant value other than its assumed ordinary status.

This is an interesting question, and it needs two answers: one for ‘date’, and one for ‘story’.


If an artefact has a date stamped onto it, fantastic. It makes the job of archaeologists and historians much easier. But as you say, there are more ways to figure out the age of an artefact than simply reading the engraved year. Features on a penny can tell us where/when the coin was minted. Failing that, we can look at context. If it was found in, say, a box in the attic, perhaps it was found with other artefacts that we can date. If it was excavated, we might be able to date the stratigraphical layer in which is was found.

Once we have a date for the penny, all it really tells us is the age of that artefact. Taken out of context, whether that be the context within a collection of artefacts excavated from a trench, or a historical or chronological context, the date itself doesn’t really give it value.

What gives an artefact value is provenance, or the ‘story’.


Provenance (the ‘story’ or context associated with an artefact) can add huge value to an artefact. Perhaps, after close examination, we conclude that the penny was minted in 1820, and we discover that pennies from this year are very common, so we might conclude that our penny doesn’t hold much historical or monetary value.

However, let’s say the date was rubbed off because the penny was kept for good luck, and the person who carried this penny around in their pocket for years just happened to be King William IV of Great Britain. The date is worn off because the King ran his fingers across the surface so often. As long as we can prove that this penny lived in King William IV’s pocket for nearly two decades, our 1820 penny of little worth transforms into a central museum piece. The fact that it has or hasn’t got a date stamp becomes irrelevant. In fact, the process of it losing its date becomes an important part of its history and, therefore, value.

Date + Provenance = information goldmine

In terms of historical or archaeological value, provenance is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You can learn a lot from a single artefact, but as soon as it becomes part of a collection, the amount of information you can glean increases exponentially.

Take Indigenous artefacts, for example. A single stone tool may not tell you much, but if it is one item in a collection of thousands, you can analyse the collection to learn when people were using these tools, how they hunted, what they hunted, whether they hunted large or small game, what sort of food they gathered, how they gathered it, whether they ate more vegetables or meat, how far they had to travel to find the raw material to make their tools…and so much more. A single artefact can’t tell you all that.

Provenance in context

Many Indigenous peoples in Australia believe that an artefact loses its meaning once it is removed from the place in which it was found. The Western idea that artefacts belong in a museum (thanks, Indiana) is not a universal perspective. After archaeologists excavate an Indigenous site, the artefacts must be returned to the Traditional Owners, who may wish to rebury them. This is true of stone artefacts as well as human remains.

One of the most heated heritage debates in Australia is fuelled by differing ideologies. Mining companies wanting to preserve Indigenous heritage believe that relocating the artefacts to a museum is the right and proper thing to do. Many Indigenous peoples believe that removing the artefacts devalues their cultural significance; the artefacts must remain in situ to retain their full value.

Ideology clash…or not?

In 1998, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music came under fire when, during building works, a lost convict road and drainage system was uncovered. Developers proposed to remove the structures, brick by brick, and rebuild them in a museum space exactly as they were found.

To my way of thinking, they may as well reconstruct them anywhere . . . what is being proposed is reconstruction, not conservation. (Justin McCarthy, Managing Director of Austral Archaeology)

After much debate, and a heated public backlash, it was decided that the road and drain must remain in situ and the extension must be built around them.

How effective is it to encase the road remains in a building like this? How does that help us understand or interpret the past? (Stephen Davies, National Trust’s Head of Conservation)

An interesting question from Mr Davies, and one that can perhaps be applied to just about any archaeological site.

Read more about the Conservatorium of Music’s approach to archaeology here.

convict drainImage credit

arch displaysImage credit

16 days to go, and $2356 short of the target!

I’m moving into the final stage of the crowdfunding campaign – there’s only 16 days left, which is not long at all! I need your help to reach the target amount of $10,000. If I don’t get over the line, I don’t get any funding.

Ancient Australia Unearthed will address a core topic on the Australian Curriculum, and for which there is currently nothing comprehensive published for a high school audience.

Pledge today, and be a part of this important milestone.

Here are some rewards to thank you for your support:

$25 will get you a gift pack with stickers, a magnet and a badge

$50 will see your name printed in the book, and you’ll receive a copy of the ebook and a cool military style hat

$100 will see your name printed in the book, and I’ll send you a signed hard copy

$250 will earn you a chat with me, your name in the book, a signed hard copy and a gift pack

$500 will get you a chat, a signed hard copy, a second copy donated to a school of your choice, and a PD session to your nominated Melbourne school

Make history. Add your name. Support Ancient Australia Unearthed.

Ancient Australia Unearthed – using archaeology to teach Australia’s ancient history

Sample pages hot off the digital press!

My wizard book designer Robyn has already begun work on the layout, illustration and design for Ancient Australia Unearthed. You wonderful people get the exclusive first peak at some sample pages. We’ve got What is History?Homo floresiensis (aka ‘The Hobbit’) and The Mount Toba eruption. (These double-page spreads are all unedited drafts, so if you spot any errors, please let me know!)
Ancient Australia Unearthed sample draft What is History (1)
Ancient Australia Unearthed sample draft Homo Floresiensis
Ancient Australia Unearthed sample draft The Mount Toba Eruption (1)
As of this afternoon, the Pozible total has nudged $3,402. Thanks to everyone for the ongoing support in bringing Ancient Australia Unearthed to life. There’s only 29 days to go, so the journey isn’t over yet. Keep spreading the word!

On the crowdfunding campaign trail

Campaigning of any kind takes a lot of effort, particularly if it’s done online. It’s sometimes hard for people to imagine what the end result will be for a creative project, so until a sample of work is produced, it’s all about the way you market your project. At least, that’s what it’s been like for me.

The challenge with a campaign like mine is that any funds raised will go directly towards design and print costs, so unless I meet my target, supporters won’t actually get to see the finished product. Talk about a Catch-22!

No target = no funds = very delayed book.

So far, the most successful campaigning has been through word of mouth, and thanks to everyone who’s helped spread the word, the funding tally stands at $3,362.

Now, though, the serious work begins – sticking address labels onto lots of colourful post cards and mailing them to potential supporters!


Day 10, and the AAU tally has passed $1000

The tally for Day 10 stands at $1065.

That’s more than 10% of the total! Thanks to the 16 amazing people who have supported so far.

New to the project page is a Frequently Asked Questions section. I’ll be adding to this as the project progresses and more questions are sent in.

If you have a question regarding the Ancient Australia Unearthed book, please send it to info [at] plainspeak [dot] com [dot] au

I’m still a fair way off the target amount to bring this book to life, so please continue to spread the word and help unearth the prehistory of Ancient Australia! A small amount can make a big difference – all it takes is a $10 pledge from 900 people to get this project over the line.

Ancient Australia Unearthed – using archaeology to teach history