Christmas jigsaw puzzle of the ceramic variety

Christmas is an excellent time for jigsaw puzzles. One of my longtime favourite novelists, Margaret Drabble, asserts that ‘jigsaws are a joy at Christmas, the ideal gift, the perfect employment’. Further, she says, they ‘give you an illusion of order and progress when all around is chaos’. What could be better? Part of the jigsaw’s appeal is the challenge, and that you can do them either on your own or with others. Apparently, they’re also good for the brain.

I was very fond of jigsaws as a child, they were often a birthday or Christmas present. My Aunty Pat in America once sent me a jigsaw of a field of sunflowers. It wasn’t terribly big, but its key feature was a table on the side of the box that listed times to completion (30 minutes, 20, 15, 10, 7) and assigned a label to those times (average, good, very good, excellent, genius). Naturally, nothing would do me until I reached genius level. This took me many days one summer, on the dining room table, completing the jigsaw over and over and over again.

Fast forward many years, and a harmless childhood diversion is reaping rewards. For I am cataloguing artefacts from the excavations at Baker’s Flat. And some of the ceramic shards could well be from one original artefact. In the picture below you can see how I’ve spent some of the Christmas break. There are 53 ceramic fragments, all potentially from the same Rhine pattern plate (intact example pictured on the right). Each fragment has been catalogued, labelled and photographed in the Flinders University Archaeology Lab. They are all from Trench A, but from two different contexts and four different squares. Armed with low residue masking tape (thanks to the tech officers in the lab), the challenge was on.

53 ceramic shards, all potentially from the same plate.

53 ceramic shards, all potentially from the same plate.

It didn’t take too long to fit the first pieces together – ranking myself at genius level here.

The easy bits, completed fast.

The easy bits, completed fast.

But the last ones took ages – possibly even below average level, if I’m being honest. Part of the challenge was that a plate is three dimensional, so various supports had to be contrived using kneadable erasers and Blu Tack. And my masking tape skills are clearly not expert. However, here is where I’ve ended up. Of the 53 fragments, 52 conjoin with at least one other piece. It is now as complete as it can be.

As complete as it can be.


Posted in Baker's Flat, Cataloguing, Material culture, Research, hmmm | Tagged , , , ,

Tales from the trenches – Philomena the digging doll

Recently, I was reading The Archaeology of Time Travel. And I was reflecting on the idea that people who visit historic sites experience them in a more ‘real’ way when they’re presented as living history or re-enactments or historical role play. A bit like Bunratty Castle in Ireland or Land of Legends in Denmark. This opening of windows to the past is rather like time travel.

Now the closest I can get to a re-enactment right now is the sudden and unexpected appearance of an Irish doll in the trench at Baker’s Flat when we were excavating in April. Baker’s Flat, of course, was the long-standing Irish settlement in nineteenth century South Australia that is the focus of my PhD research. And note that I’ve been known myself to engage in a bit of re-enactment (tiny budget, limited talent).

We called this Irish doll Philomena (or Fill-o-mena), because when she appeared, we were working our way through a lot of fill. But she hunkered down, and did her best to help. Not so handy with a trowel really – she was hampered by her ceramic arms which were difficult to move. But she did carefully adhere to the work health and safety requirements of wearing long sleeves, a head covering, and closed-in shoes.

Philomena tries her hand with a trowel

Philomena tries her hand with a trowel

She came into her own, however, with the brush, especially in the hearth. All those years of sweeping out fireplaces in the early morning, perhaps.

Philomena brushes out the hearth

Philomena brushes out the hearth

Philomena was ephemeral, a fleeting look into the past. She appeared for a week or so in the trench. Now she lives with a small local girl. If I hadn’t recorded her with photos, nobody would even know she’d been there. Especially, I guess, because most people on the site found her fairly creepy. Perhaps it was her intense nature, she had a very fixed stare.

Petersson, B. and C. Holtorf (eds) 2017 The Archaeology of Time Travel: Experiencing the Past in the 21st Century. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Excavation, Field work, Irishness, Museums | Tagged , , , , , ,

Tales from the trenches – the wee tree

The image below records, from a bird’s eye view, the excavation at Baker’s Flat in April this year. Look to the top left and you can see our four work vehicles lined up. To their right the trench – Trench F – with a large spoil heap beside it. In the context of the overall site, it looks tiny and insignificant!

Below the trench is the blue marquee where we bagged and labelled artefacts, right beside our favourite pepper tree where we had lunch and breaks. You can see the plough lines where the wheat was sown, and so yellow because the wheat stubble was still knee height when we were there.

Toilet Walk

Bird’s eye view of Baker’s Flat. Image: Ian Moffat, Jarrad Kowlessar

At the bottom right of the picture is our other favourite pepper tree, colloquially known as the wee tree. We used its facilities regularly over the course of the fortnight. And look, you can see a line through the stubble, where we walked up and down to the wee tree. See the fork in the road near the top where people were either going under the pepper tree or back to the trench; the line is not so defined here as the rest of the walk, where we clearly followed each other like sheep along the path of least resistance. We didn’t even know we were doing this.

