AM Anthropologist Dr Robin Torrence chats with Kim McKay about her research on the function of ancient material on peoples’ daily lives.
Dr Torrence's archaeological research focuses on the roles of ancient material culture, especially stone tools, in peoples’ daily lives, social strategies, and long term adaptation. She has been especially interested in how the manufacture, design and exchange of tools can help people minimise risks.
"We’re trying to write the story of colonial history from the perspective of Indigenous people by looking at the objects they made and traded." Dr Robin Torrence
Kim McKay: Hello, and welcome to AMplify, I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO at the Australian Museum in Sydney. And today we're talking to one of our fantastic scientists who is an archaeologist. We've spoken to so many people who work in the natural sciences area behind the scenes of the museum, but boy, archaeology, it really conjures so many images in your mind, I guess because many of us grew up with Indiana Jones. But the person sitting in front of me today, she says she is far from Indiana Jones and that she was around much before he was even thought of. Please welcome Dr Robin Torrence. Welcome Robin.
Robin Torrence: Glad to be here Kim.
Kim McKay: That's great. And now Robin is an amazing person, she is one of our foremost scientists at the Australian Museum. She's been recognised internationally for her work and for her expert knowledge, particularly in the Papua New Guinea region, and we'll get down to that. But Robin, firstly, what made you want to become an archaeologist?
Robin Torrence: I was fascinated by American Indian cultures. My mom was very interested in American Indian cultures. She was a modern dancer and she…
Kim McKay: You do have an American accent there, so tell us where was this, where were you growing up?
Robin Torrence: I grew up in Illinois, 100 miles from Chicago, but the family took trips to New Mexico and Colorado where got to see living American Indian communities. And at a wonderful place called Mesa Verde, which is an ancient site where they have houses built in caves, they had a wonderful museum with dioramas, and that did it. Just the connection between the empty houses and then the reconstructed ones and the whole process of putting people in places, so creative and interesting and exciting. And at the age of 13 I decided I would become an archaeologist.
Kim McKay: Dioramas, we don't see them that often, we only have one left in the museum which depicts Lord Howe Island, the birdlife on Lord Howe Island. But in American museums, I remember going to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for the first time and of course it's famous for its dioramas, isn't it, depicted as well in Night at the Museum, those movies.
Robin Torrence: I think dioramas are wonderful and it is very much a part of the imagination of an archaeologist because you go from things that are lifeless and incomplete and hardly there, and you get to recreate a world. So everyone who makes a diorama is in a sense being an archaeologist, recreating a world from stuffed animals or bits of this and that. It's great fun.
Kim McKay: So there you are at age 13, inspired by the local communities you saw in New Mexico and other places in the United States, so where did you…when you left school you went to college, where was that?
Robin Torrence: I went to a place called Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia because they had both archaeology and anthropology. But I discovered fairly soon that I wasn't very interested in classical archaeology because of the emphasis on art, and I was much more interested in ordinary everyday people, and probably pre-civilisation, further back, harder to imagine, more intriguing to me.
Kim McKay: Right, so ancient Egypt didn't really attract you, or Peru?
Robin Torrence: No, and the other thing is once you learn more about them, the amount you have to learn because they've been studied so much, it's huge. You spend half your time trying to learn what is already known, whereas I really wanted to dive into the unknown right away and create it for myself. A bit selfish but that's what I really wanted to do.
Kim McKay: And so after college you went on and did a PhD I'm assuming at that time.
Robin Torrence: Yes, I did a PhD at the University of New Mexico but I wasn't there very long. I went off to England with my partner and worked with a man called Colin Renfrew and ended up, of all places, in Greece. And I actually worked on the island of Milos, which is where the Venus de Milo comes from. And that Ireland has the supplies of a stone called obsidian, which is a shiny black glass which was traded around the Aegean, and I was taken out one day, plopped on this place and said, well, you know about stone tools, figure it out. I left. So in my PhD I had to figure out how to study quarries which really hadn't been studied before, come up with a whole lot of new techniques, and study ancient trade in Greece.
Kim McKay: Of course obsidian appears today in your work too, doesn't it.
Robin Torrence: When I finished that study, I thought I've made up of all these stories about what kind of trade could have been going on. I wonder if I can find a place where they were actually trading this stone and see whether the kind of material evidence is anything like what I imagined. And in Papua New Guinea Margaret Mead had written about people trading obsidian on the island of Manus.
Kim McKay: Of course Manus Island which has become so famous now.
Robin Torrence: Exactly, and the big source of obsidian south of where those camps are on little island called Lou Island. So I went off to the museum and started looking at the obsidian artefacts and got really interested and eventually got myself out to Australia to work on this material.
Kim McKay: And you came here to the Australian Museum.
Robin Torrence: I did. I was going around the world to a number of different museums. But my other inspiration as an undergraduate, I'd had a teacher who did anthropological research in New Britain and…
Kim McKay: We should explain, New Britain and New Ireland are small islands north-east of the mainland of Papua New Guinea.
Robin Torrence: They're in the country now but outside the mainland. So I was already interested, trying to probably find a way to get here, and eventually things all came together and I was able to do the research that I thought I wanted to do. And it turned out to be fantastic.
Kim McKay: That's right. So what year was that, when did you come to Australia?
Robin Torrence: I first came on a visit in 1986, I did a lecture tour, and then I came in 1988, I took a year sabbatical from my job in England, and I had grants from the United States to study material from Manus, and then I finally moved here in 1990.
Kim McKay: Wow, so you are one of our longest serving scientists here at the Australian Museum I think.
