Dr Robin Torrence, Senior Fellow in Archaeology and Geosciences at the Australian Museum, is a giant in her field. Over the last 35 years, Robin has impacted so many – including the 32 authors who have contributed to the recent special edition of the Technical Records of the AM!

Dr Robin Torrence, previously Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum, has influenced many. Today, the Technical Reports of the Australian Museum has released a very special edition in honour of Dr Robin Torrence. The collection of 16 papers by 32 authors covers a diverse range of topics on archaeological materials and museum specimens, but also a diverse range in geographical coverage and time. Over the last 35 years, Robin has taught, supervised, examined, mentored, conducted fieldwork and museum research or been a co-author with all of the first authors and most of the other authors.

Robin Torrence - Senior Principal Research Scientist, Geosciences and Archaeology

Dr Robin Torrence.

Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Robin has led an exciting, diverse and influential career – and continues to do so at the Australian Museum. Robin’s archaeological research focuses on roles of ancient material culture, especially stone tools, social strategies and exchange systems, and she is particularly interested in how the manufacture, design and exchange of tools can help minimise risks. Robin has also participated in fieldwork around the world, from the USA, Greece, Papua New Guinea to Eastern Russia.

Robin’s association with Australia began in the 1970s and early 1980s during her time teaching Archaeology at Sheffield University. During this time, Robin had encounters with Australian archaeologists at a number of conferences, which led to several visits to Australia and in 1988 and 1989, Robin joined the Australian Museum’s project in the Talasea area of West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG). By 1991, Robin moved permanently to Australia and began her own project on the obsidian sources of West New Britain in PNG, holding Fellowships at the Museum and under the Australian Research Council schemes. These resulted in many significant papers on geochemical characterisation, the production, value and exchange of obsidian stemmed tools in Middle Holocene times, and the social and economic significance of obsidian in general. It was in 2002 that Robin joined the Australian Museum as a Research Scientist, the same year she was awarded the Society for American Archaeology Award for Excellence in Archaeological Analysis. Since then, she has been awarded the ICOM Australia Award for International Relations, the Australian Museum Research Institute Medal and elected fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales and the Australian Academy of Humanities (just to name a few).

Robin Torrence

Robin Torrence in the field on Garua Island, Papua New Guinea.

Image: Peter White
© Australian Museum

Each paper in this volume reflects Robin’s various projects, interests and expertise. For example, Vince Neall and his colleagues present new results of geochemistry of tephras from volcanic eruptions – this paper relates to Robin’s continuing avid interest in volcanic landscapes. Since Robin’s days as a doctoral candidate on the island of Melos in Greece, Robin has collaborated with a range of volcanologists, soil specialists and others in Australia, PNG, New Zealand, the USA and the UK on the histories, dating and impacts of volcanoes of central New Britain (PNG). In addition to ‘big picture’ projects, Robin has also addressed the microscopic end of the scale by promoting studies of usewear and residues on stone and other artefacts, and the identification of phytoliths and ancient starch granules to address aspects of past lifestyles that generally do not leave macroscopic evidence. The usewear studies have been greatly enhanced by Nina Kononenko, a specialist in the study of use-wear of stone tools, choosing to make Australia, and Sydney in particular, her new home, a move that was strongly supported and encouraged by Robin. Their subsequent collaborations have produced significant results, including identification of Lapita age obsidian tools as probable tattooing implements. In this volume Nina combines with Pip Rath to explore some of Robin’s ideas about the specialised production of the stemmed obsidian tools, a topic also pursued by Paul Dickinson. These two papers complement each other, suggesting the probable existence of an organised workshop-style production system in which groups of specialists and novices produced a range of stemmed tools.

Further papers include plant phytolith and usewear studies, Lapita pottery sites in the island of the Anir group in New Ireland Province in PNG, evidence of cannibalism during the last 500-600 years at sites on Rossell Island in Milne Bay Province (PNG), the trade of stone axes and obsidian, and enigmatic stone tools in Borneo. The second half of the volume consists of papers relating to museum and collection studies and reflect a shift in Robin’s interests to issues about indigenous agency in the production of museum collections from PNG, especially in response to western colonialism. As a sign of changing times and agency, Elizabeth Bonshek describes the initiative of the Langgu people of Solomon Islands who decided that the Australian Museum needed to update its holdings from their area and have created a ‘time capsule’ of their feasting bowls for the Museum, while Peter Sheppard records how Solomon Islands’ war canoes of the 19th century have ‘evolved’ into racing canoes for ceremonial occasions in the present.

PNG National Museum Delegation

Dr. Robin Torrence (Australian Museum) with Dr. Andrew Moutu, Hon. Benjamin Philip and Mr. Atara Jenkins (First Secretary to the Minister of Tourism, Arts & Culture) in the Pacific Stores at the Australian Museum.

Image: Oliver Perkins
© Australian Museum

The papers in this edition convey a small but clear picture of the energy, imagination, inspiration and dedication that Robin has displayed over the last 35 years. In presenting this volume to her, the authors and editors express their thanks and appreciation for her friendship and collegiality and wish her a successful and productive future.

Dr Jim Specht, Senior Fellow, Archaeology and Geosciences, Australian Museum.

Meagan Warwick, AMRI & External Partnerships Coordinator, Australian Museum.

More information:

  • Specht, Jim, Val Attenbrow, and Jim Allen. 2021. Preface. In From Field to Museum—Studies from Melanesia in Honour of Robin Torrence, ed. Jim Specht, Val Attenbrow, and Jim Allen. Technical Reports of the Australian Museum Online 34: 1–4. https://doi.org/10.3853/j.1835-4211.34.2021.1739