Thursday, September 03, 2009

Orroral Valley Tracking Station - all systems go

On Tuesday I flew to Canberra for the announcement of the 2009-2010 ACT Heritage Grants. And yes - I got one, to do background research and a geophysical survey of the Orroral Valley tracking station, in collaboration with my elegant geophysicist friend I. Moffat. Everyone was very enthusiastic about the project, which was lovely.

So now I really have to think about the rationale of contemporary archaeology (which is the subject of a recent debate on the Contemp-Hist-Arch list too). What, exactly, can I use archaeological methods to find out that documents/oral histories can't? A simple enough question, but surprisingly difficult to answer .....


  1. Anyone who's ever worked to build something will tell you that the "as-built" is always (always!) different than the original plan.

    Moreso if the thing you're building is remote, thus you don't have access to all of the tools or materials you really need, or rushed.

    The difference between the documents and reality can be found with archaeological methods, and the oral histories might be able to explain some of them.

  2. All absolutely true, Ben. I guess I'm more concerned with the higher-level research question that lies behind finding those disjunctions and explanations. I have a bunch of less-than-coherent ideas involving landscapes, social interactions between "high technology" and everyday life, and international/local technologies. Thinking of WW II/Cold War British and US infrastructure in Australia as a possible comparison ... if you have any other ideas, please let me know!

  3. Mirani3:23 pm

    congrats lady! :) sounds brilliant ...

  4. Do you need to say something with archaeology that you can't say with documents or oral history? Isn't it enough that it is said? Also wouldn't two independent methodologies converging on a similar conclusion be a good thing?

    A lot of documents are intentional records of what is, and are produced for the consumption of those higher up the social chain and further from the ground. It makes them very good sources for intent. On the other hand it makes them very bad sources for resistance or even of exactly what is at a site. Presumably conditions on the ground did reshape official policy to some extent, but attempts to circumvent some of the less realistic aspirations of government agencies would only appear in a shadowy sense in the official record. Oral history helps get round that to some extent, but there are flaws in memory. Further it only gets an individual point of view which will be imperfectly informed. If individuals leave material traces (a fence here or unloading over there) then individual 2 might not see that as an action of individual 1, but rather as part of the monolithic government project and interact with it in that context, rather than as improvisation.

    So with documents you have top-down histories and with oral history you can build from the bottom-up, but with archaeology leaving a material record of interactions you have a tool for informing and testing how the gap between these two historical positions can be bridged - without hand-waving and saying "Well, obviously..." Nothing good ever follows "Well, obviously..."

    I don't know if that's any help or just nonsense. It's early in the morning and I haven't finished my Red Bull yet.

  5. Not nonsense at all! But still begs question - what even does that mean? OK, I've just been at the pub for two hours, so perhaps I need to re-read your thoughts when sober - drink your Red Bull and when time zones coincide again I'll try and be more coherent!