After we left, a flock of sheep was put into the paddock to clear the wheat stubble. So the toilet walk would have lasted for maybe a month. But it was captured using a drone by Ian Moffat, stitched together by Jarrad Kowlessar, and recognised by me and Jarrad. Is this an archaeological example of an archaeologist’s work? It’s certainly the remains of human activity, although ephemeral, and we’ve recorded it, even if we didn’t know we were doing so.

Posted in Baker's Flat, Excavation, Field work, Research, hmmm, South Australia | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Unearthed: an exhibition inspired by Baker’s Flat

Unearthed is an exhibition of paintings by Lynn Mack, inspired by some of the ceramic and glass artefacts excavated at Baker’s Flat. It’s part of South Australia’s History Festival, and you can find it at the entrance to the Central Library at Flinders University. If you are student or staff, you have 24 hour access and every opportunity to take a few minutes’ time out and immerse yourself in art with an archaeological twist. Lynn and I launched the exhibition yesterday, and it will be open until Saturday 13 May (now extended to 31 May).

Lynn has used some of the ceramic and glass artefacts from last year’s dig at Baker’s Flat as a catalyst for exploring her experiences as an Irish woman migrating to South Australia. There are 12 oil paintings on wood panels. Some feature small ceramic shards, with different patterns and colours. Others focus on green and brown fragments of glass.

What I love about the paintings is the memories that they echo. A glass colour or ceramic pattern is echoed in the background colours and patterns of the painting, which echo the wallpaper familiar to all Irish people of a certain age, who remember their parents’ or grandparents’ homes. The fragments of teapots echo all those cups of tea that Irish people share at the kitchen table. And where Lynn has scraped back the paint to expose the wood panel, this echoes the archaeological excavation process, where we scrape back layers to find the truth. These paintings are Lynn’s truths – about living in a new place but carrying your history with you.

Unearthed is one of seven events hosted by Flinders University during History Month, including two art exhibitions, a book launch, two public lectures, a meet and greet with archaeology students, and the showing of a documentary on the 1974 student occupation of the Registry Building on the Hub big screen. Find them all on the History Festival website by searching for flinders university in the search bar.

History Festival notice

Unearthed – part of South Australia’s History Festival, listed on page 24 of the guide


Posted in Art and archaeology, Baker's Flat, Material culture, Migration, South Australia | Tagged , , , , , ,

Me and Pangur Bán

On my first day at my first university—1980, UCD, Belfield campus—I made lifelong friends and was very taken by the sculpture of a monk and his white cat, Pangur Bán. I’d heard of ancient monks of course – round towers, Book of Kells, illuminated manuscripts, the whole kit and caboodle. But Pangur Bán was new to me.

The sculpture, based on a 9th century poem written in Irish, was created in 1976 by a German-born Irish sculptor, Imogen Stuart. And if like me, you would like to see it again, don’t go to the Arts Building where it was in 1980; it’s now outside the library in the Health Sciences Centre. (The cat is under the small bench seat, by the way, stretched to catch an errant mouse.)

Pangur Ban 1976

So, below are some verses from the Pangur Bán translation that I am most familiar with. The full poem can be seen here, and there are also variants by Frank O’Connor and Eavan Boland here.

I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
’Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

’Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
’Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

As luck would have it, this year I have been married thirty years. And the anniversary coincided with a holiday in Ireland, and a visit to the workshop of Michael Quirke in Wine Street, Sligo, ‘woodcarver, wordweaver and witness to the power of myth’. We talked about marriage, myth, folklore, and writing a PhD. And then he made for me in the following weeks a beautiful four-sided sculpture. In the image below, you can see the salmon of knowledge swimming below everything, and on the sides:

  • Girl of many gifts/virtues/qualities; triple spiral of breasts and womb—fertility, creativity and imagination; the cauldron (cup/grail) of generosity; three beaked bird – ultimate feminine power;
  • Two ravens—thought and memory; mac tiré, the wolf—guardian;
  • Heron—spreading knowledge; butterfly for change; the waxing, full and waning moon symbolising the cailín (girl), bean (woman) and cailleach (hag/old woman), with the Irish hare for misneach (courage);
  • A bird flying free – new beginnings; and the cleric’s hand writing his manuscript accompanied by his cat, Pangur Bán.

You can’t see the pearl in the top, included to mark the pearl wedding anniversary.

Of all the elements in the carving, I am most pleased with Pangur, who seems to have accompanied me through all my university experiences, and is still there, with rather a smug cast to his face, probably thinking that he is quicker at catching mice than I am at writing words.


Pangur the white cat

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments