A feather in CHL’s cap: Mornington fieldschool leads to industry employment for students and Partnerships with industry and Traditional Owners

A feather in CHL’s cap: Mornington fieldschool leads to industry employment for students and Partnerships with industry and Traditional Owners

“I am thrilled that the Mornington Peninsula Field School was such a success. I followed the progress of the students on social media and thoroughly enjoyed getting a window onto the world they were uncovering. Field Schools are vital for equipping our students with the skills they need and for building respectful relationships with the local custodians of the land. The shared knowledge and understanding that results is transformational.” – CAP Dean, Hellen Sullivan

It was not long ago when CHL’s Dr Ben Shaw and Bianca DiFazio, the Director of Heritage Insight, turned a shortcoming into an opportunity—organising the first successful field school since the pandemic. To fill the gap, they decided to organise an onsite archaeology experience within Australia—the Mornington Peninsula Field School. Hear how it all came together and what the students had to say about it.

The idea for an archaeology field school in Victoria developed in late 2020 when it was apparent that international travel would not be possible for some time. It was originally intended as a temporary stand in for the Papua New Guinea field school. However, Ben figured that it was going to take just as much time and effort to arrange the logistics, so why not make it something special for students who had not had a field school opportunity for the last couple of years and connect them with industry professionals. With this is vision in mind, Ben reached reach out to good friend and colleague, Bianca DiFazio, the Director of Heritage Insight, a well-respected archaeological consultancy company based in Melbourne, and pitched the idea of the field school. It was an ambitious undertaking involving many industry partnerships, but if successful, would be a one-of-a-kind offering in Australia.


More Than Just Digs…

Bianca and Ben were clear they were not after an experience that was tantamount to just digging a hole in the ground. Rather, it was to introduce students to the many diverse organisations involved in regulating and managing cultural heritage in Victoria from policy makers in government to field practitioners. The aim was to highlight that there are many ways of working in the cultural heritage industry and to provide points of contact for students who were about to graduate and make their first steps into professional employment, or to follow up on their interests early in their degree.

In terms of the genesis of the field school, at the time they commenced, there did not appear to be any field schools that had such a widespread focus on the consulting archaeology/heritage industry, and as the majority of archaeology graduates will work in this sphere it seemed like this was something that was urgently needed. The subsequent program was designed to give students a grounding in archaeological field methods and—especially close to their heart!—to work On Country with Bunurong traditional owners and exposure to a range of professionals from heritage industry to illustrate to our future professionals that there is a range of ways to work in cultural heritage management. The speakers who conducted the evening seminars—or fireside chats as Ben calls them—came from consulting, First Peoples-State Relations, Heritage Victoria, Parks Victoria, and the Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, and provided unique opportunities for the students to hear how the industry works and to ask questions, which they very much did.

Planning the field school was nothing short of arduous and painstaking amidst significant logistical challenges posed by COVID. You can read more about the journey here. Yet, despite the odds, and with a rigorous COVID plan in place, the field school ran in February without any disruptions, and with all their partner organisations able to contribute as planned. The weather also read the script and it was beautifully sunny and calm for the two weeks. It was a long road of planning and postponements, but in the end the field school exceeded all expectations.


A Holistic Approach to Learning and Development

The field school initiative fits into the ANU strategic vision on a number of key fronts. First and foremost, as cultural heritage practitioners we have an obligation to the Aboriginal communities we work with. One that Ben has always taken very seriously, and one that aligns with a key value of ANU to engage respectfully and sustainably with First Nations Peoples. To recognise the contribution and essential role that traditional owners have in imparting knowledge to students on the field school Ben obtained ANU-sponsored placements, so the Traditional Owners who were involved got full course credit for completion. Each year, different representatives from Bunurong will be enrolled in the field school, with the credit able to be cross credited to a number of tertiary education programs.

Ben said “By far the best experience was seeing these students develop so much during the two short weeks away. Most had no experience working on an archaeological site, and day-to-day conditions could be rough—especially at Cape Schanck, which is exposed to the strong Bass Strait winds.”

With the diverse range of speakers and partners involved all the students connected in some way to the content, and some have already been offered employment through partner organisations once they finished their studies!


The Ultimate Student Experience

Here’s what some of the students had to say about their experience.


Garth Thompson

“Professionally, I want to say the highlight was the fantastic archaeology, but really there was this one beautiful moment when one of the younger students told us he’d never heard of Cher. Naturally, our fearless leader Dr Ben Shaw saw that this travesty was rectified immediately. Dancing to “Believe” after a long week of digging in the sun was a kind of therapy that I didn’t know I needed. All to build teamwork of course…

“I actually managed to get a job in archaeological consulting in NSW right as I finished my degree, and the field school played a large role in that. Archaeological experience isn’t an easy thing to come by, and that opportunity not only made me feel more confident in my own archaeological abilities but was also cited by my employer as a big reason they took in my application so quickly. Now I’m putting in place a lot of the things Dr Shaw and the Heritage Insight team taught me over the field school. I really credit a lot of my future plans being viable to the opportunity of the Mornington dig.”

