Fragmented pottery 600 years old found on the surface, Panaeati Island, June 2022

Fragmented pottery 600 years old found on the surface, Panaeati Island, June 2022

To the Place of Trees: Destination PNG

18th August 2022

“Out of adversity comes opportunity” – Benjamin Franklin

Some wise words, like these, never go out of fashion and ring true no matter what age we’re in. A true ambassador of this motto is Dr Ben Shaw from the Evolution of Cultural Diversity Initiative (ECDI) at CHL, who has, in recent times, been instrumental in going against the tide to create ripples and make waves in the world of field research and Indigenous community knowledge exchange.

During the COVID-induced lull in travel for fieldwork, Ben turned this shortcoming into an opportunity—organising the first successful field school since the pandemic. To fill the gap of first-hand learning for students, he organised an onsite archaeology experience within Australia—the Mornington Peninsula Field School. This experience—which was originally a simple experiment to compensate for the lack of international travel for research—will now be a regular feature that everyone wants to sign up for! The Mornington Peninsula Field School has ended up being a huge success beyond everyone’s imagination, and has since even led to remarkable career opportunities for the participants.

Be sure to watch this space for more on the Mornington Peninsula Field School in the coming months. However, for how, shift focus to Dr Ben Shaw and his next endeavour – the upcoming Papua New Guinea Archaeology Field School, scheduled for September 2022.

This unique opportunity has been developed by Dr Ben Shaw to involve students from the Australian National and the University of Papua New Guinea in cutting edge archaeological research on Panaeati Island in the visually stunning island province of Milne Bay. Participants will be hosted by the local community and will stay together in Lolou village. Over the course of 2.5 weeks, they will excavate a 4,500-year-old habitation site that will reveal new information about a poorly understood but very significant time of innovation and interaction in the human past.

We caught up with Dr Ben Shaw to know more about this short program, the vision behind it and what are the future plans with respect to this and other field school experiences.

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You’ve been instrumental in recent times with the CHL Field School Program. On the back of the success of the Mornington Peninsula Field School Initiative, can you tell us more about the PNG Field School that is currently under planning?

The field school in Papua New Guinea is set up to give students a first-hand experience working with local communities to plan and implement archaeological research on traditional clan-owned lands.

It is an intensive experience run over 2.5 weeks in September during which time the students stay in the village with our host family, are involved with the community meetings, and with the development of the field research program before, during and after the in-country fieldwork.

The field school is a collaborative venture involving the University of Papua New Guinea and the National Museum and Art Galley of Papua New Guinea, providing ANU and UPNG students with the opportunity to go through the course together, learn from each other, and work together on a daily basis.

Staff from UPNG and the museum will join me to form the core teaching team. It is designed to be trans-disciplinary and in future years we will have linguists, anthropologists, climate scientists, and biologists joining us so students also get first-hand experience seeing how different disciplines and approaches can be combined to better understand the human past.

For this year, as it is the first time the field school will be run, we are keeping the team of students and staff small so we can ensure the logistics operate as smoothly as possible.

As for the destination, it is the visually stunning Milne Bay Province, otherwise known as the Massim—by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the privilege of working in! We’ll be staying on an island called Panaeati. Picture an uplifted limestone island with a population of about 2,000 people mostly covered in dense forest with a patchwork of garden plots behind a series of coastal village, and surrounded by a large, sheltered lagoon with crystal clear warm water—perfect for an afternoon swim!

Since I started working on Panaeati in 2017, I’ve stayed with Lincoln and Wendy Wesley, who quickly became like family. Together with the wider community, they have been enthusiastic about hosting students as part of the field school and to continue archaeological research on the island.

What is the itinerary, and what do you feel the participants will gain from this opportunity?

It’s a busy schedule. It has to be because we have to squeeze in international travel by plane, truck, and boat to a remote PNG island, a couple of weeks of excavation, survey and mapping, with return travel back to Canberra in time for the first week of teaching after the mid-semester break!

That being said, there will be plenty of down time when we can kick back and relax. Once we arrive in PNG, we spend a couple of days in the capital Port Moresby where we meet up with the UPNG team, visit the craft market, nature park, and explore the National Museum cultural material collections where the students will learn about the intangible significance many objects have. This is very important, since we often only find fragmented remains of cultural objects in the ground.

