April 2014 on Then Dig: Spatial Dynamics in Oceania


A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a conference on the archaeology of “spatial dynamics in Oceania” at the Institut Nationale d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, France. The conference was organised by Frédérique Valentin and Guillaume Molle on behalf of the ArScAn Équipe éthnologie préhistorique, and featured an international group of archaeologists from North America, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.

Presentations at the conference were all based in the region comprising Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, and ranged across a number of topics, including the circulation of stone tools, the evolution of agricultural techniques, the construction and use of monumental architecture, symbolic beliefs embedded in island landscapes, and more.

Archaeologists who work in the Pacific are often surprised that more people aren’t interested in what is happening in the region. Many people can immediately think of the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, pueblos in the American Southwest, and ancient ruins in Italy and Greece as places where archaeology “happens”. When it comes to the Pacific, though, most people simply imagine pleasant climate, pristine beaches, and grass skirt-wearing islanders. (Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is perhaps the one exception here, though even that island is mostly thought of in terms of its iconic moai, which are only a small part of the story).

What isn’t discussed is the fact that the dunes on those beautiful beaches often hold great archaeological treasures, especially for understanding the early settlements on many islands! This is not simply an academic issue, as people are much happier to bulldoze the dunes away in order to build yet another resort hotel when they don’t realize (or don’t want to acknowledge) that they are wiping away a major part of island history by doing so. Of course, many Pacific Islanders as well as archaeologists (in many cases the two labels can apply to the same person) are quite vocal in noting their awareness of this.

This month, we will present a selection of the many excellent papers that were presented in Paris earlier in 2014 as short-form posts to Then Dig. There were, of course, many more presentations at the conference that for one reason or another won’t make it onto this blog, but interested readers should look for a future edition of the Séances de la Société Préhistorique Française (link to the website here), which is an open-access publication that will feature papers in both English and French from the conference.

It is our hope that these posts on Then Dig will help to show how dynamic the work of archaeologists in Oceania is, both in terms of the interesting aspects of the past that we uncover, and our ongoing commitment to working closely with living Pacific Islanders.

Dr. James Flexner
The Australian National University
(Guest Editor for Then Dig, April 2014)

The Day of Archaeology 2011 (except in Texas)

In exactly 14 days time, the first ever Day of Archaeology will be in full swing, with contributions of blogs, videos, audio diaries and images from archaeologists from across the globe, including most of the States. We would love you to join us – especially if you’re from Texas. Or Kansas. Or Alabama. (no contributors from these states yet – where are you?) In fact, we welcome archaeologists, whether professional, amateur or student, from anywhere and everywhere in the USA and beyond.

What is this day for? Well, have your friends and family ever wondered what your job, hobby or study actually involves? Do you wish you could could share more with the public about what you really do? Is your working life a cross between Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, or is it all just digging and filling in spreadsheets? Now is your chance to share your life as an archaeologist with the world! The Day of Archaeology 2011 aims to give a window into the daily lives of archaeologists. Written by the participants, it will chronicle what archaeologists all over the world do on one day, July 29th 2011, from those in the field through to specialists working in laboratories and behind computers. Day of Archaeology was born after a Twitter conversation between myself and a colleague, Matt Law, during the third annual Day in the life of the Digital Humanities in March 2011. We thought it would be interesting and fun to organise something similar for those working or volunteering in (or studying) archaeology around the world.

Visit our website on to find out how to sign up.

Clipboards and Context

Archaeologists love their trowels, but for my money, when I go into the field, the thing I want with me at all times is my clipboard.

I have this one:

which I bought at Staples in 2007 and have never regretted. Technically the box makes it a little more than a clipboard, but I like it because it’s metal, durable, and holds a ton of forms, tags, bags, and graph paper.

