Life in a Palaeolithic Cave

In July 2011, I went to the Czech Republic for 3 weeks to take part in an archaeological dig in a paleolithic cave, located in the spectacular Moravian Karst region. Here’s one of the updates I sent home.

After an interesting trip (Italian woman on the flight who kicked the back of my chair, and a German woman on the Vienna train who used our carriage as her personal change room), I arrived in the charming university town of Brno. My friend Su and I grabbed some traditional Czech desert from a nearby restaurant (tinned fruit and whipped cream) then crashed at the uni. At first glance, the accommodation looked alright. On closer inspection, however, there were a few teeny issues.

  1. bedbugs
  2. grotty kitchen, bathroom and toilet
  3. foosball table 20 metres from my room that seems to be the only entertainment available to the students, hence a 3:00am party at my front door
  4. construction workers outside at 6:00am, some of whom think it’s okay to stand on our balconies and watch us through our windows

That aside, the trip has turned out to be pretty good so far.

Day 1 was spent sampling many wonderful cafes in the city centre, including 2 visits to an aviation-themed lemonade bar. I also: explored the labyrinth that runs under the streets; discovered a couple of cool but seriously creepy crypts (one with several dozen bodies on display in glass-lidded coffins); checked out the gothic castle on the hill; and finished off the day with dinner at a traditional medieval restaurant, complete with a real knight in shining armour who was vanquished when a ceramic tankard was smashed over his head (talk about lively dinner entertainment!).

Moaning Brno statues

Day 2 was spent in and around the cave. It’s called Pod Hradem, and it’s a solid 20-minute walk up a very steep, snake-infested gradient. (We’ve been warned about the vipers, the only poisonous snake in Europe. All I’ve seen so far is a green tree snake about as large and as threatening as an obese worm – it practically launched itself off the path and tumbled to the bottom of the ravine just to get away from us.) The cave is deep, stretching into the hillside a good 40 metres or so. There’s a rumour that an iron door exists at the deepest part that leads to the 12th-century medieval castle perched on the cliff above. Despite the digging efforts of dozens of hopefuls over the years, the tunnel has never been found. What has been uncovered, though, are a treasure and a human skeleton with a dog beside it, all from the medieval era. In this year’s excavation, the archaeologists have turned up plenty of bones, including cave bear claws, jaws and vertebrae, but nothing medieval, and no Neanderthal or early modern human remains yet.

Pod Hradem Cave

Pod Hradem’s Gate (to discourage nightly visitors)

Day 3, and the bedbugs haven’t let up. Nor have the 3:00am student hallway parties. Nor have the 6:00am construction workers at the window. The bathroom is even grottier than the day before. Solution: move to lovely sparkling penthouse room in a central city hostel. Winner. So, while I haven’t actually done any excavating yet, I’m enjoying comfy accommodation in the heart of Brno. The restaurant food is very oily here, so I’m glad to have a functioning kitchen. I’ve discovered the Cabbage Markets, which are only a block from the hostel. Best cherries ever. And strawberries. And broccoli and beans and herbs and lettuces and tomatoes. Oh, and it’s mushroom season now, so there’s vats of mushrooms as well. Yum!

My impressions of the Czech Republic change from moment to moment. Beautiful architecture is quietly crumbling, as are all the 1950s communist-built structures (many have smashed window panes that no one’s bothered to refit). Every so often I’ll see a flash of modernity, like the hostel I’m staying in, and it looks out of place. But a few prominent buildings on the outskirts stand unfinished or neglected.

Service everywhere is prompt but brusque, which I’m told is a residual attitude from the communist era, when people were forced to do this work for the good of the Party. Everything is cheap. You can get a huge meal and a pint of beer for under $10. Trams are quaint and efficient. (People say the gypsies are too; I’ve seen them on most street corners but they haven’t hassled me yet.) You can always hear music playing from somewhere. And food is best eaten home-cooked, as the Czechs tend to love their oil and salt (I had crepes this morning and I swear the chef emptied his salt shaker into it – ate one mouthful and gagged).

But the best bit? The forest surrounding Pod Hradem cave is real Brothers Grimm territory. I can see why people created stories to warn children not to stray too far off the path. The atmosphere is delightfully spooky, and makes me shiver just a little each time I step into the moist darkness of the cave to rummage through the cool earth.

Glass in Australian Contact Sites

This post was originally published on 10 February 2012 at

In Australian archaeology, a contact site is a cultural site that contains worked stone artefacts as well as adapted non-traditional technology, such as glass, metal or ceramics. Usually these introduced materials are fashioned in similar ways to stone tools (a technique called ‘knapping’). Contact sites are not common in Australia because Aboriginal people were often displaced soon after making contact with the British, so contact artefacts, when they appear, are quite a find.

Most of the time, cultural sites contain things like this:

The first two examples are from an Australian contact site I’ve been working on for the past few weeks. The last two are from a paleolithic cave site in the Czech Republic. These were the only kinds of cultural artefacts I’d ever come across.

Until today.

I knew before I began cataloguing this collection that it was a contact site because earlier investigations had uncovered fragments of knapped glass. It wasn’t until this afternoon that I came across something a little bit different.

My first contact artefact, and it’s a beauty.

The glass dates to the early 20th century. This means that the bush just north of Melbourne was relatively unspoiled by modern society possibly as late as 1920. Today, the landscape around Melbourne is mostly farms, country roads, small towns and large quarries. Less than 100 years ago, Aboriginal people might still have been living traditional lifestyles, picking up discarded glass bottles and fashioning them into useful tools, such as the notched scraper I discovered today.

This find has significantly altered my understanding of local history. And it makes the many arduous hours in the lab completely worthwhile.

The Journey to Ancient Australia: Part 3

The following is an extract from an article first published in Agora magazine (HTAV).

Image © Robyn Kinsela

Image © Robyn Kinsela

The first evidence of outside contact can be traced to about 4500 BP, when dingoes were introduced from Asia [1]. Between 800 to 1000 years ago, the Macassans began trading with people in Arnhem Land. Evidence of Macassan contact is found all along the northern shores of Australia. Rock art at Malarrak portrays Macassan praus (sailboats), weapons and houses. At Anuru Bay, Macassan burials have been excavated. Contact with the Macassans transformed Ancient Australian coastal life. The introduction of metal tools changed the way food was collected and processed. Iron axes enabled the construction of hollowed-out canoes made of solid wood, often called ‘dugout’ canoes. With these sturdier canoes and metal harpoons, fishermen could venture into deeper waters to hunt dugong and sea turtle.

Some historians have speculated that the Portuguese may have arrived in the 1500s [2], and there are hints of voyagers from Africa as well [3], though these two theories remain unproven. The first documented contact is dated 1606, when the Dutch made landfall at Cape Keerweer in Queensland. The last arrivals in 1770 were the British. Whereas past visitors had stayed temporarily, these newcomers did not leave. Instead, their fleets signalled the beginning of a prolonged and systematic effort to extinguish the Ancient Australian way of life, applying a potent combination of force, relocation, re-education, and introduced diseases [4]. This created a double-edged national historical narrative and a deep dichotomy that is gradually being acknowledged, respected and remedied.

One October day in 1984, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra was advised by radiophone: ‘We have a first contact here.’ Located in the Gibson Desert, nine Pintupi people had been picked up in a four-wheel drive and taken to Kintore, near Alice Springs. They had never seen a non-Indigenous person, let alone cars and towns [5]. Wearing human hair belts and armed with spears and boomerangs, the Pintupi Nine had quietly stepped out of the desert and into modern-day society. They are believed to be the last people to have lived an Ancient Australian hunter-gatherer lifestyle.


[1] This article from the Max Planck Institute explains this early contact.

[2] An illuminated Portuguese manuscript possibly from the 1500s appears to contain the image of a kangaroo or wallaby.

[3] The discovery of five extremely rare Kilwa coins off the Arnhem Land coast points to early explorers in the region.

[4] The South Australian Museum has digitised Norman Tindale’s Tribal Boundaries in Aboriginal Australia map, illustrating known Indigenous language groups. Only about 30 languages and dialects are still spoken today.

[5] Warlinipirri Tjapaltjarri, one of the Pintupi Nine, recalls the day he first saw a white man.

The Journey to Ancient Australia: Part 2

The following is an extract from an article first published in Agora magazine (HTAV).

Image © Laurence Grayson

It probably took around 4,000 years to settle the entire continent. The reptiles and megafauna were unlikely to have been the greatest danger. Instead, people had to learn which fruits were safe to eat, which plants were poisonous, which nuts or seeds could be processed, and which seasons were best for gathering root vegetables. The only way they could know this was to taste the food and wait to see what happened.

Once these risks were understood, Ancient Australians thrived. They became pioneers in science and technology, including aerodynamics [1] and astronomy [2]. They formed complex, sophisticated societies with defined borders, laws and systems of governance that still exist today.

