Postcards from the past: In the trenches at Pella


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January, 2001

My first job in the trenches is to knock down a Hellenistic wall using a pick. I chip away at fill to level off behind a string-line while large stones topple around my feet. Then I clear them away. After lunch I trowel out foundation fill, mainly pottery shards, but also a tiny piece of oxidised copper, and some minute pieces of flint. For the last 20 minutes I continue destroying the wall, keeping it cleanly vertical with a plum-bob.

I gradually learn that archaeology is another name for destruction. I bash away at a wall with a monkoosh and then clean up the mess I make with a hand shovel and a mustereen. I expose and smooth a silky grey surface: Electra demolishes it.

I become enamoured of my monster pit. There my job is clear: to delineate and excavate. It’s my pit, my familiar place, where I feel competent. After a Friday trip to Umm Qais I whizz back down to the dig site to look at it.

I’m not so competent when it comes to baulk-cleaning, where I have to be very sure nothing tumbles down to contaminate meticulous layering. I know I’m not good at this, so when Stephen yells “Straighten it up. It’s as round as a whore’s bum” I’m amused rather than affronted.

Sometimes I am snappy and tearful: I can’t manage the plum-bob; I crack the back of my fingers and make them bleed; and Electra calls me “Margaret”. Sometimes Maggie gives me a quick succession of jobs, none of which I have time to get stuck into. Sometimes when I clean a clump of rocks ready for photography, Steve says “Great job” and I suspect sarcasm. Sometimes it’s hard on the wrist: “scrape hard enough to make your wrist hurt” is Maggie’s standard.

But I become more agile, hopping around the trench as it becomes noticeably deeper, and gradually learn to yell “Bidi goofah” to summon a man to empty my bucket made from a recycled tyre. Try to do it myself so I don’t have to shout orders, and they glare at me. Sometimes four men line up, chanting as they pass the buckets along the chain.

On the second last day, it begins to rain. When I poke my head above the trenches at knock off time, I’m dazzled by the sudden greening of Tell Husn, till now quite barren.

Every time I look around the past is visible, and so is the meticulous task of unearthing it.

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Eurobodalla beaches: from Tilba Cemetery towards 1080


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Returning to Australian weekends is easy, in winter sunshine before the wind picks up. We drive the new car out along the spur towards Tilba Cemetery, and suddenly the Pacific Ocean sprawls before us. A sandy track leads us down to a wide beach, backed by grassy dunes, and, towering behind farmland, under bright clouds, sacred Gulaga.

The beach is distinctive. The tideline is marked by lines of small shells in curves and points, depending on the whim of the retreating sea.

The sea is smooth, lazy waves plopping on the sand and splashing laconically.

I’m fascinated by horizontality. J is far ahead as I snap snap snap, his leg functioning well again, the rocks at the far end of the beach dragging him along by his geological curiosity. I’m not focused on geology, just on the feel of Australian sand and wind and sun. I’ve lost any knack I had of geological analytics in my seven weeks in Warsaw. I have to relearn diorite, and … what on earth were the other -ites?

There are no rocks till we approach the northern end and then sudden outcrops and bluffs appear.

I’m easily pleased by sand and rock gardens; rock patterns; and traces of attempted ownership.

We sit companionably for a while in the sun, sheltered by the rocks from the wind.

As we head back, a flock of tiny birds announce their presence by mazes of claw-prints, and then appear, scurry-pause-scurry, shadows and minute sand-spurts in tow.

We return to the car up a different track, through a gate and onto a bare grassy hillside capped by the cemetery

Postcards from the past: daily routine on a dig


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My series of Postcards from the past came to a sudden halt a while back, mainly because I reached a point where I had plenty of memories, but no images. I’ve decided to deal with that hiccup by means of a words-only interlude.

The story so far: in 2000 I was a paying volunteer on an archaeological dig at Pella in Jordan, with a team from Sydney University.

There were three aspects of the work I did on the dig: cleaning a variety of finds; sorting the morning’s haul; and action in the trenches. I have photos of work in the trench, but for some reason the camera didn’t accompany me when I was cleaning and sorting.

Inside work

On alternate days we worked inside, or around the dig house. My first archaeological job was at the cleaning table, toothbrushing bones in water: camel or donkey teeth; a small lower jaw; some brown marbled bone; and heaps of slivers I didn’t dare discard. In the midst of bone I came across part of a small ceramic oil lamp. I cleaned mud from its spout gently with a toothpick.