We then fly to Misima Island where we shop for two weeks of food supplies and meet our hosts, who will take us to Panaeati Island on two 40HP motor dinghies. To ensure we have enough fuel for the trip, it had to be ordered well in advance and delivered to the island from the mainland ready for our arrival!

Once we get to the island, we will be staying in a couple of houses in one of the villages. Before any work kicks off, we have a day or so of meetings to introduce the students to the community and to discuss with everyone what we will be doing as previously agreed. On Sunday, we take a break to visit one of the nearby islands for a picnic, swim and walk around.

We are working at a site called Mumwa that I initially excavated in 2018–2019, which has cultural material dating back 4,500 years, and perhaps much older in some areas. The plan is for the students to open up a series of large trenches to carefully record anything that was left behind by the people who once lived there. Mostly rubbish, but rubbish that is hugely informative about how people adapted to island ecosystems that have changed dramatically over time with fluctuating sea levels. This includes discarded shell and bone from the food they ate, bits of pottery from broken clay pots, fragments of stone tools, and impressions in the sediment from infilled post holes where houses once stood, fireplaces where food was cooked, and remains of many other activities.

Whatever we find we record in detail so we can develop a better understanding of life on the island thousands of years ago. On the other side of the island, there is a spot with great potential for having preserving evidence of human use during the Last Ice Age. The students will be divided into teams with a small group venturing off each day to test this area for any evidence left in the ground.

So, the students will learn by doing. Each day they will be with clan members whose land they are working on. They will learn to be inclusive, honest, transparent, culturally sensitive, and adaptive when working on traditional land, and to strike a balanced approach between setting out to answer our own research questions with the questions the community are interested in finding answers to.

What, according to you, are the top highlights of this field school and why?

Living and working with the community, for sure. It is the best part of doing fieldwork in PNG. PNG is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse places on earth. Whether you are studying archaeology or pursuing another profession, if you plan on working in the region, this field course will provide you with a grounded understanding of PNG society and reinforces an ethical approach to working with communities. You will also be directly involved in cutting-edge research that is revealing new information about the human past that includes how people adapted to living on these island since the Last Ice Age, and potentially since people first set foot in Australia and New Guinea—which at that time was a single landmass!

What is your advice to students from all walks of life who might be considering this opportunity?

I would say give it a go; you don’t have to be an archaeology student to enrol, and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Working in a remote context with a local community appeals to a lot of people, but many hesitate to get involved because it is outside of their comfort zone. The program is all about people, and while we are studying people who lived in the past, I’ve designed it with people I have worked with for years who I trust to look out for everyone, so that you can safely step out of your comfort zone to develop and thrive in a supportive environment. I have no doubt the students involved will learn as much from the community as they will from the teaching team, and will walk away with some amazing skills and memories that will enable them to work collaboratively and ethically with communities in the Pacific region.

Anything else you’d like to add?

In the Misima language, Panaeati roughly translates to the place of the tall trees, a reference to the tall coconut trees and a species of Rosewood (Malawi tree) that mainly grows on the island. The Panaeati Islanders are master carvers and carpenters. They make most of the sailing canoes used in the island province for inter-island maritime trade and fishing.

The Massim region is famous for a complex inter-island exchange system called Kula that primarily involves the trade of shell necklaces in one direction between trade partners and shell armbands in the opposite direction. Kula still operates today, and Panaeati was once a major hub within the Kula network. The archaeological site the students are working on is starting to reveal new information about the early formation of this important social network.

Getting the course up and running has taken a while, and of course it had to be postponed due to the COVID pandemic. I started talking with the Panaeati community about a field school in 2020 after I finished an ARC DECRA fellowship in the region, with Panaeati one of the islands I spent a lot of time on. In June this year shortly after international borders opened, I made a quick trip to Port Moresby and out to the island to assess whether it was safe to take students out for a field school.

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Although I had kept in touch with people on the island as the pandemic unfolded, I wanted to seek community permission again and to make sure there was space for the students and staff to stay. I couldn’t believe it when I turned up and the community had built a new house over the lagoon for us to stay in. Pretty flash! Needless to say, after years in the making, I’m looking forward to kicking the field school off on the 3rd of September 2022!

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Exciting times lie ahead for the lucky ANU postgraduate students who have enrolled and successfully secured a spot in this field school. We wish Dr Ben Shaw and his team all the very best for this adventure, and we will be sure to share their experience with you once they’re back!

If you’re interested in exploring archaeology or other field school opportunities with us, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us!

Contact us at education.chl@anu.edu.au to know more.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster