Judy Birmingham: impressions and influences

On International Women’s Day, Professor David Frankel reflects on his student days, working with Professor Judy Birmingham a trailblazer of Australian archaeology

Archaeology is as diverse as the many people who work within it. This was nowhere more clear – even to me as a naive first year student – than at Sydney University in 1965. As the first archaeologist to appear before students there was little chance that even the most conventional young man could maintain an inappropriately gendered view of what an archaeologist should be like. There was then little integration of the various components of the introductory Archaeology course, each part of which reflected the personality as much as the subject matter of the lecturers: Alexander Cambitoglou’s formal recitations of Classical art, polished structures that required virtuoso performances on four projectors by a succession of stressed technicians, responding instantly to his thumping pointer; Vincent Megaw’s narratives that might begin at one end of the Danube and meander, with often bewildering asides, to finish up thousands of years later at the other; and, then  – what immediately captured my interest  – Judy Birmingham’s lectures on Near Eastern prehistory, which exposed a whole new universe of information and ideas, and the challenges of making sense of excavated evidence to tell stories about the past. It was Judy’s excited fascination and enthusiasm for archaeology and how to do it that drew me into the subject and set me on a lifetime path of research and teaching – indeed the first essay I wrote for her in 1965 was on the ways in which archaeologists could use pottery, a subject that I have continued to tilt at for more than fifty years! Whether any of these later attempts deserve more than the fairly average mark she gave me for that first paper is another matter.

From these initial classes through to post-graduate study Judy introduced me and my fellow students to the masochistic joys of research, of continual questioning and of all facets of archaeology, and always with her characteristic energetic engagement with ideas. This included early exposure to the developing challenges of the New Archaeology in the late 1960s: challenges at odds with the very traditional approaches of other archaeologists, especially some in her own department. But theory had to be matched by practice, for Judy saw that it was essential for students to gain experience in the field in order not only to develop skills, but also to understand the nature of the archaeological record and its potential, even if this had to be done against departmental policy.

Of course the multiple demands of excavation are not for everyone, but from my first exposure I found them both exciting and challenging. I was fortunate enough to spend many months of 1967 working with archaeologists of the calibre of Jack Golson (in New Zealand) and Ron Lampert (at Burrill Lake in NSW) and on several sites in Israel.

But it was at Irrawang, under Judy’s overall guidance, that I and many others were able to develop the multiple practical and logistical skills involved in running an excavation. This long-lasting project on a 19th century pottery works in the Hunter Valley became the main focus of many of our lives in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Judy’s commitment to practical fieldwork matched by her ability to identify and take advantage of new opportunities initiated this project. And it was her hands-off but supportive approach that allowed us the chance to develop independence and confidence.

The value of this experience became evident in the Sydney University expedition to Zagora in Greece, as there was a cohort of students well equipped for the work. This project had been designed to take advantage of the varied interests and abilities of the Archaeology staff. Judy was naturally entrusted to manage the fieldwork, where she set up the general frameworks and strategies which continued after she was no longer involved.

Back to Irrawang. This became far more than just a training exercise. It was the first major historical archaeology project in New South Wales, and one of the first in Australia. It attracted Judy away from her primary specialisation in the Near East and Mediterranean, as she became increasingly enmeshed in developing this new and rapidly expanding field. I was again fortunate to be able to work with her at sites such as Wybalenna on Flinders Island. Her excavations here was an early engagement with the sensitive arena of Aboriginal-European culture contact, providing a material, archaeological view of the place where George Augustus Robinson housed the displaced Tasmanians. The participants included several Aboriginal people, again something well ahead of its time.

In these and many other ways Judy set us all an example by her lively willingness to take advantage of any opportunities, even unexpected ones, and to pursue new directions in subject area and approach. Never one to sit still, her sharp bright eyes flashing, her sharp mind ever at work, she carried many along with her. Not of course that this was always plain sailing. I have a strong memory of a clash of opinions between Judy and several of us students in her cluttered and messy office. For once she reacted badly: but I think – hope – we appeased her by explaining that all we were doing was following her lead in always challenging and questioning principles and practices. And beyond that, enjoying the ride.

David Frankel is Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at La Trobe University where he taught for 35 years. He completed his first degrees at the University of Sydney before continuing postgraduate studies on Bronze Age Cyprus at Gothenburg University in Sweden. After a few years at the British Museum he returned to Australia in 1978. He has directed excavations in Cyprus, Australia and Papua New Guinea, and is a joint editor of the monograph series, Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology and of the annual Excavations, Surveys and Heritage Management in Victoria.


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
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