There were two unexpected jobs. One was poking holes in cheap plastic sieves. The other was the manufacture of cotton buds: we sat there, intently winding cotton wool around a matchstick. We used the buds to clean glass with ethanol. This required deep concentration: the glass was delicate and often sharp. In my pile, there were a few very fine clear fragments, some with a subdued opalescent surface, some with dirt-filled tunnels below the rim; and a few heavy green bits. One piece stood out: a beautifully shaped handle, green with long swirls of red.

More energetically, we relocated boxes dating back to 1984 from between two mud brick walls, forming a chain and working in dusty camaraderie. I absconded before we were too deep amongst spider-webs, beetles and scorpions, fearful of the legendary camel spiders that gnaw hunks out of camel humps.

Pottery sorting

After a morning in the trenches, buckets of shards were lugged across to the yard of the dig house and emptied one by one onto mats for sorting.

Steve, the dig director, circulated, keeping an eye on volunteers and offering advice: “That big heavy clumsy piece is a tile. Keep it: it’s complete” or “That green piece there with rounded ribbing stays. There’s nothing else like it in this lot.” I was anxiously meticulous, until Steve explained the process in rigorous scientific terms: “Look at it. If you think that’s one of those, chuck it on on that pile. If it looks much the same as the other stuff in the pile, that’s where it belongs.”

All painted pieces qualified for keeping, as did any piece at all distinctive or unique. At the end of the session we counted the discards and dumped them in the pile outside the compound, carefully mapped as a scrap pile. When we left the dig, we each souvenired a few shards.

This work was necessary and sometimes exciting, but the trenches were where the real action was.

Returning home


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I left Warsaw at 6.25 in the afternoon on a chilly day, after weeks of warmth. I had no seat choice: only middle of the row left. I slept all the way to Heathrow, head sagging, mouth open, sleep my familiar, a defence against misery.

The Heathrow turnaround was short and by the time I reached the departure gate via bus, train and brisk walk my flight was already boarding. On the way to my seat – 35D: the same one that brought me to London 7 weeks ago – I picked up a New York Times, international edition. I settled down for the 13 hour flight, pulling on my pressure stockings, creating a playlist of 40 pieces of music, and folding the broadsheet into manageable segments.

Unexpectedly, an article contained a summons back to my Australian life, the life in which geology featured large. An article recounted the ice-age origins of the New York landscape and although I have no knowledge of New York, it offered a template of desire: I want such an account of city landscapes I know.

I dozed on the London – Singapore leg, and somehow managed to lose my headphones. I only listened to two things on my playlist- Beethoven and Steve Reich’s Music for pieces of wood. The rest of my waking time I edited, discarded and collaged photos, and read junk on my kindle.

In Singapore there was barely time to get off the plane and back on for the final 7 hours. I watched a very atmospheric Murder on the Orient Express, with Kenneth Branagh as Poirot.

Just as I was ready to doze off we crossed into Australia somewhere near Port Headland, and I was riveted by the landscape on the flight path screen. That beautiful landscape of home: pale blue, green, ochre, darker green, khaki: the sinuous bends of the Shaw River, and the low contour lines: Mt Edgar, 373 metres; Mt Madley 534m; Mt Beadell 530m; Scamp Hill 594m; Mt Talbot 623m; Mt Rawlinson 605m. There were other waterways – rivers, creeks, lagoons, washes and lakes – and a few deserts: Little Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert. An intriguing large blue patch turned out to be Lake Disappointment, hinting at the travails of European explorers. There was even a trace of Polish footsteps in a name: Lake Gruszka. This is my country, but I’ve never been west, so for half the continental journey places named were as alien as Turda, Cluj-Napoca, Zalau, Alesed.

Bland Creek gave me pause for thought. Is that what my life will be back home, without the endless colour and delight of twins?

Suddenly we’re skirting the southern edge of the continent – Smoky Bay, Denial Bay, Saint Peter Island, Point Brown, Streaky Bay, St Francis Islands, Nuyt’s Archipelago. Place names become more familiar: Port Augusta, Whyalla, Murray River, Darling River (weekend camping when I was in Broken Hill, and a holiday with the family on a houseboat); Mildura (where I behaved very badly), Lachlan River (where once we were attacked by squadrons of mosquitoes); Murrumbidgee River (followed on a road trip after floods); Griffith (where J picked oranges the year our youngest son finished high school, and I began cementing my friendship with Annette); Wagga Wagga (where my first flight ever had to turn back and where I bought my Noritake dinner service in the late 1960s.)

By now the height of mountains is increasing: Mt Minjary 762m, Sugarloaf Mtn 774m, Mt McAlister 1033m, Yumatbulla Mtn 1485m, Bimberi Peak 1912m, although not so neatly sequential.

