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Adventures in Archaeology—In Conversation with Martin Rowney

Martin Rowney, GML Heritage Associate and Archaeologist, was interviewed by Sharon Veale, Partner and Chief Executive, in a recent lunchtime conversation about some of his adventures and experiences in archaeology and life—from Egyptian tombs to remote Aboriginal communities to Papua New Guinean islands. Here are some of the highlights. 

SHARON: Welcome Martin, it’s great to have you in the Sydney office. To start with your early experiences, can you tell us a bit about your childhood and family life?

MARTIN: I grew up in Adelaide and my mother was a high school art teacher and my father was an architect. He very quickly moved into being the Manager of the Heritage Branch in South Australia when it first existed in 1979—he was the first manager of that establishment. So we had a pretty good, arty, heritage sort of upbringing, my two brothers, my sister and myself.

SHARON: Wow, you’ve already revealed quite a lot—but what about your school life? Was your primary and secondary school life in Adelaide?

Sharon Veale and Martin Rowney, In Conversation at GML.

Martin’s Early Years—Music, Visual Arts and an Influential History Teacher

MARTIN: Yeah, it was. I went to Marryatville High School which was actually a music school. I played piano and French horn.

SHARON: And at that time was history or archaeology at all on your radar or was it really more visual arts and music?

MARTIN: It was visual arts, music and history. So my real drive for history and archaeology came from my history teacher, who was quite influential at that point of time. He really made studying history and archaeology very interesting; he was a very good teacher and changed my view of how we could enjoy this sort of pursuit. He was also my hockey coach!

SHARON: After school, I know you went to Sydney University, so just talk us through how you went from South Australia to New South Wales.

MARTIN: At the time you couldn’t study archaeology as a complete course in Adelaide—there was a six-month course at Adelaide University, and Flinders University was just getting its eye on the idea that it might start teaching archaeology. That was in the late eighties.

But I took a gap year and I went to Thailand as an exchange student for a year and lived over there and then promptly came back and decided that if I was going to study archaeology it had to be on the east coast, so it would either be Sydney or the ANU. After a bit of shuffling through the course outline, I thought Sydney might be the better option.

Archaeology on the Horizon

SHARON: So what was it that drew you to archaeology and when did that start to emerge? Did that emerge at high school?

MARTIN: Yes, definitely. It was coming from studying history and then really I think the influence of my history teacher, [realising] that it was an interesting direction to pursue. We didn’t actually do Aboriginal archaeology or Aboriginal history at school; it was very focused toward European history, and the archaeology was actually focused around Southern America and the Middle Americas, you know, Aztecs and Mayans.

But as I came back to looking at the whole package of being interested in history, I started looking at home a lot more and found there was a lot to be interested in that we hadn’t really covered at school.

SHARON: Right, so you moved up to Sydney to enrol in prehistory, historical archaeology and classics at Sydney University. So talk us through that experience.

MARTIN: It was very academic-based archaeology but quite interesting. My main lecturers in prehistory were Peter White, Prof Roland Fletcher and Richard Wright. Which makes me think—there were no women in the Archaeology Department at that time; Sarah Colley was the first and she came just as I was leaving in 1992 I think.

Peter White in particular was very engaging in Aboriginal archaeology and we did some interesting field trips with him, including out to the Flinders Ranges a couple of times.

SHARON: So was it during that period that you really started to develop a deeper interest in Aboriginal archaeology? Because I know you did some archaeological seasons overseas. Could you talk us through your thinking at that time and your practical experience of archaeology?

MARTIN: I think the trips overseas were to me more just experiences to have fun, enjoy, and to see what other experiences were out there. My interest in Aboriginal archaeology was really established at university, and it was going out onto some of the interesting sites like Hawker Lagoon in the Flinders Ranges where there were thousands of artefacts everywhere—you couldn’t walk anywhere without stepping on something—that made me think that there was a huge amount of material to be interested in. So I really bought into stone artefacts as a sort of mechanism for understanding the way Aboriginal people used the landscape and resources.

