Have you ever found something very strange as an Archeologist?


There's two types of strange when it comes to archaeology.

There's strange in the sense that it seems strange to us, as people of a modern mindset. And there's strange in the sense that it was a strange thing for past people to have done, based off our current knowledge.

The first kind is more common. As archaeologists we are detectives; we gather evidence and use that to create stories about the past and the people that lived there. But our evidence base is incomplete; not everything survives. This means there are lots of gaps in our understanding, and that leaves lots of ‘strange' things we don't fully understand.

Some examples from my own experience might be ditches that inexplicably bend or kink, maybe around an obstacle that would have been there in the past, but for which we have no evidence.

I found a small rectangular pit lined with re-used Roman roof tiles. There was nothing in the pit to suggest what it was used for, and nothing else like it on the site. Was it a water cistern, or a pit for storing somethig that hasn't left a trace? Maybe it was never used for whatever it was built for; we can't know.

The example I give for something that seems strange to us, but would have been a norm at the time is the Roman attitude to children, specifically burial and neonates.

Roman cemetaries are typically found outside settlements, but rarely contain children under 8. So where were Roman children and infants buried? Anywhere really; ditches, rubbish pits, thrown onto middens. It seems abhorrent to us but it was just the cultural norm of the time.

Then there's the kind of strange, even for then. Archaeologists do find things that sit outside our present understanding, and that helps inform our future understanding, but it's important to bear in mind that there was room for idiosyncratic behaviour in the past just like today.

One example which sticks in my mind was a Romano-British roadside cemetery of about 20 individuals. Every single one displayed one or more signs of a non-standard burial practice (we call these deviant burials).

This ranged from being buried face-down (unusual, but not bizarre), to an individual buried in the lotus position (weirder), someone with a nail driven through their head, someone who had been partially cremated, someone buried with an ‘extra' leg (donated from an earlier grave perhaps) and one with the head chopped off and placed between the thighs.

Conventional wisdom is that deviant burials were people who transgressed in life in some way, and so we're disrespected in death. But here was a whole cemetery of them. Were they all sinners against the public good? Did the strange things about how they were buried correlate in some way to their ‘crime' in life?

We'll never know. But it is very strange indeed.

Are Australian country towns depressing places to live?

No, but there is a lot of depression. I've spent heaps of time on the Far South Coast of NSW, which is the oldest (demographically) part of Australia and one of the leaders in elder couples without kids (ie, retired couples). Aside