All buttoned up: archaeology in the outback

By Uschi Artym

Figure 1 Pierced metal tag found scattered in abundance near the rectangular stone structure at the Boulia NMP camp (photo courtesy Heather Burke).

Why are there so many buttons? And what were all the metal tags used for? (see Figure 1.) These were just two of the many questions asked by Flinders University students and archaeologists between 3-9 July 2017, who were at the time taking part in an ‘Indigenous Archaeology Field School’ in western Queensland.

Located approximately 17 km out of the Boulia township on the banks of the Muklendahma waterhole, are the remains of the Burke river (aka Boulia) NMP camp (Figure 2). During the one week field school the archaeology of the camp site was investigated and recorded by a team of nine Flinders university students, four archaeologists and four Pitta Pitta community members.

Figure 2 Drone image of the Boulia NMP site showing some of the archaeological features examined (photo courtesy Andrew Schaefer).

The main goals of the field school were to gather spatial and temporal data about the personnel and activities carried out while the NMP occupied the camp through the collection and analysis of artefacts at the site. This is particularly important as little documentation regarding the activities, layout, or even date for the cessation of police operations at the Boulia NMP camp exist. A contemporary account in The Queenslander (November 1879) mentioned:

the arrival of Sub-Inspector Eglinton bringing with him a good number of horses and troopers; the barracks are now well found of which I am sure that Mr Eglinton is thankful.

However, after Eglinton’s appointment as Boulia’s Police Magistrate in 1884, little mention is made in the available archival sources as to his successor (if any) at the NMP camp, or when it was officially closed.

Figure 3 Aerial image of Trench 1, in the long rectangular stone structure at the site, ready to start excavation (photo courtesy Andrew Schaefer).

To us as archaeologists, the Boulia NMP site is interesting for three main reasons:

  1. It contains the remains of two roughly coursed, conglomerate stone buildings (see Figure 3) and a circular stone arrangement. The Boulia township was formed after the establishment of the NMP camp but only contains one or two stone buildings that date to the same decade as the camp. Given the ephemeral nature of structures at other NMP camps across Queensland (where they primarily comprise bark huts and canvas tents) the presence of stone buildings at the Boulia camp therefore seems quite anomalous compared to other NMP camps and even for the region;
  2. There are several low earth/gravel mounds surrounded by high density lithic, ceramic, glass and metal artefact concentrations; and,
  3. Despite being a local tourist attraction, the artefacts appear to be relatively undisturbed across much of the site.

The sheer size of the site meant our archaeological efforts were concentrated on examining the two main stone structures and areas adjacent to them, as well as two mounds which had indicated positive anomalies during our initial geophysical survey (these were thought likely to be related to burning events).

Figure 4 One of the many trouser buttons documented at the site – we started to wonder, how did anyone’s trousers stay up when all their buttons seemed to be on the ground! (photo courtesy Uschi Artym).

Over the course of the week around 4000 artefacts were flagged, their locations recorded with a unique GPS co-ordinate and collected for future analysis (e.g. Figure 4). Interestingly the site had a lack of 20th or 21st century artefacts such as might be expected at a public picnic spot: we found no soft drink cans, or general rubbish items.

Figure 5 The DJI Phantom 4 Pro Advanced drone used to assist in documentation of the site (photo courtesy Uschi Artym).

During the fieldwork we made particularly good use of a drone (seen in Figure 5) to capture some high quality aerial images of particular site features (such as those shown here as Figures 2 and 3). When the drone images are geo-rectified they can be used to provide spatial information, such as building dimensions and distances, or relationships between site features, such as the earth mounds.

Across the course of the week, all of the students on the field school had a chance to practice different skills, such as site recording, excavation, sieving, (Figures 6 and 7) and surveying with a total station. Four trenches were opened up on site: two 11 m long trenches across each of the earthen mounds (Trenches 2 and 3), a 10 m long longitudinal trench excavation of the floors within the rectangular stone structure (Trench 1) and a 1 x 0.5 m trench (Trench 4) in the small round stone structure.

