Crowdfunded Caving: Recent PhD fieldwork

Earlier this year, my supervisors and I were discussing ways to raise money for a small field trip to excavate a second site as part of my PhD research. We had all-but exhausted the available funding during my first phase of fieldwork, at a site that had produced a far richer and more complex archaeological record than we had expected. How could we raise the funds needed for second phase of fieldwork to provide a comparative sample?

One of my supervisors, Joe, suggested crowdfunding, and the idea for our crowdfunding campaign was born. Thanks to the generosity of family, friends, and strangers, we were able to fund a five-day field trip to excavate a cave slightly north of last year’s site. A total of 73 people backed our campaign, and I’m immensely grateful to each and every person who donated, shared, and supported us. A little over a week ago, I was finally able to conduct the fieldwork. A few details of the trip were shared on twitter via a great hashtag started by Gilbert Price and Julien Louys: #LiveFromTheDig (if palaeontology and fieldwork is your thing, I recommend you check it out!). But for those of you who aren’t on twitter or who want a little more detail, I thought I’d share some of our experiences here.

The first stage of fieldwork: getting to site. I’m lucky to do fieldwork only a half-day drive from Perth, which meant we could drive directly to site on that first day.

I find fieldwork incredibly fun, challenging, and exciting. And that’s not just the excavating: one of my favourite moments on any field trip is the moment when you leave suburbia and start to drive out of the city!

On this field trip, I was fortunate to have the help of Joe, Alexander Baynes (a palaeontologist based at the Western Australian Museum), Alex’s former student Cassia and an archaeology student I’d previously taught, Dan. Our small team was rounded out by two Amangu Traditional Owners, Reg and Thomas, who provided us with important insight into the cultural and environmental aspects of the area. Both men hold a lot of knowledge about the area, and it was great to be out on Country with them, talking about the plants, animals, water sources, and the ways that the landscape and communities have changed through time.


A 40 minute drive through kwongan shrubland to site – the track was a bit rough, but the views were delightful!

Getting to site was half of the battle, but one of the interesting (and challenging) aspects of this phase of fieldwork was that we were attempting to find a site with little/no human contribution. What that meant, therefore, was that we needed to try and find a site that was accessible enough to do our excavation, but was not accessible enough that people would have regularly visited and camped there in the past. Obviously, this was going to cause some challenges in the form of our own access to the site! The cave we chose ended up being a great compromise:


Cave site “E24″… doesn’t look like much more than a crack in the ground from this angle…


… but from the inside, it’s a completely different story!

As you might be able to see from these photos, the entrance to the cave is steep, rocky, and reasonably difficult to negotiate. Unlike the cave we excavated last year, the entrance has very few flat, open areas that would make it suitable for human occupation: much of that front area is dominated by impressive cave formations and rockfall. The cave is also very dark. The light you see in the foreground of the photograph above is mostly a trick of exposure: the place from which I took the photo is dark enough that torches are necessary.


Bones of small animals (mostly rodents) on the surface showed that the ledge above had probably been used as an owl roost (Image courtesy of Joe Dortch)

We set up our excavation square in the area we thought would most likely give us a good comparison to the  previous site: at the edge of the light area, beneath a ledge that appeared to have been used as an owl roost. Our location was also chosen as we wanted to be sure of the level of human contribution to the site: if people had been using the site regularly, we wanted to know, and this location appeared to be the easiest thoroughfare with which to access the rest of the cave.


A quartz flake – the only direct evidence for Aboriginal activity at the site.

As we started digging, it became clear that we were recovering a small but consistent assemblage of small animal remains, mostly rats, mice, small dasyurids, bandicoots and juvenile bettongs. These animals are all typically eaten by owls, and it seems clear that owls were indeed the main contributors to the assemblage. Charcoal fragments were also scattered through the deposit (whether resulting from hearths or bushfires, I don’t yet know), but only one stone artefact was identified during the excavation: a beautiful quartz flake found on day 3. Compared to the rich archaeological assemblage found at the previous site, this might suggest that while people occasionally visited the site, use of the cave for shelter and as a camp site was not common.

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Sieving the deposit to recover bone, charcoal, artefacts, and other material. We were collecting some of the bone for DNA sampling, hence the gloves and mask!

One of the difficult aspects of archaeological and palaeontological excavation is that we have no real way of knowing what we’ll find until we dig! You can ‘read’ the site and the soil well, but it’s only through excavation that you’ll learn exactly what is buried beneath the surface. Our excavation at E24 provided us with a great collection of small mammal fauna with which to compare the material from the site excavated in 2014, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sorting and analysis early next year.

So there you have it: a brief overview of the fieldwork you and others helped to fund! The generous donations helped to feed, transport, and house all seven of us through the week, and we’ve got enough left to pay for a few radiocarbon dates to date the deposit (a critical part of the research). I’ll leave you with one of my favourite images from the trip, which shows half of the excavation team in action:

The excavation team in action.

Thanks to everyone who supported this research. Stay tuned for more updates as we analyse the excavated material!

Of course, the course of PhD fieldwork never did run smooth, and my track record for needing to buy replacement tyres remains intact. Why is it always the expensive ones that I stake?

The course of PhD fieldwork never did run smooth, and my track record for needing to buy replacement tyres remains intact. Why is it always the expensive ones that I stake?


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