As the mountains get higher, the plane begins it’s descent, and soon we’re taxiing at Kingsford Smith airport. I activate my phone. While I wait at the carousel for my bag I text family to let them know I’ve arrived. And guess what? All messages are delivered.

It’s a cold Sydney pre-dawn. As the sky lightens I sit on Wolli Creek station after a friendly encounter with the guard on the airport train. I’m inadequately clad and the cold attacks my bottom in stripes through the metal slats of the seat. I’m tired now, and doze as the train heads south: sombre bush spins past and grey ocean heaves gently. A grimy man gets on and surrounds himself with his plastic bags and ripped backpack. He pulls out a mobile and I eavesdrop: he’s off to spend time with a friend who’s lonely.

Finally we pull in at Bomaderry, and there’s J rugged up in beanie and Warsaw jacket. I kiss him through the train window, and we make our entwined way to the car.

By the time we reach Moruya I’m dropping in and out of sleep. At home I greet son and dog, spread a piece of Australian bread with peanut butter, and fall into bed, freshly made by H who has a horror of spiders taking up residence in unused bedclothes. I sleep round the clock and then some, with a brief awakening to talk to my Australian daughter and eat satay chicken: my son knows my favourite food. He’s also stocked the frig with all my necessities: soy milk, orange juice, grapes, frozen yoghurt.

I went to Warsaw with the hope that I’d change the pattern of my days, establish a new routine, and come back virtuous in every way. I’d forgotten the lesson of Cavafy

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you. You will walk

the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,

will turn gray in these same houses.

My hope for the tripartite tourist day was forlorn, as was my determination to wean myself off my addictions to blogging and Netflix. My energy was limited. I was happiest when I was being entertained which is why the visit was one of museums rather than explorations.

What did change was the depth of grandparental delight and my relationship with twins who are no longer kidlets. Forget museums and failures. Remember only chatter, mischief and little hands in mine.

I relive the seven weeks as I skim my blog and process my diary chronicle. I glue a few odds and ends into my commonplace book, and contac the notebook Maja covered with stickers so they don’t peel off.

I read the latest edition of The monthly: a profile of Helen Garner, challenging as everything to do with her is; and an article by former Greens Senator Scott Ludlum about Rohingya refugees and the Australian government’s indifference. I’m back in the perplexities and horrors of the real world beyond the euphoria of travel.

At night I hear the continuo of the ocean and the flop of the dog at the end of my bed, and know that I am indeed home.

I’m linking this to Cathy’s wanderessence blog in response to July’s invitation to write about returning home.

Hotchpotch 17


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This will be the last post from snippetsandsnaps for a couple of months. Meanwhile, I’ll be blogging at warsaw2018 if you’d like to join me there as I visit Warsaw for the seventh time since 2012 and catch up with my twin grandchildren, Maja and Jaś, now 5 years and 4 months – and of course their parents.

This fare-well-for-now hotchpotch is a catalogue of things I’ll miss while I’m on the other side of the world.

Morning maraudings

I’ll probably ramble the streets of Warsaw on early spring mornings, but I won’t dare take the liberties I take in the streets of Potato Point.

Catching up with friends

I have plenty of special places to do that here, a few of them visited recently in the ceremony of farewells. Downward Dog in Bodalla has added a few delights since I was there last – the big back room offers games to play with lunch or coffee and cake (we tested ourselves with the Trivial Pursuit cards) and the outdoor area is bright with tiles, dog-panels, hanging baskets, and a tower topped by bowls and a teapot

(Cafe shots are the first photos taken on my new camera – Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX90V – a younger sibling of the one I drowned)

The Tilba Teapot offers a verandah nook and on this visit a free scone, and both cafes give me the company of an old friend and the comfort of speaking English.

In Warsaw I’ll have to hunt out pleasant venues for coffee; be satisfied with my own company; and put my chatter on mute.


The geology museum is on the agenda for Warsaw, but it won’t be able to compete with the explorations at home. J has just begun his categorisation of rocks, repurposing two of the hall bookcases and relocating them to the living room. He reckons he needs me to harangue on all matters geological, but I bet progress is made while I’m away.

The beach, the beach

There will be no substitute for the beaches of home, fingers of god early on a dull morning, perfect sunshine at Honeymoon Beach, even on rainy days through the window of the car.

Oddities and artworks

I imagine I’ll see plenty of art but probably not a visitors book held in place like this …

or sculptures on a headland like this


There’ll be vegetables in Warsaw, but they won’t be free (although they’ll be very cheap) or presented as a still life, straight from the grower’s garden.

Close companions

In so many ways, for so many years, these two have enriched my life. A pity they couldn’t accompany me.