All the sediment excavated was then passed through fine mesh sieves to recover the artefacts. Trench 2 in particular yielded some particularly interesting finds, including a goanna vertebrae, metal fish hooks, and significant quantities of calcined animal bone, all suggesting that cooking activities might have taken place on or around that mound. Over in Trench 1 (at the main stone structure) small patches of ash, suggestive of burning, were found in the lower contexts as well as the exciting finding of several brightly coloured, small glass beads. Whether the beads once formed part of the decoration on women’s clothing/accessories or were used as exchange items with the troopers is only one of the interesting questions we will be examining in coming months.

Figure 6 Students Tony Pagels and Gary Luchi excavate in Trench 2 over an earthen mound while Honours candidate, Uschi Artym, looks on (photo courtesy Andrew Schaefer).
Figure 7 The team sieving the finds from Trench 2 as another day comes to an end (photo courtesy Lynley Wallis).

As well as the excavations to recover artefacts from sub-surface contexts, comprehensive collection of artefacts on the surface across a series of sample grids adjacent to the stone buildings and around the earth mounds was also completed (Figure 8). Surface artefacts varied from a mundane piece of broken booze bottles, to a small, heart-shaped tin tobacco tag, and many NMP uniform buttons.

Figure 8 Lynley Wallis and Wayne Beck identifying artefacts, recording their locations and salvaging the artefacts for future analysis (photo courtesy Andrew Schaefer).

The field school was not only about the digging however. An integral part of the project is the collection of oral testimony of Aborignal and non-Aboriginal people associated with the NMP. Aboriginal community members Dennis Melville, Frances Melville, Lorna Bogdanek, Val Punch, Evelyn James and Jeffrey Jacks assisted with the archaeological work and provided oral testimonies about their recollections of life on the cattle stations around Boulia and experiences of the old people and the NMP. Such a large team meant the site was at times busier than the Queen street mall (Figure 9)! We were also fortunate to have historian Jonathan Richards spent some time at the site, as well as two volunteers from Mount Isa, Raylene and Paul White, who helped out with the artefact collecting.

Figure 9 Most of the field team early one morning before we headed out to site (photo courtesy a random caravan guest at the Boulia Caravan Park who generously helped us out!).

You could say the field school was the total outback experience: heat and flies one day, pouring rain and lashing winds the next. Sometimes it was all our team members could do just to hold down the shade tent (Figure 10).

Figure 10 The most expensive tent peg in the business! Chinova Resources representative Wayne Beck saves the day as a sudden wind gust plays Mary Poppins with the shade tent (photo courtesy Lynley Wallis).

However, the abundant wildlife, (it was not unusual to see a flock of brolgas fly overhead or to run into a goanna in the creek), lunchtime cups of Bryce’s billy tea, and Frances’ deep fried scones kept everyone happy. For the students the work was over at the end of the week. For the archaeologists though, the work has just begun! Artefacts gathered during the field school have to be catalogued in the laboratory and will be used to answer, among other things why so many trouser buttons were discarded at the site. Other data contributing to the understanding of the people at the site and their activities, such as what the patterns of glass and lithic artefact scatter can tell us, and the spatial relationship between the mounds and the stone structures also have to be analysed and presented. Field schools, such as this, are great learning experiences for university students. Not only do they give students practical skills, they also provide the raw data that contributes to scholarly research within projects such as this one.


3 thoughts on “All buttoned up: archaeology in the outback

  1. I was told by an old Australian stockman that the drovers would sew new trousers skin tight and not take the trousers off until they wore out. You slept in the trousers and washed them when you soaped yourself in a water hole. Going to the toilet meant just pulling the trousers down far enough to get the job done. I don’t know if they sewed up the fly as well and didn’t need the buttons. Men do strange things when there are no women around. It is all to do with efficiency.

  2. You asked but did not answer the question on the use of the metal tags. My sujestion is that they were used to nail canvas to the timber fees of tempory buildings

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