I ended up writing a thesis about identifying heat-treated artefacts based on my interest in pursuing scientific questions about what you can find out from these objects. I did a bit of historical archaeology as well at uni and that was good grounding for commercial activity I think, but really the practical stuff we did was mostly centred around Aboriginal archaeology—lots of stone tool analysis.


Martin Rowney, GML Heritage Associate and Archaeologist.

Excavations in Syria, Egypt and Papua New Guinea

SHARON: Interesting. Now, I just want to shift to the work that you’ve done overseas which you said you saw as an opportunity and an experience. I know you worked as an excavation supervisor in Syria for a couple of seasons?

MARTIN: That’s right. For those of you who now know about Aleppo on the news, Aleppo was the base that we worked from every weekend and the site was 60 kilometres away from Aleppo on the Euphrates River. I’m pretty sure that it’s probably been obliterated along with the rest of Aleppo, sadly. And you may have heard of the town of Membich on the news a couple of weeks ago that was just taken back by the Syrian troops from the rebels—that was also one of the local towns that we used to frequent.

The site was fantastic, it was a Hellenistic trading port on the bank of the Euphrates River, and that excavation had been run by the ANU for about 25 years. And it was great to go for a couple of seasons and work with the local people—their village was right next door to the site and they would just walk up the hill and meet us up there. We had about 150 local people working with us.

SHARON: What did you learn about yourself and archaeology through that experience?

MARTIN: I think actually it was just good fun. It was hard work but I felt like I could go on holiday and keep going to work by enjoying that. It was also interesting to see that you get a real feel for the local community when you’re working in a situation like that—you’re not a tourist in that town, you’re engaging people who work with you. I found the people were incredibly welcoming and very interested in being part of the project.

SHARON: You also worked in Egypt in 1998 and 2000?

MARTIN: That’s right. In the Western Desert, there’s an oasis called the Dakhla Oasis and we did some excavations out there with Monash University. That’s another one of those projects that had been going on for about 25 years. And that was looking at around about the first century AD period settlement in the oasis—it was the capital of the oasis at the time, it was called Mut. And we were digging some pieces of the town and the church and I got the privilege of digging a tomb which was interesting—full of sand and a badly burnt body, because the tomb raiders had been in there at some point in time.

SHARON: A little earlier than that, you were in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for a while?

MARTIN: Yeah, that was a fantastic project. Immediately after university, I went with Peter White—who was my thesis supervisor—to PNG. We spent three months on the Duke of York Islands surveying for Lapita pottery sites and doing some testing excavations on some of them. It was a group of about 13 islands. We lived on a tugboat for about three months and just went onto the island every day and did our survey. And we based ourselves out of Rabal which has since been destroyed by a volcano but it was a fabulous little town.

It was a great experience and once again the locals were really interested and welcoming about us being there. Including one guy, where we dug a test pit in his backyard—he agreed that we would do that—and when Peter offered him some monetary compensation, he said, ‘No, no, that’s fine. Don’t fill it in. I’m just going to tell people that this white guy from Australia—this doctor—came over and he dug my toilet for me!’ So he was very happy with his test pit. It was two metres deep. It was a good toilet.

Finding an Archaeology Career in Australia

SHARON: Let’s now shift to the period after university—you had a long career in consulting archaeology before you even came to GML. Initially though you had a short period of work as a Project Officer at National Parks and Wildlife Service?

MARTIN: I did a short project there negotiating a conservation agreement for one of the islands in the Hawkesbury River, on the edge of Murramarang National Park, negotiating with the Land Council for a conservation agreement for how they would use the island. It was a very interesting start.

And then I went into consulting in Sydney just as a freelance trowel for hire, so to speak, and had an office in Stanmore with a few other likely characters like Martin Carney and Pete Douglas—we all shared an office there and ran our separate consultancies from there.

SHARON: So you worked in NSW as a consultant archaeologist for a period, and then you moved to Queensland. What was happening in Queensland at that time?

