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

A reflective moment on the entangled world of research

‘Take a sharp needle,’ he said, ‘and stick it in under the collar of your coat, and not one of them will be able to have power on you.’


The Aran Islands by J.M. Synge

This is from a story that John Millington Synge recorded on the Aran Islands, sometime between 1898 and 1901, years when he spent his summers on the islands, learning Irish and collecting stories and folklore. Of course, people of my generation will know Synge from his Playboy of the Western World, a play which we dutifully studied for the Leaving Cert. I barely remember Christy, although Pegeen Mike is unforgettable, as is the evocative language of Hiberno-English, closely observed and recorded by Synge during his times in the west of Ireland. But I do remember that it caused riots in Dublin when it was first performed at the Abbey in 1907. The riot was because he used the word ‘shift’, to wit, ‘… a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts…’.


Our English teacher for the Leaving Cert explained that shift was another term for nightdress, and that the notion of a group of lovely Irish maidens standing around in their nighties was enough to cause grave offence to the audience, casting aspersions on the virtue of said maidens, and thereby provoking a riot. Of course, there’s always more than one side to a story, and apparently ‘a shift’, at the time, was also a well-known symbol representing Kitty O’Shea and her adultery with Charles Stuart Parnell, a huge scandal. And the whole point of the play, that Christy had apparently murdered his father in a despicable act of patricide, was viewed by audiences as an offence and insult to Irish morals.

But back to the sharp needle. It’s a reference to protecting yourself from the fairies, the good people. Metal objects are common as protective charms – knives, swords, horseshoes, coins and pins have all been used. Synge also suggests here that the attraction of ‘exquisite sharpness’ was a feature, as well as some respect for ‘the instrument of toil’.

But as I read his story, I remembered something forgotten for many years. My father wore a jacket every day of his life, and under the collar was a pin. Always. I asked him once, when I was a small child, why he had a pin under his collar—because when we hugged him, we had to take care not to get jabbed. And he said that he had picked it up and put it there to keep it safe. I always assumed that he had found it on the floor and stuck it under his collar to make sure that nobody stepped on it in their bare feet. But being an accepting and gullible type of child, I never questioned why he hadn’t removed it once he found a safe place to put it—our house was not short of drawers or receptacles suitable for a small pin. So now, after all these years, I think that my dad, a civil engineer who worked with real measurements and tangible constructions, also strived to keep himself safe from the intangible world of the fairies and their deeds. And after all, his grandfather was a local GP known widely as the fairy doctor (and this is another story).

My dad in the 1940s, in one of his first jobs as a draftsman in Cardiff

My dad in one of his first jobs as a draftsman in Cardiff, early 1940s

Which brings me right back in a full circle to the entangled world of research. I read a book to find out more about folk traditions on the Aran Islands in the late nineteenth century. As I was writing up my notes, the act of writing prompted the retrieval of a long forgotten memory. Which led me to thinking about the continuance of rituals and protective practices right through to the present day. Which led me to read Emma Donoghue’s latest book The Wonder (which is terrific, by the way, and you should all read it). And to ponder on why people carry out protective rituals, but don’t talk about them that much (see also my blog post on warts). And now I am going to have to read Hodder’s Entangled again. Just to be sure.

Further reading
Donoghue, E. 2016 The Wonder. London: Picador.
Hodder, I. 2012 Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Merrifield, R. 1987 The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. New York: New Amsterdam Books.
Synge, J.M. 1998 [1906] The Aran Islands. Belfast and St Paul, Minnesota: The Blackstaff Press.

Posted in Folk charms, Folk traditions, Material culture, Research, hmmm, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , ,