Studying Medieval Archaeology in Australia – A Fool’s Errand?

It may become a theme of the authors here that we are frustrated at the situation of medievalists down-under, and rightly so. We are further from the manuscripts, the architecture, the artefacts and from many of our colleagues than any northern hemisphere academics. What surprised me (Sam)  most about living in England for a short time was the relative ease with which I could ‘pop’ over to North America. I’m sure many others would say that a 10-12 hour flight isn’t quick or easy, but when your grandparents live a 6 hour drive away – in the same state as you, and you’ve made the 24-32 hour flight to Europe 3 times in 18 months, the trip to North America seems like a breeze. This proximity to resources and peers in the northern hemisphere is something that I think many scholars take for granted, and why I feel that us Aussies are often forgotten about or under-valued. It takes some serious commitment to be a medievalist, or most types of academic, in Australia.


However as an archaeologist the frustration is perhaps heightened. Unless you are a prehistorian, most archaeologists (whether we admit it or not) are at least in part historians, so the aspects of our work which rely on documentary evidence are much the same as any academic living away from the original text – we can function quite easily with facsimiles and translations etc. However the unique thing about archaeology is that we are NOT historians and the whole point is that we engage with the material culture and get down and dirty – literally. In my 5 years of study I am yet to actually dig on a site from my period, and this depresses me greatly, and it also probably makes me seem ridiculous to my peers in the UK or even America. But when it is so expensive to not only get yourself a place on a dig but to travel there from Australia (not to mention our semesters don’t line up) it makes it really hard to earn your stripes by excavating in Europe. As you may have picked up I have travelled to Europe and the UK, but due to finances and when I was able to fit exchange into my degree I have only been there twice and only in the European winter – which is not when people are excavating – no one likes to be digging when a) its freezing for you to be there b) when the ground is probably frozen so you can’t actually dig or c) when its so wet from snow or rain that the trench is more like a pool (which admittedly can be a season in the UK summer anyway). So I’ve missed out on European digging… not fun.

t-rex on top of a fake castle-hotel in Queensland aka what medieval archaeology in Australia must seem like

T-rex on top of a fake castle-hotel in Queensland aka what medieval archaeology in Australia must seem like

Another tricky thing about studying archaeology at The University of Sydney (and keep in mind I love my uni and my department) is that we have basically no real excavation opportunities offered by the university. The only ‘local’ opportunity at the moment is with Amy Way down in Lake George, which admittedly is great, but its the first time in my 5 years that a PhD student has been asking for student digging volunteers so close to Sydney. The other opportunities require significant financing – Zagora, Pella, Paphos – and are often run at inconvenient times. The Zagora dig in particular, which one of my ArchSoc friends has just come back from, and the my other friend is still over there, is run in the middle of semester. Frances organised her assessments around her brief time over there, picking subjects specifically so that could work (and not everyone has that luxury, certainly as a science student I could never miss labs let alone move them or go away for a few weeks in semester). Lachlan who is still in Greece chose to take the opportunity at the loss of a whole semester which he will have to make up later.

The thing to note here is not just that it is tricky for us to get experience (perhaps a better rant for later) but as you might have noticed they are all Australasian, Near Eastern or Classical digs – which to be fair is what our department focuses on. Sydney, and I believe all Australian universities, do not teach early historic European archaeology. So how on earth did I become a medieval archaeologist? Good question! I was really stubborn and decided with dual majors in my arts degree of Medieval Studies and Archaeology I could do it! Out of the 8 classes needed for my archaeology major I have only taken 3 in our department, the rest were in anatomy or on exchange in England. This makes me unusual in both Australia and England, no one really knows what to make of my degree, I think. Neither do I sometimes. But it meant that I gained the knowledge necessary to focus on funerary archaeology and the medieval period at large. 3fdca7affac7c3c9b1b0af0edfbb9831

But I guess the big question is – is it a fool’s errand? Will I be accepted or valued due to my lack of field experience and unorthodox coursework list? I think the true test of that will be with time, all of the British academics I met couldn’t have been nicer to me and were all so helpful. However, I always have a sense of ‘impostor syndrome’ because I’m an Australian trying to make my way in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. I am, like my colleagues Alix and Harriet, trying to rectify my lack of European field experience and we are trying to make ourselves known on the conference circuit. But despite our efforts will we always be on the outside purely because we trained in Australia?


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