MARTIN: Well I was actually based up in Atherton in the Atherton Tablelands inland from Cairns. The only heritage consultants in the area at the time were myself and Gordon Grimwade so we pretty much had a run of everything north of a line from Townsville to Mt Isa and up from there, there was almost no one working there that we could find. So we had a lot of interesting projects and we did historical and Aboriginal archaeology together, just because there was no real separation—in fact, it seemed to me that the separation, that siloing of historical and Aboriginal archaeology, was a very Sydney-based thing. And in Queensland, people seemed to do a mix of both, whatever was required as they went along. It was very interesting to work up there.

Mixing Passions—Art and Archaeology

SHARON: Martin, your next big move was to Canberra and you commenced work at GML! How did that come about?

MARTIN: That’s right. I actually moved to Canberra to study sculpture at the ANU, so it wasn’t specifically about GML but it was fortunate at the time I spoke to Tracy Ireland and Rachel and it just happened to be a time when GML were looking for another archaeologist on board so that was terrific for me. I think the first job I did was actually Fortuna in Bendigo which was a great place to go and have a look around and do an archaeological assessment for.

SHARON: So the interest in art was running parallel to your professional life as an archaeologist?

MARTIN: Yes. I actually studied sculpture at high school and I actually topped the state in HSC for art, so I was always pretty keen that that was a thing to do, but my parents talked me out of it. They thought that being an artist might [involve] sitting on the sidelines being destitute and eating beans, and that it’d be a good idea to get a good job! So I thought, ‘Well, I’m sure being an archaeologist is a good job, isn’t it?’

SHARON: Absolutely, Martin! Couldn’t be better!

MARTIN: Here we are! Eventually it came around to bite me again—I don’t know, mid-life crisis, mid-life change, mid-life opportunity? So I decided to come back and have a go at studying sculpture.

SHARON: But it seems to me your experiences as an archaeologist, and the kind of intellectual processes involved in archaeology, have informed your art practice?

MARTIN: Absolutely. I do think my art practice is solidly based in my archaeological background, which brings me towards the idea of actually wanting to have those things running in parallel together and using art as a mechanism for presenting some of the past in various formats. So it’s sort of interpreting what we’re doing. I’ve always found it quite compelling to have stories about the past in my sculptures.

GML Team and MR

GML team at a lunchtime In Conversation chat.

Reflections on Aboriginal Cultural Heritage

SHARON: Absolutely, which also feeds into your interest in interpretation. But the thing I’d like to spend a little bit of time talking about is how your understanding of Aboriginal peoples’ role in heritage practice, not just archaeology, has evolved for you over the years? I think you’ve developed fairly strong views on this?

MARTIN: I do, and it’s actually largely come through the work we’ve been doing with Defence over the years. I think the key idea is that you can actually ask and that you value the opinion that’s being given to you rather than it being tokenistic. And to be consistent and open and transparent about your approach.

SHARON: Switching to specific projects, can you talk about how you have worked with Aboriginal communities?

MARTIN: The one I often flag is the Yampi project, which was fantastic in that it was a long period of engagement with the Aboriginal community that was very fulfilling and very interesting. I think we got a good outcome for the management plan that look a lot of negotiating between the expectations of the Aboriginal community.

They were very strong in their process too. They brought their own anthropologist to make sure that the values that they were telling us were being treated respectfully, and were quite happy to sit out on the site and talk about some of the issues—particularly where there were paintings that had been repainted by some of the elders who were still in the community, and they had known that their fathers and grandfathers had passed that process to them. So it was a real privilege to be out there.

SHARON: In terms of heritage practice, what is it that for you is the really exciting and rewarding and stimulating thing? What keeps you interested?

MARTIN: I think now it’s actually the privilege of those conversations with the Aboriginal community. I’ve had a number of projects throughout my whole career where I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with some Aboriginal people and they tell me some very interesting stories, and I think anyone working in Aboriginal heritage who’s managed to have a really good conversation with an Aboriginal community about what the land means to them would agree that it’s a really privileged situation to be in.