Tracing the history of clipboards is frustratingly difficult. As near as I can tell, the clipboard is a 20th century invention. The first mention in the OED comes from the 1907 “Army and Navy Stores Catalogue” which lists:

The ‘clip’ boards for patience and bridge.‥ This board is fitted with nickel clamps on each side to keep it perfectly rigid.” (Army and Navy Cooperative Society 1969: 380).

This definition coincided with the transformation of clerical work into a full adjunct of management and organization of business (Braverman 1974: 304-312). In other words, clipboards appeared at a time when people needed new ways to track and organize systems of people and objects in space with the expansion of managerial capitalism.

Now, when people think of the clipboard, they’re more likely to think of “Cut and Paste” functions on the computer. The computer clipboard functions as a temporary space (usually RAM), for storage of text, images, or other material for later use. Though versions of something like “cut and paste” had existed since the 1960s, the clipboard system that we know today had its origins in Xerox PARC and the development of personal computer (Moggridge 2007: 63-68).

But what both of these meanings and histories have in common with archaeological use is that, in both cases, the clipboard is a container of context. In the former, the relationships between commodities, costs, and locations formed a set of material relationships that had to be maintained on paper. In the latter, the relationship between information (text, pictures, etc…), RAM location, and a user interface creates an informational context.

And of course, for archaeologists, context has always been one of our central metaphors (Shanks and Tilley 1987: xix, see also Lucas 2001 for a historical perspective). The idea of the relationship between objects is as important as the objects themselves is what separates modern archaeology from antiquarianism, and from other disciplines that abstract objects from the material and social relations in which they are enmeshed. We’ve spent a lot of time theorizing what the relationship between context and human “culture” is, but almost all of us agree that there is something about being human that can be inferred and understood by looking at the arrangements and agglomerations of objects deposited by humans in the ground. That’s context.

The great irony of archaeology is that we have to destroy context through excavation in order to recover it—under the ground, it’s invisible and protected. To explain the past, we need context, but to get context, we need to excavate. Clipboards sit at the intersection of this process, because the recording of context, of the relationships of objects in the ground, is what allows us to get at culture in the past. It’s why, more often than not, we spend at least as much time writing and taking notes as we do excavating.

For reasons that most archaeologists (including me) haven’t figured out, non-archaeologists do not have this concept as a metaphor. I’ve been involved in excavations across New England, many of them with public components, and in every case, the most popular question asked by people who visit the sites is the same:

“Have you found anything good yet?”

Now, don’t get me wrong—I love this question, but it’s kind of a mixed blessing. It’s wonderful, because it’s a teaching moment—someone is interested in what you’re doing, and you get an opportunity to explain it. Unfortunately, the question usually recapitulates the public vision of archaeology—namely, that we dig up objects for their own sake, independent of context. It’s been my experience that most of the people who come to archaeological sites think of us as over-glorified treasure hunters. And getting the conversation around to context can be a cumbersome and difficult project.

But this is where my clipboard sits again at the intersection of context, excavation, and explanation. Whenever I get this question, I pull out my clipboard, and talk about context. I show maps I’ve drawn, unfinished bags of artifacts with field tags inside noting their location, the excavation forms half filled in—whatever I’ve got. And once people get that idea—that we’re primarily excavating context as opposed to artifacts, then everything we’ve found is interesting, because everything is part of that context. Every artifact, ecofact, and feature was deposited in an assemblage as part of a cultural process which the analysis of context allows us to explain.

The Archaeologist and his assemblage, ca. 2007. Note the clipboard in the foreground.

So my clipboard ends up being a carrier of context, and allows me to integrate excavation and explanation.  Not too shabby for a piece of metal with a clip…


Braverman, H. 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Lucas, Gavin. 2001. Critical Approaches to Fieldwork: Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice. New York, Routledge.

Moggridge, Bill. 2007. Designing Interactions. 1st ed. The MIT Press.

Shanks, Michael, and Christopher Tilley. 1987. Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Army and Navy Co-Operative Society. 1969. Yesterday’s Shopping: Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907. New impression. David & Charles PLC.