Editorial: The Past is Present

3 June 2015 Alan Attwood

Editorial: The Past is Present

At first sight this could be rubbish: pieces of broken crockery, twisted cutlery, broken bottles, lots of marbles. And, in many ways, it is all rubbish. A sign nearby states, “On this very site all of these small, common things were once thrown away or lost.” The site is in Melbourne’s CBD; the items are in a display case in the entrance foyer of a government building where, before the development went ahead, an archaeological ‘dig’ was conducted. The items on display were all found during this excavation.

Not everything on show prompts reverence: “This wooden lid probably covered a large backyard cesspit.” But even this warrants a second look because it is old – from the 19th century. And every piece here reveals something about the people who lived there, perhaps 150 years ago. Remnants of toys suggest a lot of children; a scarcity of horse-related items has been construed as meaning that locals lacked the means to keep horses. Walking away from the display, back into the 21st century city, is a kind of time travel.

Maybe it’s because we’ve all had archaeology on our minds, but while preparing this special ‘Dig Issue’ it has seemed like there’s been more than the usual number of news stories about the past. One, from the ABC in mid May, described plans for testing to reveal what lies beneath the surface of a Hobart park, close to the site of a former home for hundreds of orphans and underprivileged children that operated from the 1830s to 1879. A local historian was quoted as saying that a geothermal process would be used to determine whether there were human remains in the area – a process also used in the popular British archaeology series Time Team (see p19).

Then came news from northwest Kenya: stone tools thought to be 3.3 million years old have been discovered. If the dating is correct, they would predate any stone tools previously discovered by 700,000 years. Consequently, some theories about the capabilities of human ancestors may have to be revised. As often happen in these stories, an element of luck – or perhaps intuition – was involved. An Agence France-Presse report described how a French researcher and a colleague had got lost. To get a better view of their position they then climbed a hill, where they sensed “that something was special about this place”. The first of the ancient tools was later located nearby.

It’s all relative: in one context, broken plates from the 19th century have a certain allure; elsewhere, rocks once used for hammering are dated in millions of years. Australia, of course, has an especially rich prehistory. I have been to Lake Mungo, in southwestern NSW, where significant archaeological finds have been made. Historians believe there might have been humans in the region up to 50,000 years ago. It remains one of the most visually remarkable places I have seen in Australia; a place where it is easy to believe: yes, this is ancient; things happened here. I had a similar feeling, too, a few years ago on the Isle of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. Near Loch Finlaggan there are remnants of stone buildings dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, where the area was the seat of the so-called Lord of the Isles. I was there late on a Scottish summer’s evening, when it stays light until 10pm or so. The visitor centre was closed; everyone else was gone. I was able to share this stunningly beautiful spot, rich in history, with a flock of local black-faced sheep – all of which seemed indifferent to my presence. It precisely matched my idea of what an ancient place should look like. And I hadn’t even had to dig. It was just there, all around me…

Alan Attwood, Editor