SHARON: Has it changed your thinking about heritage and the practice of heritage, and whether we actually do manage to conserve the values and meaning?

MARTIN: Yes, it has. Absolutely. And to me there’s a bit of a conflict for archaeologists in whether excavation and capturing the scientific data is the way the Aboriginal community would have it happen—sometimes it is, but it’s still largely to me a process that’s driven by our system and not necessarily by their system, so I do think that those conversations that we have with them about the outcomes that they want are particularly important.

SHARON: Absolutely. I think increasingly there’s an emergent discourse and understanding around the physical value and the connection that objects often transfer to Aboriginal people through that connection to the past and their ancestors and occupation across land. But then there’s the other sort of lived experience that sometimes archaeology is sometimes not so good at capturing in the contemporary?

MARTIN: That’s right, indeed. We have to make sure that we’re asking all the questions and offering the right platform for that to be outlined and delivered. And it’s also interesting to see how different communities have different views on significance—like I know the ones around the ACT tend to say that all artefacts are significant to them, so our concept of scientific significance is not of interest to them.

But when I was in Western Australia with the Dambimangari, they were less interested in the artefacts which they considered the equivalent of cutlery. The more important stuff were the paintings on the wall and the story of this landscape. So it was interesting to see how there are multiple perspectives on significance among communities that we need to be mindful of.

SHARON: Just a few closing questions as we wrap up. In terms of the future of heritage, what do you see and what do you think about where we might be heading?

MARTIN: I don’t really have a clear picture of where I think we might be heading. I’m a little worried that heritage continues to trundle along undervalued, and I think often about the fact that the green movement managed to move the whole sort of conservation conversation from the fringe into the centre. I’m not sure what it takes, but I think that shift in conversation can or should happen with cultural heritage as well. And I don’t know what the thing is that will stimulate society to move towards that.

SHARON: So we might need to radicalise it again, in a way?

MARTIN: I don’t know what the bigger motivator is, you know, about sustainability or economics or what it is but I’d like to think that somewhere in the intelligentsia in the cultural heritage world now we can work out what it is that’s needed to move the conversation further to the centre.

SHARON: What do you think is one of the more exciting things about heritage in the contemporary?

MARTIN: I guess for me it’s about finding those stories, those little snippets of history that are interesting. To me it’s still about finding those little nuggets of interesting insight.

SHARON: I think that’s something that you particularly try to articulate through not only your art practice but in telling us what you just have about your experience with Aboriginal people, so it is really those sort of compelling narratives that come out through perhaps arts practice or through conversations that enrichen our experience and your professional life.

MARTIN: Absolutely.

SHARON: So this is a sort of probing question: what have you discovered about yourself over the years?

MARTIN: I’ve learnt that in conversations with Aboriginal people in particular, it’s important to just park your ego at the door and sit in there and be a human. And if the people you’re dealing with are angry about the past, sometimes you’ve just got to let it come out and then work out if you can ask the right questions to find some common ground to move on. And not worry that that anger might be there or that there may be some uncomfortable dialogue going on, because there’s a big backstory for Aboriginal people and the way things aren’t working and haven’t worked and still aren’t working. I think we’re all just a small piece of that puzzle. Those tensions and emotions can boil over, sometimes in ways that are tricky. The worst thing to do I think is being in a discussion with Aboriginal people about their heritage values and not recognising that the sensitivity is strong on their side and that my interest is vested in the story and it’s not an emotional investment in the same way that it is for them.

Future Endeavours

SHARON: Absolutely. So what’s one thing that you’d like to do and you haven’t done?

MARTIN: For me, what I’m aiming towards is in fact doing something with bringing stories and sculpture together in a public kind of way and I think that’s where I’m heading.

SHARON: Well thank you, Martin, we look forward to that. Thank you for sharing all of those wonderful insights and experiences.