A big brown bear walks into the bar and asks: “I want a beer.” The barman says: “Sorry, we don’t serve big brown bears beer in this bar.”
The bear says: “But, I want a beer!”
The barman responds: “I am sorry, but I cannot serve big brown bears beer in this pub. There is no beer. In fact, as you can see there is no bar, no pub, and no evidence of a pub of any kind. More to the point, I feel a right fool standing here in an empty paddock, in Australia, talking to a big brown bear!”
“Well this joke is going nowhere rather fast.” Retorts the bear, and with that he saunters off looking to participate in some other humorous anecdote.
So regularly, our past is obliterated: removed from our sight through natural processes or hastened in response to societal needs. There is a need to replace, renew and re-use: it is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, we must continue to respond to our own, and others, changing needs. Why then do we care about the past? Why do some people feel the need to cling onto recollections and material things? And if we do need to reflect on historical events and places, how do we go about restoring those memories? For the archaeologist the removal of the material evidence provides a test. Once the challenge is accepted, the linking of meagre descriptions to the material evidence helps transform collective pieces into a reconstructed memory of an earlier time.
Well, the barman is not quite correct. The evidence is there, and like any good crime solving television show the puzzle pieces must be found and put together to form a complete picture. It is true, the hotel and associated buildings have been obliterated from sight. Our archaeological investigation hasn’t found any walls or floor that would provide the footprint of the hotel structure. The scene of the crime has been wiped clean. What of the other evidence? Witnesses remember ruins in the area many years ago: in a corner of the paddock aligned alongside Forrest Rd (…or was it Wasleys Rd…?), once joined by six others to form the seven points of a star. Scribblings in the newspaper offer brief descriptions of the hotel and area, as do the memoires of a writer recalling the history of Mallala and surrounding environs. Government records provide names and details of those with intimate association to the hotel and area. Then there is more physical evidence. Scattered fragments of ceramic and glass; typical of the late 1800s dining and drinking establishment. The case file thickens.
Figure 1. The Paddock. Site of the Seven Stars Hotel and associated buildings: a distant memory. Photograph Andrew Wilkinson.
If the archaeological team scoured the site and found substantive evidence of walls and floors the issue might be prematurely closed, an open and shut case as it were. What was actually found beneath the surface provides the next challenge. There is now a puzzle, some mystery and intrigue to test the mental fortitude of the investigator. A few centimetres below the soil surface, at some distance from the presumed hotel site, appeared a floor. Not a regular floor. Not tiled or paved, or even smooth. This floor is rough. Tightly packed stone, of similar size and type, spread over an area, metres in dimension. Occasional fragments of brick break the uniformity of the find. The stone surface isn’t deep and rests upon the natural soil of the area. A list of questions increases. What does this mean? What is the purpose of this feature, interrupted with pockets of clean soil, and possible post holes? Herein lays the real challenge for the investigative team. Nails, brass pins, pieces of metal, and a portion of a horse shoe found nearby might suggest the floor of a stable. The research continues…
Figure 2. The enigma – a stone floor just below the current soil surface? Photograph Andrew Wilkinson.
We would love to have an answer, but perhaps it is the scant remains that enable us to exercise our imagination, to recreate what the area must have been like, rather than ensure a conclusion. Thoughts, ideas and hypotheses create discussion and exercise the mind. They may provide a challenge for the archaeologist to understanding a problem that activates the imagination, or otherwise provide the seed for a bad joke about big brown bears.