NZ Archaeology Week (28 April-6 May) is here and we kick off by chatting with renowned archaeologist David Veart.
This Wednesday, David is hosting a talk for enthusiasts on his book Archaeology for the Young and Curious and recounts his experiences in the field.
From excavating Māori gardens to popping up on episodes of ABC’s Time Walks with Tony Robinson; researching NZ’s food history and eradicating pests; searching for lost aeroplanes in North Head or mastering NZ’s defence policy, he knows all the nooks and crannies of the field.
Tell us about how you first got into archaeology.
I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology – technically my very first dig was age 9 or 10 in Onehunga. (Archaeological pointing trowel, mum’s garden trowel – eh, same thing).
When I was teaching in the London East End, I volunteered as an archaeological labourer for the Museum of London and realised archaeology was a real career and what I wanted to do with my life. So I came back to NZ to train.
What are some of the most exciting digs you’ve been on?
In London, I helped work on an ancient Roman well. There were so many materials – the contents of a Roman kitchen, implements belonging to Roman cooks, upmarket possessions, decorated pottery from France. It truly gave me a taste of what could be.
One of the first jobs I worked on here was an amazing site in the Bay of Islands – you could see the layers from moa bones on the bottom to an 18th-century French campsite on the top.
Obviously, you won’t have time to talk about your whole book, but what can people look forward to at the talk?
I’ll share stories that have fascinated me on jobs I’ve worked on – using archaeological techniques for the weirdest things, the search for aeroplanes at North Head and so on.
One thing I’ve done with kids before is have them excavate their own rubbish. Grab a bag already in the bin and then examine it using archaeological techniques – it’s amazing the family secrets you discover!
(I’m sure there are a lot of not-so-amused parents thanking me for that mess – but analysing the behaviours of modern people from rubbish excavation is a genuine and fascinating area).
Do you enjoy teaching other people about archaeology?
Sharing archaeology, especially with children, enthrals me.
Since writing Archaeology for the Young and Curious, I’ve got so many emails and phone calls from kids going ‘what did you mean about this on page 22?’ One family sent me a wonderful series of photos of their son who’d dug up the whole back garden!
What do you love about archaeology?
Archaeology is the study of things people have left behind. And my job is telling the story of those things.
I tell kids it’s like learning to read the random squiggles on paper until they become words. You learn how to read the landscape – you don’t just see a hole in the ground anymore because no hole is the same, they all tell you something. And it’s the most innate, basic human things. Food, shelter, living. And you realise all humans are more similar than we are different.
What excites you about New Zealand and Auckland archaeology in particular?
It’s the last major landmass on the planet settled by people. We can actually see the impact of humans on an ecosystem.
In other countries, humans arrived tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. But here we can actually see what an ecosystem was like without humans. If you want to put humans in the broader ecological world New Zealand is the place.
People say there’s no history here but there is. I feel more connected to the footprints of the people who walked through volcanic mud at Rangitoto 700 years ago, than the remains of a Roman army site 2000 years ago.
It’s brilliant seeing everything happening with archaeology week.
David will be speaking at Central City Library at 12pm on Wednesday 2 May. Book a spot here!