Roger Bird Obituary

01st June 2002

Wal Ambrose

Roger Bird died on 22 November 2001. Although Roger would not claim to be an archaeologist his contribution to the field was generous and significant, especially in untangling the skeins of obsidian distribution in the southwest Pacific. The possibilities of obsidian as an agent for revealing prehistoric distribution networks were shown to some extent through the work of Conrad Key in the 1960s but a quantum leap to almost archaeological revelation status could be accorded to the results that Roger Bird produced from 1974 until the late 1990s. With grants from the Cooperative University Nuclear Physics Research Organisation, the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE) and in collaboration with officers of the now named CSIRO Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), thousands of archaeological artefacts were analysed.

Roger Bird was the main initiator for this work within ANSTO through his role as head of the Nuclear Techniques Section. By 1978 his group had undertaken non-destructive analysis of obsidian, pottery, Aboriginal ochres, and autoradiography of a fake painting. The signal undertaking was his guidance in developing automated processing of obsidian artefacts. Through the refinement of Proton Induced X-ray Excitation (PIXE), and Proton Induced Gamma Emission (PlGME) systems, a reliable degree of attribution of artefact to source was achieved, and the large numbers that were analysed provided useful statistics for archaeological collections that could show changing preferences for particular sources over time. The first major report on more than 1000 analyses appeared in 1981 with Roger Bird as senior author on the in­ house publication ‘The characterisation of Melanesian obsidian sources using the PIGME technique’ (AAEC/510). This included results from over 900 archaeological obsidian flakes.

The early days of this enterprise in the late 1970s often meant all-night vigils over the drifting efficiency of the equipment while mounds of punched paper ribbon rolled out of the teletype printer.  The large stacks of IBM punch cards generated in this operation weighed more than the obsidian being analysed. A 24 hour watch, over two or three days, was needed to accommodate the archaeological needs against queues of other users who were pressing to carry out their research on the 3 MeV accelerator used for the PIXE-PIGME work. In order to recover some of his sleeping hours Roger had fixed a solenoid controlled lever to a phone in the counting room. If for any reason there was an instrument failure the phone would be raised from its cradle; a check-up call from Roger’s home would then produce an engaged signal that would have him hurrying back to the lab to rectify the problem on the wayward machine.

By 1981 Roger, as  editor  of Ion  Beam  Analysis  The Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Ion Beam Analysis, had introduced a chapter on ion beam analysis in archaeology and the environment. Roger’s continuing personal commitment to archaeology led to the successful first Australasian Archaeometry Conference at the Australian Museum, Sydney, in February 1982.  His enthusiasm for archaeological applications is clearly seen in his major 160 page 1983 joint review paper, as a single issue of the international journal Nuclear Science Applications, entitled ‘Ion beam techniques in archaeology and the arts’. Roger was able to engage others in his group to have a keen interest in the archaeological dimensions of nuclear applications research, to such an extent that at one stage there was discussion of setting up an Archaeometry group within the then Australian Atomic Energy Commission. This initiative faltered for lack of strong archaeological support, much to the disappointment of those involved.

He continued his role as an organiser of archaeological science meetings with the second Australasian Archaeometry Conference at the National Gallery, Canberra, in February 1985. This was the year that the Lapita Homeland Project was launched, with the commitment of Roger’s group and AINSE to process large numbers of obsidian artefacts that would inevitably be excavated by the wide ranging field work undertaken in the Bismarck Archipelago. This was a major effort that extended for another decade producing thousands of analyses, and encompassed new work undertaken in the 90s into the more precise definition of obsidian sub-sources in New Britain and other source regions in the Bismarcks. Roger Bird was tireless in calibrating all these data from instruments that were often being tweaked to different tunes by other users of the accelerator. He also engaged himself on holidays in fieldwork in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales and on Easter Island where he and his wife Betty collected obsidians to add to his growing catalogue of Pacific obsidian sources. A final compendium of all this effort has yet to be published but there is a manuscript version that should eventually be generally accessible. Many of the archaeological questions raised by the detailed distributional information have been addressed by individual archaeologists whose obsidians were analysed over the last twenty five years and they will have acknowledged Roger Bird’s contribution. To these individual notices of their collaborative work should be added a recognition of his untiring effort to promote the role of his field of nuclear science as a contributor to the fields of archaeology and the arts.

Archaeologists  looking to the past  are prone  to  spot a ‘golden age’ when developments were rapid and successful outcomes the norm. The directory of Australian archaeometry in the appendix to the first Australasian Archaeometry Conference twenty years ago, seemed to presage a golden age of archaeological science in Australia, with Roger Bird’s group being one among others that were working toward a common goal. That promotion seems to have lapsed in recent years but it is clear that Roger’s presence as a strong supporter of archaeological science in previous decades has left a lasting imprint on Australian archaeology.

Wal Ambrose
Roger Bird Obituary
June 2002
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