below Orokolo Bay shoreline in Papua New Guinea acts as the main highway connecting a series of coastal settlements. When archaeologists arrived seeking to excavate past village sites, they discovered that the locals were already using traces of past events to illustrate their oral histories.

Archaeology: Western science or global practice?

Delving into ancient sites to illuminate the past is generally seen as a Western innovation. But just how novel is this approach? Excavating in Papua New Guinea has prompted Chris Urwin to make the case for many different archaeologies.


Archaeology is commonly thought of as a Western science. Certainly, the archaeology practised by university-trained professionals and enthusiasts around the world today has its intellectual roots in northern and central Europe. Historians of archaeology such as Bruce Trigger have explored how this methodical, earthy science emerged in the 19th century from the antiquarianism of previous centuries. Alongside other key developments, Danish scholar Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865) was among the first to develop relative chronologies using artefacts alone (without the aid of written records). Archaeology became professionalised across much of the globe during the 20th century, spurred on by major scientific developments such as radiocarbon dating.

below Orokolo Bay shoreline in Papua New Guinea acts as the main highway connecting a series of coastal settlements. When archaeologists arrived seeking to excavate past village sites, they discovered that the locals were already using traces of past events to illustrate their oral histories.

Today, archaeology is a globalised discipline with diverse cultural influences. In countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the USA, many research projects are directed by Indigenous community members, who may incorporate cultural protocols and rituals to engage with their ancestors during excavations or surveys. While the archaeological work is conventional, ‘the past’ is treated as a living dimension of the present. The narratives that are then written about the past may incorporate Indigenous oral traditions and ecological knowledge. These diverse cultural perspectives enrich archaeology: they contribute new angles from which to see the evidence and new ways of telling stories about the past.

The Western origins and recent transformations of archaeology are well known. But just how novel is using the traces of earlier activity to develop understanding of the roots of current societies? Are there other forms of what could be considered archaeology – on the basis that they are ways of reading the past through things and landscapes – that developed independently?

Reading the subsurface

My journey of discovery with this topic began in 2015, while at Monash University. Alongside colleagues from the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, I arrived by dinghy at a place called Orokolo Bay in the Papuan Gulf. Thanks to the work of Francis Edgar Williams, this long and gently curved grey-black beach is already famous in the field of anthropology. While he was the government anthropologist for the Australian Territory of Papua, Williams spent months documenting ceremonies performed by the peoples of Orokolo Bay.

Today, the ceremonies are gone but the shoreline is no less busy. It is still the main highway of foot traffic between the coastal villages, which are located just beyond the beach behind a line of hibiscus and coconut trees. This was our second trip to the bay. Earlier that same year, we had spent time discussing and developing our research program with village elders and members. This time, we were due to commence an archaeological project with the village communities of Larihairu and Kaivakovu. The plan was to excavate some of their past village sites, which are today situated 2 or 3km inland, on beach ridges that would once have been coastal.

Pre-1950s earthenware pots still in use in Orokolo Bay. These were brought 400km by sea from the Port Moresby area by the Motu people, who sought to exchange them for canoe hulls and local food.

In the weeks that followed, we surveyed the Orokolo Bay hinterland. Local experts in oral tradition graciously introduced us to their ancestors’ village sites, most of which were littered with cultural materials. Scatters of pottery sherds, shellfish remains, animal bones, and stone artefacts spoke of the varied activities of village life. The pottery sherds are also evidence of exchange, as there is no tradition of pottery-making in this part of Papua New Guinea. The pottery was almost certainly traded into the region by seafarers living along the coast to the east. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coastal exchange on Papua New Guinea’s south coast was in full swing. Each year, Motu people would sail 400km to the west from the Port Moresby region into the tropical Papuan Gulf region. They brought tens of thousands of earthenware pots and shell artefacts to exchange for canoe hulls and a local food: a type of flour made from the trunks of sago palm trees.

We assumed our archaeological work would break new ground by examining the traces of past activity to develop a deeper understanding of these coastal communities. We hoped to use radiocarbon dating to work out how old the sites were, pottery analyses to find out who the villagers were trading with, and analyses of food remains to investigate diet and how food was acquired. Yet over the coming weeks, it became apparent that the Kaivakovu and Larihairu villagers already had their own interpretations of the subsurface. Their form of local ‘archaeology’ is not an academic exercise but rather a part of everyday life. By walking the land and working the soil at their ancestors’ villages, people were constantly unearthing, remembering, and interpreting the buried past.

The distinctive black sand of Orokolo Bay is sometimes encountered in layers at settlement sites, where it is tied to local traditions.

The present past

People in Orokolo Bay, and across Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, are in the business of making the surface and subsurface visible. Much of this work occurs in the process of agriculture, for which people extensively modify soils, plots, and fields. When agricultural plots are remade from fallow, the overgrown vegetation is partially cleared and then burned off. Drainage holes and channels are used to make flood-prone land dry enough for planting. Seasonally, holes are dug to plant crops of banana, taro, sweet potato, and corn (among others). Although the technology has changed over time – metal spades have replaced wooden digging sticks – these activities were ongoing well before Papua New Guinea was colonised by the British in 1884.

Everyday activity frequently brings Orokolo Bay villagers into contact with their past. One example is agriculture, when overgrown fallow land has its vegetation burned off.
Holes dug while planting crops such as banana can expose material such as pottery, as seen here.

Construction work also involves deep excavation. When houses and other structures are built, wide foundation posts are driven deep into the ground. In the early colonial era, the houses people built were larger than those made today. Vast wooden longhouses (called eravo) were central to the village. These 34m-long buildings stood on a foundation of densely spaced posts that stood 15m tall. Without excavation, we can only guess how deep these posts must have been driven into the ground. In 2015, people were frequently cultivating and building at their ancestors’ villages, especially because some people are relocating inland for fear of rising sea levels and unpredictable tides. These above- and below-ground activities cause people to encounter buried artefacts and stratigraphy on a daily basis. This, in turn, serves to illustrate or inform views of the past.

Constructing wooden buildings raised on close-set timbers in Orokolo Bay villages also involves excavation work, providing another way that villagers come into contact with subsurface features.

A focus of local interpretations and investigations of the subsurface is a former village site called Popo. Remembered through oral tradition, this village site is vast, spanning an area 1.3km long and 500m wide. People from throughout Orokolo Bay (and beyond) claim their ancestors established the village 16 generations ago, before migrating out of Popo and spreading along the present-day coastline seven generations ago. Stories about Popo range from descriptions of the deep, timeless past, to more recent events. In the deep past, the place was made and settled by the ancestors, who used magic to form the beach ridge on which it sits. There are also detailed genealogical histories of the site, which express the unbroken links between Orokolo Bay families today and their ancestors who lived at Popo. The stories recount that the village was divided into ‘suburbs’, each of which was built by a different clan.

The Cahokia peoples built imposing mounds, including Monks Mound; the view from the top shows further mounds speckling the landscape. More recent digging into the mounds may have been intended to recover past objects for present rituals. Images: Wikimedia Commons, Skubasteve834; j_m_d_imagery.

At some of Popo’s suburbs, stratigraphic evidence of this deep, timeless past can be found beneath the surface. Distinctive layers of black sand were uncovered at two of our 2015 excavations. From a Western scientific perspective, these sands can be understood as iron-rich volcanic beach sands, laid in the past 700 years by the tides. For the peoples of Orokolo Bay, who were already well aware of such layering, the sands have an alternative meaning and chronology. As Kaivakovu village oral historian Paul Mahiro explained to us, the sands were laid by his ancestors when they made Popo and the world around it. Paul explained that two ancestors – Miae and Lairua – laid the sand throughout the landscape as they travelled from west to east across the sky in a canoe. The presence of black sands at various parts of Popo, Orokolo Bay, and nearby coastlines links the histories of these places. When agriculturalists find the sands buried beneath the surface, they are reminded of stories like that of Miae and Lairua.

During our collaborative research at Popo, it became clear that there was a correlation between the intensiveness of cultivation at a particular site and its perceived antiquity. In general, the more extensively cleared and cultivated a given suburb had been, the older it was in the oral traditions. Almost certainly, this correlation has something to do with encountering pottery, shell, stone, and bone. The more work goes on at a given estate, the more finds are made, and the more likely it is to be interpreted as relatively old. We do not have to look far for global parallels of this process. In general, artefacts are most regularly found in places where there is a great deal of development and land clearing. In London and Rome, for example, recent projects to build subterranean railways have brought new archaeological finds to light. These finds have been publicised widely, helping to cement public views that these places are especially ‘historic’. The visibility of the subsurface influences how people think about the past.

The ruins of Babylon. Around 2,500 years ago, one of its kings, Nabonidus, ordered the excavation of an earlier temple. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg).

