Australian Institute of Archaeology in new digs

Australian Institute of Archaeology in new digs

20 Feb 2008

The custodians of some of the world's most significant archaeological relics from the ancient Near East have a new home in a refurbished heritage-listed building designed as a healing retreat for Australian soldiers returning from the First World War.

The building – on the perimeter of La Trobe University's Bundoora campus in Melbourne's northern suburbs– officially opened its doors this week as the new headquarters of the Australian Institute of Archaeology.

The Institute has effectively been homeless since being turfed out of its city location in Ancient Times House in Chinatown nine years ago. Its museum, library and educational facilities have been re-established at Bundoora in an arrangement with the University involving shared responsibility for repairs and renovation in exchange for a 20-year lease.

After close to a decade of enforced hibernation, the Institute's priceless collection of Biblical relics and replicas, archaeological journals and scholarly publications are again on display for scholars and interested members of the public – and only an eight-minute walk from Australia's largest Archaeology Program at La Trobe University.

Relics of the lives of kings, queens, kingdoms and deities of ancient times, and arguably Melbourne's best archaeological library of its period, are now in pride of place in the light-filled sanctuary of Building EC11 – a handsomely renovated 1920's style building with a serial history as a place of refuge. (Until 1995 it was also the home of Mont Park Psychiatric Hospital.)

Archaeologists, dignitaries and scholars – including retired archaeologists and student volunteers who've kept the Institute going since the loss of its city headquarters in 1999 - flocked to the official opening by La Trobe University Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson on Monday 18 February.

They were rewarded with their first glimpse in years of many of the Institute's 10,000 significant archaeological objects - a collection only rivalled in Australia by the University of Sydney's Nicholson Museum and the antiquities collection of the National Gallery of Victoria – and a spacious new environment for seminars and scholarship.

The AIA's Collection comprises a wide range of archaeological artefacts including more than 2,000 pots and many scarabs, shabtis, tablets, beads, flints and the like from the Near East and eastern Mediterranean, with considerable representation of objects from Israel, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Cyprus. Most of it was packed up and stored in cardboard boxes in warehouses around Melbourne while the Institute searched for new digs.

Also returned to public view in the Institute's foyer and anterooms are replicas of such antiquities as the black obelisk of Shalmaneser III (King of Assyria 859-824 BC), the stele of King Hammurabi (the sixth King of Babylon), the Rosetta Stone (an ancient Egyptian artefact instrumental in advancing understanding of hieroglyphic writing), and the original ancient gypsum stone tablet on which Assyrian King Assur-nasir-pal II recorded his genealogy, titles and conquests in the Years 883-59 BCE.

Now happily re-housed in temperature-controlled facilities upstairs are many others of the Institute's evocative remnants of Biblical times – more than 100 delicately carved ceramic shabtis, "worker dolls" the ancient Egyptians took to their burial grounds to look after them in the afterlife, a 5th Century Aramaic incantation bowl believed to have been buried near the entrance of an ancient Jewish shop in Mesopotamia to ward off ill-fortune, and an ancient Egyptian child Mummy acquired in 1965.

La Trobe University is working with the Institute to re-invigorate its once significant involvement with secondary school studies in ancient history – a proposition currently being explored with two pilot schools in Melbourne, potentially for extension to other secondary schools in 2009.

Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson said when opening the Institute that the University's involvement with the AIA was one of many ways that La Trobe University could further its academic and intellectual pursuits outside the traditional bounds of the university.

"It is difficult for the Institute to see its worth when most of its collection of artefacts has been tucked away in cardboard boxes. What we are doing here is providing an environment in which this material can be displayed for people to study and admire, or for school children to play with replicas of the artefacts in class so that school children as well as scholars can further their interest.

"An understanding of the past is a basic part of humanity, it's part of what makes us different from other species, and at this university we have a clear educational and moral responsibility to ensure that we facilitate that at all levels - whether for scientists in the field, university students, or researchers who may come here from around the globe," Professor Johnson said.

AIA Director Christopher Davey said that even when the Institute was housed in Ancient Times House it had been difficult to make its materials available for research – because of limited space and the fact that a lot of it had not been catalogued.

"What this means is that we now have the space and we've put a lot of effort into making sure the artefacts are catalogued so we can make the material we have available, for research and study, and as a teaching resource," he said.

The Head of La Trobe's Archaeology Program, Professor Tim Murray, said the Program's association with the institute would strengthen its research and teaching facility and also improve its capacity to reach primary and secondary schools with "a message about archaeology."

Media contacts

Australian Institute of Archaeology: Director Chris Davey T: 03 9455 2882 M: 0421 595 966 E: director@aiarch.org.au

La Trobe University: Professor Tim Murray T: 03 9479 2418 M: 0400 683 193 E: t.murray@latrobe.edu.au

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