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Interview

Archeologist Karen Murphy talks about Mill Point and recommends some books

Readersvoice.com aims to give people some good reading tips. Check the article list for even more interviews and reading suggestions. This issue is all about archeology.Mill Point was a small town based around a timber mill on the shores of Lake Cootharaba, on the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane. The mill and the town packed up and left in 1892 when they ran out of timber in the surrounding bushland. Karen Murphy is one of a team of archeologists excavating the site of the town, trying to piece together the layout of the town and the lives of the townspeople. Artefacts uncovered include slate pencils from the school, fragments of dolls, bottles for hair tonic and sauce, broken ceramics, and earrings.I asked Karen Murphy about colonial archeology and Mill Point, and I picked up a lot of interesting titles on archeology.

READERSVOICE.COM: How long have you been interested in colonial archaeology and what interests you about this type of archaeology in particular?

KAREN MURPHY: I’ve been interested in archaeology in general since I was about eight years old and read about the Incas and the Egyptians.

Once I started studying archaeology at university seven years ago I became much more interested in Australian archaeology both Indigenous and historical.

I have focussed my research more on the historical archaeology of Australia over the past few years.

I’ve always been interested in Australian and Queensland history, even researching my own family history, and I think there is so much of Queensland’s and Australia’s history and archaeology that has yet to be examined.

Looking at our more recent past enables us to learn more about ourselves and where our society is now, and also to better understand where we want to go.

RV: What was the Tennessee Hollow project you were working on in the U.S.? What similarities were there to Mill Point, Lake Cootharaba?

KM: Tennessee Hollow is part of El Presidio de San Francisco which was the first European settlement in the City of San Francisco.

The Presidio was the fort set up by the Spanish in 1776.

The project is a collaboration between Stanford University, U.S. National Parks Service and the Presidio Trust.

I worked as a field assistant on the project for five weeks in 2004.

The project is a study of how the valley was used during the Spanish-colonial and the Mexican periods of the Presidio (ca. 1776-1847).

At a broad level, the project is similar to Mill Point as they both investigate the daily lives of the community that lived at the site in a time when outsiders were moving to new places and new frontiers.

However in other ways the site is quite different.

The Presidio was a military community and the people were culturally diverse including Native Californians, Mesoamerican, African and European people.

At Mill Point the settlement was a company town run as a capitalist enterprise with mostly European people in the community.

RV: When did interest in the Mill Point, Lake Cootharaba, sawmill site start?

KM: The site has been of great interest to the local community for many years, more particularly once the land was taken over by the Queensland Government as a national park in the early 1980s.

A plaque was installed near the site for Australia’s Bicentenary, and The National Trust installed a memorial stone at the settlement’s cemetery in 1993.

The first archaeological investigations were undertaken by Dr Eleanor Crosby and Anne Hibbard in 1991 to develop a conservation plan for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

The Cooroora Historical Society has also had a long interest in the site with a display about Mill Point housed in the Noosa Shire Museum at Pomona.

The more recent Mill Point Archaeological Project began in late 2003 following community concern about the site, in particular the cemetery.

A collaborative project was set up between the Environmental Protection Agency, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, University of Queensland and Noosa Shire Council.

The first field season was held in early 2004 with the main components of the site being surveyed and recorded by archaeologists and archaeology students, in order to have the site entered on the Queensland Heritage Register.

RV: When did you hear about it and start getting involved in archaeological research there?

KM: I first heard about the project when the 2004 field season was undertaken by some of my colleagues at the Cultural Heritage Branch of the Environmental Protection Agency (where I was working at the time).

When I decided to do my PhD in archaeology in 2005 I wanted to focus on doing historical archaeological research in Queensland, and was interested in the great potential that the Mill Point site provided to help tell us about the early residents of Queensland.

RV: Before actual excavation started at the site, what sorts of records or reading was done to get as much background on the site as possible?

KM: A lot of historical research about the site had already been done by Dr Eleanor Crosby (during her 1991 work at the site) and by local historian Dr Elaine Brown who had undertaken a detailed history of the early timber industry of the entire region.

Irene Christie, another local historian, had also done an immense amount of research into the mill.

The historical documentation that they had consulted included newspaper reports from the period, photographs of the settlement, personal letters from mill residents, and oral histories from mill descendents.

Before excavation started, the project team also did extensive surface survey investigations to identify the materials left behind from the mill.

Because the site of the settlement is so large, survey investigations help us to identify different areas without the need for excavation, and also to identify areas that might be best targeted for excavation.

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