“If anyone reads this and isn’t studying archaeology not to discount this kind of program in your degree. A good portion of the team hadn’t done any archaeology before. Not only did they get a unique experience out of it, but they also enriched ours, asking questions that none of us would have ever thought of. I’m really grateful to those individuals for, in many ways, making me a better archaeologist.”

Georgia Scully

“I already worked in consulting archaeology in Canberra before the field school, which I was doing as part of my Masters at ANU, and was always looking for new opportunities to build on my career experience. I really got a lot more than that from the field school. I got a job offer from Heritage Insight, which really was the most amazing and unexpected outcome. So, to say the least the field school has definitely influenced what I’m doing now, having packed myself to move down to Melbourne about a month ago to work for Heritage Insight and have not looked back. As someone with previous experience in archaeology, it was really valuable to be in the field with other students who had little to no experience, because the questions they might ask something you’ve never thought of, and watching other people learn is a wonderful teacher.

Working with HI and Bunurong LCAC was also particularly enlightening and an absolute privilege to work with and be welcomed by the traditional owners on their Country. The relationship we built with the traditional owners (particularly Alvin) really taught us how archaeology is not just about digging up the past but bringing the stories of a very much alive people and culture to the present. This is not only a responsibility but a privilege that is an exciting and very touching experience.

The field school itself was an amazing experience, for learning and networking, but also for fun. A lot of fun. To quote HI’s Simon Coxe, “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right”, so the field school was done very right, from a screaming chicken to alert everyone an artefact was found (thanks Ben), to threats of terrible singing (again, thanks Ben), fun was definitely had.”

Director of Heritage Insight, Bianca DiFazio, said “The program has been a tremendous success from Heritage Insight’s perspective. Obviously we got Georgia Scully out of it, and we are thrilled about it! But it was also a terrific opportunity for my team here at Heritage Insight to spend time talking to the students informally and to be able to share the wealth of knowledge and experience they have amassed over their years in Victorian heritage consulting, and to play a role in shaping the future of our industry.”

Zali Boyd

“The field school was one of the most valuable and memorable experiences from my five years at ANU. Having not done any field work despite being in the last year of my masters’, I was blown away at how quickly I took to excavations and put into practice the archaeological theory that I had spent so long learning. In terms of how the program influenced where I am now—since expressing my interest in material culture research, I’ve been working on a research project with a great deal of mentorship from Ben since March. With Ben’s help I am hoping to publish the paper sometime next year, and without the connections I made during the field school, I’m not sure that this would have been possible (nor could I have even imagined it for myself).

In terms of how the program influenced where I’m going, I can say with full confidence that the fieldwork we did on the Mornington Peninsula was one of the most attractive things about my resume and was likely a big factor in me getting a job as an archaeologist and cultural heritage advisor in Melbourne later this year! I feel confident entering the professional sector mostly due to the knowledge that was provided to us by real archaeologists and cultural heritage advisors from the likes of Heritage Insight, Parks Victoria and so on.”

Ben Shaw said, “The progress Zali has made over the past year has been incredible. She has just submitted her research project report, which is of very high quality. It will be published next year.”


Mornington Peninsula Season 2….

The two weeks of fieldwork resulted in a surprisingly large assemblage of stone artefacts and historic materials being excavated. In fact, 870 stone artefacts—way more than expected—were recovered from excavation that document the precision manufacture of small stone tools, with cataloguing undertaken on a follow-up trip with students in Melbourne in August—the artefacts can’t be taken off Bunurong land. The findings will be published and will contribute significantly to the long term human history of the Mornington Peninsula.

Thanks to Stewart Fallon and the ANU Radiocarbon dating lab, we now know these objects were made around 4,000 years ago! The data will contribute significantly to regional, national, and potentially global models of past human landscape use. The students should be proud of the work they have done, with many having the opportunity to continue working on the assemblages.

The plan is to now run the Mornington Peninsula field school each year in February and to increase the annual student intake slightly to cater for the interest. The feedback from partner organisations has been overwhelmingly positive, with other industry partners coming on board next year to expand the teaching and outreach capacity. From their perspective, this kind of program has been sorely needed and CHL is extremely fortunate to have their support to deliver this unique program.

A major highlight for the organisers was seeing the confidence grow in the students, as well as the camaraderie that developed across the team. Also, hearing from some of the students that being on the field school literally changed their lives was a complete game changer!

Ben and Bianca very much look forward to seeing how the program evolves, and how they will respond to the archaeology as the seasons progress. And of course, they can’t wait to meet the next group of young archaeologists!


Applications for the next season of Mornington Adventures are now open: register now!


For more on the Mornington Peninsula Field School, check out the field school diary here.