Dean Veall here, we are getting ready for tonight’s Focus on the Positive event where we will be giving away £2,000 to a researcher here at UCL. They will pitch to the audience their project who will then vote to decide which project, related to their research, becomes a reality. Alison Fairbrass was a runner-up at a previous event and has written about how she spent her £1,000 prize giving London Biodiversity a health check.
Over the past few years I have been spending my spare time in a remote area of the Kimberley, on the northwest corner of Australia, helping a conservation NGO – the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) – to do ecological fieldwork. AWC are Australia’s largest private owner of land for conservation, and their mission is to manage it based on scientific research. In the northwest their big long-term projects involve determining the effects of cattle and different fire management practices on tropical savannah ecosystems. And in my most recent two trips I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the detection of super-scarce species in extremely remote pockets of rainforest and monsoonal woodland.
A few years ago AWC acquired an amazing patch of the Kimberley called Artesian Range – monsoonal savannah criss-crossed with sandstone ranges, gorges of vine-thickets and rainforest pockets. I remember going through the first set of remote camera trap images that came back from Artestian in 2011 and being amazed at the species that were being detected.
The haven from extinction
It seems that Artesian Range is the only place in mainland Australia not to have suffered any mammal extinctions since European colonisation. A community of amazing endemics has clung on – scaly-tailed possums, golden-backed tree rats, monjons, golden bandicoots and Kimberley rock rats. When I was analyzing those camera trap images in 2011 I was a couple of hundred kilometres south of Artesian, on AWC Northwest’s main home sanctuary, Mornington. Artesian Range is in one of the least accessible parts of Australia, requiring a combination of propeller-plane, serious 4WD and helicopter to get to. As amazing as it was to see these species on the screen, I instantly knew I had to go and see them in the flesh. For me, the scaly-tailed possum had become the holy grail.
Flinders Petrie began his autobiography by warning that “The affairs of a private person are seldom pertinent to the interests of others” . Fortunately for both us and his publisher this proved no impediment, and Petrie went on to write about himself, his thoughts and his life’s work at great length.
Petrie was a prolific writer, both in the public and private arena, and we are not short of material to help us learn about his life. But not everything he wrote was wordy. I’d like to introduce you today to a more unexpected side of his penmanship: his personal appointment diaries. (more…)
Archaeology sounds so glamorous – well, it’s an ‘ology’, after all, and it’s got an impressively archaic diphthong in it (unless you go for the tragically dull American spelling of the word). The word conjures up images of exotic, far-flung places where on tossing your rugged Akubra hat to one side, you need do no more than lay down a few well-placed trowel strokes before uncovering the long-lost secrets of time itself …. or something of the sort. Those clumsy archaeologists are always stumbling over something. But you know it’s not all Time Team, right? That one moment of instant fame, on discovering something über-cool, comes at the end of a couple of decades of hard slog, discovering many things that seem interesting to you but may not sing to the rest of the universe in quite the same way. To be followed by months of equally hard slog, dealing with all the subsequent work that object generates. Cataloguing it. Researching it. Publishing it. Publicising it. Correcting all the erroneous things that people go on to write about it, because they didn’t pay attention to what you said about it in the first place. And so on.
The most visible archaeologists are those that are good at the publicity thing. You may not know who they are, but they and their often impressive facial hair become like old friends in your living room. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who founded the Institute of Archaeology, was a dab hand at dealing with the media. He used to make regular appearances on Animal, Vegetable or Mineral, a TV quiz show in which archaeological experts were asked to identify random objects, to the entertainment of their studio audience. Not only was he a superb archaeologist; he also bore a world-class moustache; a sort of Terry Thomas pantomime villain at its best.