The agriculturalists who work their plots at Popo (and other such sites) build up a deep knowledge of the subsurface. They know where pottery sherds are most concentrated and where certain types of shell are found and not found. This kind of knowledge can be compared to that of an experienced archaeologist who has worked in one region for decades. Indeed, archaeologists working in the Pacific have often depended on this rich local knowledge. People in Orokolo Bay can perform interpretations of the subsurface on the spot: suggesting where the location of a past longhouse might be, or where the centre of the village was located. This knowledge helps sustain and add richness to the oral traditions. The form of local ‘archaeology’ we see in Orokolo Bay is focussed on identifying the actions of the ancestors, whether in the deep ancestral past or the more recent, genealogical past.

The importance of non-Western ‘archaeologies’

There are some other notable examples of non-Western ‘archaeologies’. Recent archaeological work has uncovered ancient excavations at Native American mound and temple sites in the Mississippi region. The peoples of Cahokia (which was established around AD 1000) and other sites in the region built vast mound structures, often deliberately interleaving contrasting layers of sediment. Some of these soil layers incorporated ground-up bone, ash or ochre, and the mounds often contained burials. Some of the early excavations were made to access old graves and to add items of material culture to them. Other digs exposed the soil layers deposited by previous generations. Archaeologists Susan Alt and Timothy Pauketat have suggested various possible reasons for these Native American diggings: to commemorate buried ancestors; to recover artefacts for use in present-day rituals; and to inspect stratigraphy. Possibly, the distinctive soil layers had specific meanings, which could be ‘read’ by the excavators who exposed them.

More commonly cited examples of early ‘archaeologies’ originate in ancient Iraq and China. Around 2,500 years ago, King Nabonidus of Babylon ordered the excavation of ‘15 cubits’ of soil to uncover the temple of Naram-Sin, an Akkadian ruler who had lived some 1,700 years earlier. Nabonidus’ daughter, Bel-Shalti-Nannar, continued the tradition of excavating ancestral temples, as part of a programme to rebuild and revive them. The artefacts recovered during her excavations were kept to be reused in contemporary rituals. British archaeologist Leonard Wooley credited Bel-Shalti-Nannar as the founder of the world’s first antiquities museum.

In China, artefact studies were well-developed prior to the import of the Western science in the 1920s. In the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), bronze artefacts from prior eras were catalogued, drawn, and described. Scholars hoped that the careful study of the objects’ provenance and shape might supplement or even correct written historical records. Archaeologist K C Chang has claimed that ‘systematic investigation of the [Chinese] past through its material remains… is as old as the civilization it studies.’

The Terme dei Sette Sapienti at Ostia were excavated and restored during Mussolini’s excavations at the site. Images: Wikimedia Commons, Marie-Lan Nguyen; MatthiasKabel.

Whether we call these remarkable traditions ‘archaeology’ is a question of semantics. However, we can be sure that people in disparate parts of the globe have been reading the past through things and landscapes for many centuries. The non-Western traditions I have discussed here have diverse methods and aims, which differ from those of archaeology (which, we should remember, is an increasingly diverse and global practice). In Orokolo Bay, subsurface investigation is a habitual process whereby the ancestors are remembered. By contrast, the Mississippian digs were more intentional engagements with buried ancestors and structures. The Song Dynasty scholars hoped to observe and critique human morality through time, while the purpose of the Babylonian excavations was to revive old temples and potent ritual artefacts to benefit powerful rulers.

An interest in benefitting present regimes can also be found in Western archaeology, of course. To name but one example, Mussolini’s 1930s and 1940s excavations at Ostia, near Rome, encouraged self-aggrandising parallels to be drawn with a glorious past. When it comes to using physical remains to reinforce existing narratives of the past, this too is not unknown in the history of Western archaeology. Back in 1725, the antiquarian Alexander Gordon asserted that the role of ‘Archiology’ was simply to ‘prove demonstratively those Facts which are asserted in History’. What unifies these diverse practices – Western, Papua New Guinean, Babylonian, and Chinese – is the desire to investigate origins and make the past come alive in the present.

These forms of ‘archaeology’ are fascinating in and of themselves, but they also give us a window into how people perpetuate history. In Babylon and Song Dynasty China, the study of once-buried artefacts and ruins was used to supplement the written record. In the Papuan Gulf prior to colonisation (and continuing today), people communicated the history of their ancestors through oral tradition. Much of this information was retained by village elders, who would memorise, recount, and pass on lengthy cycles of songs. These stories were not just passed on by speaking, hearing, and remembering. Things and landscapes played a key role in sustaining oral-traditional knowledge. Everyday practices such as clearing gardens and digging holes enabled the characters and places described in oral traditions to be remembered. Yet this is just one culturally specific way of marrying stories to subsurface evidence. There is much still to be learned from non-Western ways of reading archaeological features, reconstructing the past, and understanding origins.

ALL images: Courtesy of Chris Urwin, unless otherwise stated.