• Cassie Gordon

H+G DeepDive: Categorising Four Characteristics of Archaeological Sites — Type E

Updated: Mar 21

Now, prepare yourself... I'm really going to let my nerd-flag fly here.

I like to compartmentalise things (when it suits my agenda). I think compartmentalisation it helps me better understand big concepts, and when I categorise things in a way that makes recall easier for myself I am generally a happier girl. For this deep dive I've done just that: compartmentalised and categorised.

For the purpose of this series I have identified four distinct characteristics of sites/features of hunter-gatherer-forager archaeology. This and the next three sections of the deep dive addresses some of the advantages, limitations, and controversies associated with the chronometric dating techniques associated with the proposed characteristics of the sites, referred to as a Type. The types of characteristics discussed in this section are outlined in Table 1 with examples included for each type. The site (or feature) also determines the methods and techniques that should be used for excavation, and applied to the material/s for chronometric dating. Dating techniques are discussed in the next section.

Table 1: Characteristics of sites/features discussed in this series

Type E

For the purposes of this series, Type E is characterised by the ephemeral (or impermanent and transitory) nature of the site or feature. For more on the ephemerality of archaeology check out the post for my festivalCHAT series from last year on Time's Arrow and the Law of Impermanence.

This type, Type E, is distinguished from single-occupation sites (Type S) by the kinds of traces that are left behind. The first thing that came to mind when writing this was the australopith footprint trail in Laetoli, Tanzania (Klein 2009, p. 140–141; Leakey et al. 1967). The footprints (Image 1, below) are a snapshot in time: a moment captured in memoriam that would otherwise be invisible in the archaeological record. The kind of activity that might leave such traces are the transitory artworks created by Australian Aboriginals including things like body paintings, sand art, or sand sculptures. These forms of artist expression are specifically manufactured because of their temporary nature (see Morphy 1999 for more examples of transitory Aboriginal art).

Image 1: A photogrammetric plan of the Laetoli site G showing the southern trackway. The plan was done by Heinz Rather of the University of Capetown and the image sourced from Schmid (2004, p. 51)

You can consider other aspects of ceremonial or religious practice can as Type E as well. For example, in the Wet Tropics of northern Queensland there have been oval clearings (made by human modification) identified in some rainforests. Ferrier (2015) contends that they are likely to have originally been modified as a space for ceremonies. The activities in these clearings are not ephemeral in the same way that the footprint trails of Laetoli are. The clearings (palimpsests in themselves) are only interpreted with the aid of ethnographic analogue — few archaeological traces indicate the meaning of these spaces, and the little archaeology found at such sites limits the potential for stratigraphic inference. The earth rings of Sunbury, Victoria (Images 2 and 3), some contend have lost their meaning over time but their cultural value to living descendants still endures (Bashta 2016). Ceremonial gatherings in these clearings, like on the bora grounds of remote mountain peaks in Victoria (Flood 1983, pp. 202–204), represent a vital part of life of mobile hunter-gatherer communities that the archaeological material traces may fail to reflect. Even in my own research, albeit not looking at hunter-gatherer archaeology, has to acknowledge the ephemerality of ceremony and its visibility in the material record. Sometimes sites used only once in passing can provide a more viable framework for ‘absolute’ dating and stratigraphic integrity than these Type E sites.

Image 2: An aerial image of the Sunbury Rings Cultural Landscape. Marked in the north is Emu Buttom, in the South is Rupertswood. The Rings are located in the centre of the landscape. The next image is a closer view of the Rings. (source: Bashta 2016, p. 100).

Image 3: The Earth Rings of Sunbury taken from Google Maps

The methods and techniques used on these Types of hunter-gatherer archaeology will be investigated later on in this series. Until then...

Click here to see the previous post on ethnoarchaeology

...or the next post on the Type S category

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