Life was not always easy, though. During the Pleistocene [3], water was scarce, so people stayed close to rivers, lakes and waterholes, and only travelled long distances if necessary. Hunting and gathering usually happened within a range. In drier areas with little water, this range was wide because people would have needed to travel far to hunt or find food. As the continent dried up, many people retreated to refuges. For those living in the arid zone, knowledge of water sources and how to reach them became crucial for survival.

One such water source is found at Koonalda Cave, located on the Nullarbor Plain. Since excavations began in the 1950s, archaeologists have found hearths that date to between 23,000 BP and 13,000 BP, which indicates that, even during the last glacial maximum [4], people were still travelling into the harsh and barren desert areas. Inside Koonalda Cave are two underground lakes, providing travellers with water as well as shelter [5]. It also contains a good supply of flint, a type of stone used to make tools such as blades and scrapers. Some of the cave walls are so soft that they contain finger marks, called finger flutings, where people have scraped their hands along the rock. The marks were made around 20,000 BP and may be linked to initiation practices.

Towards the end of the Pleistocene, the climate and environment began to stabilise, producing warmer, wetter conditions similar to today. This period is known as the Holocene [6]. During this time, global warming freed up waters that had been locked in the polar caps and ice sheets, and caused sea levels to rise. Lakes that had been dry for thousands of years now held water, and some even began to overflow. The arid zone shrank, allowing coastal and temperate regions to regenerate and thrive. Bass Strait flooded, isolating Tasmania from the mainland. The Arafura Plain that had joined Australia to Papua New Guinea vanished beneath the sea, forming the islands that lie in the Torres Strait.

Image © Alethea Kinsela

During the last 10,500 years, Ancient Australia has undergone great changes, not only in climate, but also in technology. Across the continent, backed artefacts [7] enabled people to create more sophisticated and versatile tools. Needles and fishing hooks fashioned out of bone or shell became smaller and more refined. Stone drills and serrated saws began appearing in the Ancient Australian toolkit. Spears were embedded with stone blades and barbs, making them more deadly and effective.

People in Arnhem Land 9,000 BP stopped using boomerangs to hunt. Right along the coast, in places like the Whitsundays 8,000 BP, land hunters were forced to become expert fishermen as the sea levels rose. In Victoria and the Kimberley, the foundations for 5,000-year-old stone structures have been found. Instead of spears or hooks to catch fish in Northern Tasmania 4,000 BP, box traps and bone spikes were used. Earth mounds with stones packed on top were built on the volcanic plains of South Eastern Australia 3,000 BP and possibly used as raised bases for huts and gardens. In the last 2,000 years, fish and eel traps were built using stones in rivers and shallow ocean inlets.

Holocene technology was sophisticated and efficient, and became even more so once visitors from other continents began to make contact.


[1] Boomerangs were used in many cultures across the world, but the returning boomerang is unique to Australia. The oldest boomerangs in the world were found in Wyrie Swamp in South Australia. They date to 10,000 BP.

[2] Wurdi Youang stone arrangement near Geelong, dubbed ‘Australia’s Stonehenge’, seems to align with the equinoxes.

[3] The Pleistocene ranges from 2.5 million years ago until about 10,500 BP.

[4] The last glacial maximum (LGM) was the most intense cold period of the last glaciation, which peaked at around 20,000 BP.

[5] The second episode of the ABC’s First Footprints includes a segment about Koonalda Cave.

[6] The Holocene ranges from about 10,500 BP to today.

[7] A backed artefact is a stone tool that has retouch along one edge to make that edge blunt.

The Journey to Ancient Australia: Part 1

The following is an extract from an article first published in Agora magazine (HTAV).

According to the Australian Curriculum: History, the Ancient World falls neatly into a bracket of time that began approximately 60,000 years ago and ended 650 years ago. The Ancient World, and in particular Ancient Australia, is not as straightforward as this timeframe suggests. It has deep and complex roots that stretch back even further.

About 100,000 BP [1], when modern humans migrated out of Africa and moved into regions throughout the Middle East, the global climate was quite different to what it is today. Arid zones were more extensive, with desert regions advancing and pushing people out of previously habitable areas. Some people may have moved east into Asia, some north into Europe, and others into Sub-Saharan Africa, to escape the dry and windswept terrain [2]. Huge amounts of water became trapped in the polar ice caps and in large glaciers, causing the oceans to recede and the climate to cool down. Vast tracts of land that are underwater today were exposed during these cooler phases, making it easier for humans to spread out, a journey of exploration that averaged an advancement of one to four kilometres per year.