RegularRandom: 5 minutes with beach calligraphy


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It’s a while since I’ve indulged my liking for the graceful lettering the sea leaves behind. Right now my own beach is dense with indiscriminate sea-weed, but two beaches down the leavings are more fastidious and selective, even delicate.

This week my contribution to Desley’s RegularRandom almost manages to match delicacy with delicacy, although not pink with pink! Apologies too – I just reread the rules of the game and I’ve strayed a long way from one object, many angles and different lighting, although I didn’t interfere. Next time …

Return to Narek Gallery


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After a morning of coffee at the Tilba Teapot, and prowling the wonderful stuff at Apma Aboriginal Gallery and Giftshop, I walk with a friend of 30 years through the Bermagui wetlands (last time I did this I was leading a gaggle of primary school kids seeking writing inspiration), onto the beach, and back along the clear waters of the estuary. Conversation and an attempt to keep pace with my companion took the place of photography.

Lunch was aptly named bliss salad – grated beetroot, fried tofu, fresh herbs and a sweet dressing – at River Rock cafe. I met a new musical instrument, the cabasa, listened to conversations about the difficulty of buying guitar strings in the country, and heard the birth of plans for a trip to Mongolia.

Narek Gallery was a perfect end to the day, an exhibition showcasing Annie Franklin’s multiple skills – painting, ceramics, carving and moulded frames. There was poetry in the names of her pieces, some merely place names, none of this “untitled” nonsense!

3D tributes to trees were contained in boxes.

Ceramics were also displayed in carved boxes, or on a kind of mini-stage with a landscape behind them.

Paintings, in frames moulded by the artist, have something of the naive about them, attention paid to every blade of grass.

Her tribute to a tree is painted against a background decorated with images of all the life that depends on it.

Music speaks


For the first time since I’ve been going to the Four Winds Easter festival, the forecast threatened rain. The weather goddesses were kind: they justified the forecast, but only delivered seven drops and and that was in two instalments.

What a feast of a festival! Two days of music, four concerts a day. Seven very well known composers, four premieres, at least four commissioned pieces. Aboriginal dancers, Japanese drums, brass, strings, piano, percussion, classical accordion, harp, wine glass, conch-shell, voice. Two standing ovations. An appeal for donations for people in Tathra who lost homes in bushfires a few week ago, just a few kilometres down the road which harvested $30000, to be matched by the Four Winds Foundation.

On Saturday morning the amphitheatre filled slowly. The lagoon behind the sound shell rippled in a light breeze. A moorhen paraded through the yellow waterlilies on the far edge. A dragonfly darted across in front of the stage.

At 10 am the leader of the local Taiko drum group beat the summons to seats on one of the big drums, sticks and arms whirling.

An Aboriginal Elder welcomed us to country, walking through the tiers of the amphitheatre carrying an abalone shell containing fungus from the women’s place, Gulaga, for the smoking ceremony. Children from Bermagui school sang Aborginal songs after a week of music with two Aboriginal singers, Candice Lorrae and Kristel Kickett, as part of the Four Winds education program.

Djaadjawan Dancers, a group of Aboriginal women, ages ranging from 6 to 60, danced a traditional welcome, a whale dance, and a special dance created for the festival. They were dressed in blue, arms and feet painted with white ochre, a wide plaited belt dangling with shells, headbands of feathers, accompanied by boomerang clapping sticks and energetic beating of Japanese drums by the local Stonewave Taiko drummers.

After that stupendous opening, so many more highlights.

David Leha (stage name Radical Son), an Aboriginal man born at Wallaga, the aboriginal community quite close to the Four Winds site, had such presence as I have never felt before. He sang mainly in language, a powerful voice and a powerful statement of self. I knew straight away this would be one of my favourites. Nothing I could find on the Internet matched what I heard from the soundshell.

A strong contrast to this was Breath Dance, one of the world premieres, part of the Composing for the future with James Crabbe campaign. composed for harpist Alice Giles by Timothy Geller, a piece for harp and wine glass. Recorded wind from Antarctica was part of this music, created when Giles set her harp beside a frozen sea near Davis Station and recorded the sound.

More Aboriginal song, this time from Jessie Lloyd’s Mission Songs Project. She’s been collecting songs sung on the missions, set up around Australia in the 19th century, usually by clergy, to “house, protect, and Christianise” Aboriginal people. The songs express the indigenous experience of hunger, exploitation and displacement, and the spirit that can survive these things. The voices of the singers were rich and harmonised in that wonderful way of voices that set up a vibration.

