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Billy Ó Foghlú is an archaeologist who is interested in everything from ancient Irish musical instruments to Indigenous Australian earth mounds. He moved from Ireland several years ago to undertake a PhD in the School of Culture, History and Language.
As he recalls, ‘Ireland’s economy was not the best at the time. One day I saw the earth mounds topic advertised and I thought it was amazing. Then I realised that there was a scholarship that actually pays you to do it. That was a lot more money than I would have gotten in a well-paying job in Ireland! So I thought, okay, I’m doing that. I thought it was the best topic in the world.’
Billy’s PhD research focuses on earth mounds in the Cape York Peninsula and Kakadu National Park. These mounds were previously a mystery to archaeologists, who didn’t know if they were natural or human-made.
‘Initially these sites appeared to be these shallow little mounds of dark, black soil, but it was impossible to identify what was in them,’ he explains. ‘Through using archaeomagnetism, x-ray diffraction, experimental archaeology, and in particular listening to the traditional owners, I found that people in the past would make these heat retainers out of termite mound clay.’
Billy’s discovery that the mounds had been used to produce heat for cooking was assisted by the wide range of expertise and world-class facilities available at ANU.
‘It always flabbergasts me that there’s always an entire department and a lab for whatever you want. It’s amazing that, whatever it is, you will find someone extremely qualified in it here within the space of a day,’ he says.
Billy is especially pleased that his research has helped to prove that the traditional owners are continuing a practice that is over two thousand years old.
‘In Kakadu I was working with traditional owners who were still using fire sticks and things that you’d find in excavations from thousands of years ago. There were active earth mounds. I remember I surveyed and excavated one site twelve hours after it had been used and there was a bus of people waiting to use it after I was done!’
Billy has wanted to be an archaeologist for as long as he can remember, and loves discovering new things about the past. He is an expert on Iron Age Irish horns, which he has also taught himself to play. His research challenged the view that the objects were simple hunting horns by demonstrating that they were in fact sophisticated and highly prized musical instruments.
‘From the archaeology you could see that these horns had been very carefully repaired and curated,’ he says.
Billy encourages potential PhD students, especially those with disabilities, to not to doubt themselves and embrace the opportunity to research a completely new topic.
‘I’ve got quite severe dyslexia and dyspraxia. I’ve found in other places that can be quite a hindrance, but at ANU it doesn’t stop you one bit.’