Homo_sapiens_neanderthalensis (Luna04)As humans travelled into Southeast Asia, more than 60,000 years ago, and Europe, more than 40,000 years ago, they also came face to face with another species, Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals. Modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and, by doing so, appear to have inherited a helpful gene from them that boosts the immune system [3]. Geneticists have suggested that people with European descent may have around 2 to 4% Neanderthal DNA [4]. People from other parts of the world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, do not usually have any Neanderthal DNA.

Tests conducted using genetic signatures found in skeletal remains have revealed other intriguing links. While working in a Siberian cave in 2010, archaeologists discovered a new species closely related to humans. The evidence for this new species initially relied on a tiny fragment of finger bone no larger than a fingernail. Later, a toe bone and two teeth were also found. The archaeologists named these people Denisovans after Denisova Cave, where the skeletal remains were uncovered. Archaeologists also found evidence that Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans had all occupied the site about 40,000 BP.

Geneticists have already found evidence that some modern humans interbred with Denisovans, just like they did with Neanderthals, and people with Denisovan ancestry share 5 to 7% DNA with this human cousin [5].

Australia_New_Guinea_continent (NASA's World Wind software using Landsat 7 data)When people travelled from Asia to Australia about 50,000 BP, the sea levels were 80 metres lower than what they are today [6]. Even so, the journey would have been at least 100 kilometres, suggesting that it was either a terrible accident of misdirection, or else a deliberate attempt to reach unknown shores. Perhaps a small fishing group was swept out to sea and marooned on strange and unfamiliar shores. Or else people saw smoke on the horizon, a result of lightning strike bushfires, and decided to investigate.


[1] BP = years before present

[2] The Australian Museum provides a summary of migration patterns out of Africa and into Australia, as well as a comprehensive overview of Ancient Australian ancestry, technology, lifestyle and chronology:

[3] The inherited Neanderthal gene and its effects are explained in greater detail here:

[4] However, the idea that Neanderthal DNA gave some humans lighter skin and hair is a myth. Skin pigmentation was determined by latitude. For more information, see:

[5] National Geographic has a useful article about the discovery of the Denisovans:

[6] This interactive map of Sahul demonstrates what the coastline would have looked like at various points in the past:

A multidisciplinary approach to Australia’s ancient history

When conceptualising ‘history’, people usually imagine a stack of dusty books, or perhaps some crumbling stone ruins. But what happens when a place has no written records or clearly identifiable infrastructure? Is it still possible to construct a definitive historical narrative?

If we are attempting to define Australia’s ancient history in a ‘Western’ sense then this can be mapped using archaeology and other disciplines. Overlay this with the myriad of traditional oral histories, and the result is the oldest and most intricate chronology in the world.

The chronology of Ancient Australia – and yes, there is a chronology – can be mapped with the help of multiple disciplines and a variety of evidence types.


Archaeology is the study of past human behaviour using scientific analyses of material remains. Archaeology is one of the principal disciplines when it comes to understanding Australia’s ancient past. In Australia, material remains are often the only evidence available, so this becomes the lens through which the continent’s ancient history is viewed and subsequently written. Archaeology provides information about specific sites, land use and available technology. Often, this evidence is a mere snapshot of a much larger picture that can only be realised with a combination of more archaeological investigation and the help of other key disciplines.

Palaeoclimatology is the study of past climates. Palaeoclimatology is crucial to understanding Ancient Australia because it reveals information about changing sea levels, fluctuating temperatures, and the climate conditions in different parts of the continent at particular points in time. This information assists with answering major questions about Australia’s ancient past, such as when was the best time for people to arrive, how they crossed the continent, and what impacts the changing environment had on lifestyle and mobility.

Palaeontology is the study of fossils and fossilised organisms. In the context of Ancient Australia, palaeontology, along with palaeozoology and palaeobotany, is vital to understanding how ancient species have changed and adapted over time, how climate and environment impacted upon their existence, and whether people were in any way responsible for their extinction.

Anthropology is the study of the origins of people and their physical and cultural development. Many anthropologists have attempted to document and record Aboriginal languages, cultures and customs, and this research is important to understanding and preserving cultural knowledge, such as languages that may no longer be spoken.