Robin Torrence: I don't feel that way.
Kim McKay: And you don't look that way either, I've got tell you Robin, you must be doing something right in your work.
So of course one of the amazing things is the Australian Museum does have this extraordinary Papua New Guinean collection. How did we acquire that?
Robin Torrence: It was acquired in lots of different ways. In the early days everyone was only interested in natural history, but when people go out to collect things, they deal with people. And in dealing with people they have to make friends, and you end up exchanging things. So a lot of the early material came alongside of the natural history. And then later it became something people were interested in. And then after the Garden Palace fire…
Kim McKay: Which was of course in 1882…
Robin Torrence: 1882, we lost our collection, and the museum was desperately trying…so there was a big period of expansion. And Sydney being an important port for the Pacific, lots of ships would come in and it was quite easy for them to buy. It was fairly commercial in those days, the acquisition, trying to build up. And the other reason they wanted the ethnographic material was that they were trading it for more natural history specimens from Europe. So we would send out Aboriginal and properly New Guinea material and get back dead animals and rocks and things.
Kim McKay: Which is of course the Australian Museum being a natural history museum originally but expanded to be a cultural museum with this now extraordinary Pacific collection, both East and Western Pacific, and of course an amazing Australian Aboriginal collection as well, as well as some from Southeast Asia collections and other parts of the world.
Robin Torrence: Yes, it's a very good comprehensive collection.
Kim McKay: Yes, it really is, which we'd like to show the public more of in the future, absolutely. So Robin, there was a fellow called Sir William MacGregor, what role did he play in the collection?
Robin Torrence: Sir William MacGregor was the first administrator of British New Guinea, which was the southern part of New Guinea. The Germans held the northern part until World War I, and before that in the early colony Britain had that. He was an amazing Scotsman who was interested in creating the nation for itself. The Brits didn't really want Papua New Guinea, they only took it because Queensland was starting to take it over and was actually doing blackbirding in the early days and Britain didn't like that, so they thought, all right, we have to go in there and take over this. And so from the beginning they were trying to prepare it for independence, and he was there for…he thought if this is going to be a country, it has to have a museum. Countries have museums and they need to preserve their past. And he was also concerned about how rapidly culture was changing. We're talking now here late 1880s, and so he was trying to preserve the past for the future country, and he put together an enormous collection of about 11,000 objects for the future.
Kim McKay: That's an extraordinary number, isn't it.
Robin Torrence: It's huge and it's very comprehensive, and he was thinking so far into the future about…and he was quite an interesting man, he got along very well with the locals, he learned languages, he went into areas where no one had been. So he made this great collection. And after it went…it went to Queensland because there was nowhere to put it in the colony and was being looked after there. And the other colonies that were contributing to PNG—Victoria and New South Wales—wanted a share of this collection, and eventually after a lot of politics about 850 objects came to the Australian Museum. So we have a small proportion of this collection.
But the work we are trying to do now, there's a group of us trying to reconstruct the entire collection. And we are treating it as an archaeological site, so we are treating it is the objects, if you dig a site or if you work on old collections, you just have bags of stuff and you have to write the stories about the people who made the things. And of course in that period we mostly have documentation from white people who wrote the stories and the histories. We don't have the history from Papua New Guineans. There is some oral history but not a great deal. So we are trying to write the story of colonial history from the perspective of indigenous people by looking at the objects that they made and traded. And we have to write archaeological stories because we are dealing with objects.
Kim McKay: How extraordinary. And of course in recent years you've been securing ARC grants to do your work. Tell us what that means?
Robin Torrence: The ARC is the Australian Research Council, which is the Australian government, and so it's a competitive grant scheme where you put in proposals and a committee of scholars…it is peer reviewed and a committee of scholars then chooses the best grants and divvies up the money. So we've been very successful in achieving ARC grants here in archaeology at the museum, and this is our latest grant.
Kim McKay: Recently…let's just hark back to obsidian for a moment, I know you've been doing some really interesting work about tools around obsidian.
Robin Torrence: We do a lot of experiments to replicate how the tools were made, and then we use them to see what sort of wear patterns you get on the tools, and then we use high-powered magnification to understand ancient tools, and also to look at things that are left behind and especially blood residues. So we've been using different techniques to see if the red spots that we are finding on some of these 3,000-year-old tools is actually blood.
Kim McKay: And then can you analyse that blood?
Robin Torrence: Yes, you can use FTIR and Raman spectroscopy and a number of things which sends beams of electrons at things, and the chemists, not me, but the chemists I work with know how to read the chemistry, yes. So yes, you can.
Kim McKay: It's a whole new way that archaeology helps inform our knowledge of the past, isn't it, as the technology has developed.
Robin Torrence: Yes, especially in our area, all you find are bits of stone, you don't find many other bits of evidence, so you've got to really get the blood out of the stone, you've got to wring the blood out of the stone to get the stories.
Kim McKay: Well, that's what we love you for Robin, not only are you good at getting the blood out of the stone, you're great at getting these very difficult to acquire ARC grants because you are such a leader in your field globally. And of course you've been able to forge such a close relationship with the people in Papua New Guinea and the PNG Museum. So the Australian Museum and the Papua New Guinea Museum enjoy such a good relationship because of that, and that's very important. What you said about mature communities, new countries have a museum, that's exactly why the Australian Museum is almost 190 years old, we turn 190 on 30 March in 2017, and we'll be celebrating everything we have in the collection, and your contribution there, we really appreciate it Robin. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Robin Torrence: Thank you for talking to me.