The song cycle ‘Ayre’ by Argentine-Israeli-Russian composer, Osvaldo Golijov, draws on traditional Arabic, Christian and Jewish cultures, with contemporary South American rhythms. It gave soprano Emma Pearson incredible vocal scope and brought the first day to a rousing end. The photo shows only part of her instrumental backing – it also included double bass, flute, clarinet, conch shell, classical and hyper-accordion, percussion and ronroco.

As we left the parking area for the sound shell on Sunday, voices soared up through the amphitheatre to greet us. One of the benefits of pathological early arrival is the chance to encounter artists in rehearsal. On this occasion it was the five singers of the Song Company, who introduced Day 2 with an hour of 16th century music, sitting around the table quaffing and chatting in Latin (translated for those without fluency) and merging their voices to “find the communal pulse” (“tactus” in Latin).

Guy Noble, the MC, was inspired to introduce the next concert in plainsong, one of his more successful acts of clowning.

Arvo Pärt’s Fratres provided an elixir of calm as each slow note lead to the next with absolute clarity: Bach’s Cello suite, refigured for guitar, was stately: Magnar Am’s Gratia for harp and strings turned grace, gratitude, graciousness and receiving love into music: Pēteris Vasks’ cello concerto Presence “took over your mind smoothly and led it gently”. This segment was contemplative, until a return to the energy of the 15th Century, where clapping became an instrument in songs found buried in Sydney University library and resurrected here.

I can’t possibly begin to do justice to, or even mention, everything in this astonishingly varied and rich festival. It provided enough music to sustain for months. But, given my passion for eucalypts, I have to mention Damian Barbeler’s Visiting eucalyptus, commissioned by a couple from Tathra so they could watch the process of composition. Unfortunately they couldn’t be at its premiere because of the aftermath of the fires a few weekends ago. It was played by a ten-piece ensemble.

The finale was a wildly dramatic piece, The three dancers, by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, inspired by a Picasso depiction of a love triangle.

Thank you, James Crabb, and musicians, and volunteers, for creating a marvellous festival.

If you want to see the scope of the festival and what I’ve left out, here’s the program.

Rocks, ceremony and art


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We’ve written for three or four hours – after all that is the designated purpose of our week together, me and a very special friend – before we set off to visit a geriatric who raises the bar of longevity and survival extraordinarily high. Camel Rock, so named by the whitefellas, has been around, one way and another, for 450 million years.

Baked, squeezed, buried, exhumed and eroded

It’s had a rough time of it and bears the marks of its history, as do all old things. It was birthed when an avalanche roared down over the continental shelf, carrying with it broken-down rock ranging from boulders to minute grains, which settled into layers on the bottom of the sea. Over the millennia they have been baked, squeezed, buried, exhumed and eroded to become today’s rockscape. Undulations in the fine layers at the top of each bed record the ripples as the flow comes to rest. Often turbidite beds are stacked on top of each other by many undersea avalanches covering vast periods of time. As you can imagine rocks now are often highly deformed by all this pressure.

Corroboree, ceremony, trade

More recently, the area around Camel Rock became a sacred Aboriginal site. People from up and down the coast and from the Monaro gathered on Murunna Headland above the Rock for corroboree, the last time as recently as the 1930s. Tools were traded and food from ocean, estuary, lake and river shared. A freshwater hole at the base of the southern side of Murunna was a sacred place for women. The head of a woman in the rock was seen as warning of a dangerous rip.

“Restless earth”

We were drawn to visit Camel Rock as a companion piece to an exhibition at the Spiral Gallery in Bega. The title of the exhibition is part of a quote from Professor Brian Cox: “Earth is our ancestor. The restless earth is your creator.” Joy Georgeson’s ceramic hollow hand-built sculptures, decorated with engobes, oxides and glazes, were inspired by the geology and biology of Camel Rock, and Ivana Gattegno‘s art, acrylic, and black and white charcoal, by the landscape around Gulaga and Mimosa Rocks. You may recognise a pile of stones and the offshore rock in the second image from a recent post.

RegularRandom: 5 minutes with seaweed



Failure to acknowledge: I’ve been in such a flurry of posting that I failed to acknowledge two photographers who contributed to my “Once was a bridge” post. Annette Gray provided the devotional shots of the planks and bolts that I collaged, and the second photo, showing the bridge without its towering replacement. J provided the shot of the two bridges. Apologies for the oversight, you two.

Sometime the sea goes wild and wrenches up everything it can lay its surges on. Then the tide deposits the uprootings on the beach, swirling them about as it comes and goes. In the light of early morning they become gleaming treasures.

This week Desley’s RegularRandom features a very cute Easter bunny cake photographed from many angles. My contribution is not cute at all, but it glows.