Oral histories are narratives that are passed on to younger generations. Archaeologists are increasingly reliant on Aboriginal oral histories to interpret and understand past events. For example, oral histories from coastal peoples might describe the sea creeping closer to the shore, or hills becoming islands; these narratives may in fact be the remnants of eyewitness accounts from a time of global warming and sea level rise thousands of years ago.

When drawing on multiple disciplines, a more complete and enriched picture of Australia’s ancient history begins to emerge.

Does age equal value?

Thanks to H. for submitting today’s Reader Question:

Is it possible for an artefact to hold any value if its story has been lost? 

Take pennies for example. Quite a few features on a penny can help indicate its age, but for this instance, I’ll simplify our only understanding to what the date tells us. The date on a penny is its story. If you had a penny from 1820 but the date was scraped off, then the penny’s value would be nothing more than an average penny, but if the date was not scraped off and the date – 1820 – is clearly visible, then this penny would be worth far more. Without the story/date the penny would have no significant value other than its assumed ordinary status.

This is an interesting question, and it needs two answers: one for ‘date’, and one for ‘story’.


If an artefact has a date stamped onto it, fantastic. It makes the job of archaeologists and historians much easier. But as you say, there are more ways to figure out the age of an artefact than simply reading the engraved year. Features on a penny can tell us where/when the coin was minted. Failing that, we can look at context. If it was found in, say, a box in the attic, perhaps it was found with other artefacts that we can date. If it was excavated, we might be able to date the stratigraphical layer in which is was found.

Once we have a date for the penny, all it really tells us is the age of that artefact. Taken out of context, whether that be the context within a collection of artefacts excavated from a trench, or a historical or chronological context, the date itself doesn’t really give it value.

What gives an artefact value is provenance, or the ‘story’.


Provenance (the ‘story’ or context associated with an artefact) can add huge value to an artefact. Perhaps, after close examination, we conclude that the penny was minted in 1820, and we discover that pennies from this year are very common, so we might conclude that our penny doesn’t hold much historical or monetary value.

However, let’s say the date was rubbed off because the penny was kept for good luck, and the person who carried this penny around in their pocket for years just happened to be King William IV of Great Britain. The date is worn off because the King ran his fingers across the surface so often. As long as we can prove that this penny lived in King William IV’s pocket for nearly two decades, our 1820 penny of little worth transforms into a central museum piece. The fact that it has or hasn’t got a date stamp becomes irrelevant. In fact, the process of it losing its date becomes an important part of its history and, therefore, value.

Date + Provenance = information goldmine

In terms of historical or archaeological value, provenance is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You can learn a lot from a single artefact, but as soon as it becomes part of a collection, the amount of information you can glean increases exponentially.

Take Indigenous artefacts, for example. A single stone tool may not tell you much, but if it is one item in a collection of thousands, you can analyse the collection to learn when people were using these tools, how they hunted, what they hunted, whether they hunted large or small game, what sort of food they gathered, how they gathered it, whether they ate more vegetables or meat, how far they had to travel to find the raw material to make their tools…and so much more. A single artefact can’t tell you all that.

Provenance in context

Many Indigenous peoples in Australia believe that an artefact loses its meaning once it is removed from the place in which it was found. The Western idea that artefacts belong in a museum (thanks, Indiana) is not a universal perspective. After archaeologists excavate an Indigenous site, the artefacts must be returned to the Traditional Owners, who may wish to rebury them. This is true of stone artefacts as well as human remains.

One of the most heated heritage debates in Australia is fuelled by differing ideologies. Mining companies wanting to preserve Indigenous heritage believe that relocating the artefacts to a museum is the right and proper thing to do. Many Indigenous peoples believe that removing the artefacts devalues their cultural significance; the artefacts must remain in situ to retain their full value.

Ideology clash…or not?

In 1998, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music came under fire when, during building works, a lost convict road and drainage system was uncovered. Developers proposed to remove the structures, brick by brick, and rebuild them in a museum space exactly as they were found.

To my way of thinking, they may as well reconstruct them anywhere . . . what is being proposed is reconstruction, not conservation. (Justin McCarthy, Managing Director of Austral Archaeology)

After much debate, and a heated public backlash, it was decided that the road and drain must remain in situ and the extension must be built around them.

How effective is it to encase the road remains in a building like this? How does that help us understand or interpret the past? (Stephen Davies, National Trust’s Head of Conservation)

An interesting question from Mr Davies, and one that can perhaps be applied to just about any archaeological site.

Read more about the Conservatorium of Music’s approach to archaeology here.

convict drainImage credit

arch displaysImage credit