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"The fridges were floating away"

A sign on a bathroom door reads 'Wash flood mud off at Main Hall P Block'


Lee Adendorff
1 January 2023

Archaeologist and PhD candidate Marian Bailey has been named 2022 Student of the Year at Southern Cross University. Her research into human evolution is fascinating and her academic achievements impressive, but these are not the reasons she won the award. Marian was one of hundreds of students on the frontline of the community response to the 2022 Lismore floods.

Sunday 27 February 2022 is a day Marian Bailey won’t ever forget. The Southern Cross University student was in her on-campus accommodation watching the ABC coverage of the flooding in Lismore, just a few kilometres down the road.

It looked bad, but her friends in the Lismore CBD were staying put, sure the water could not reach them on the second floor of a raised house. Marian didn’t sleep that night. One of her friends texted her at 1am to let her know they were evacuating. The fridges were floating around on the ground floor and the water was rising fast. It wasn’t safe to stay. The friends waded out of the flood zone in chest-high, freezing water.

Marian had time to text her family to let them know she was safe before the lines went down and the power went out. An evacuation centre was open in the campus gym and she headed down to see if she could help. There were people arriving, wet and in shock, with hastily packed bags or nothing at all. There were desperate calls and messages going onto Facebook groups from friends and relatives of people in the flood zone.

One of the most pressing needs was to match the names of people staying in the gym with active rescues, to try and track who had been rescued and who was still out there. Perhaps some assurance for the frantic friends and relatives.

Marian is one of the few people in Australia researching human evolution through the analysis of prehistoric teeth. Her work is all about data, lots of data. As you might imagine, she is also very organised, and so she began to cross reference the names of people in the evac centre with the active rescues and calls for help.

Those first few days, with most roads cut, Marian was part of a small and growing army of volunteers who were trying to respond to a disaster of unimaginable proportions and keep those rescued safe, dry and fed. It was exhausting. As the week wore on, the institutional response stuttered into gear, but the misery and stories of tragedy and trauma kept coming.

A woman looking at the camera in front of a large storage shed

“When people are talking about it even now it brings a lot of emotion to the surface. I think I cried every night in the shower for a while afterwards.”

“On the fourth day we had a mother with her four children and two dogs choppered in from around Bungawalbin. They were soaking wet and had been literally clinging onto a roof for days. The children were in shock. I took one 70-year-old gent home to our student unit so he didn’t have to sleep on the floor. There were people who were dealing with mental health issues and their meds had been washed away. People who were deeply, deeply traumatised. We had to try and keep the calm.

“The rescued people just kept piling in. Volunteers turned up with whatever they had, fuel, food, blankets.”

The arrival of the army brought relief to the clean up effort but as campus buildings were turned into impromptu barracks, Marian’s fellow PhD candidates found their work and lives turned upside down. “A lot of students had suddenly become homeless because of the floods. I had as many as I could fit sleeping in our unit, but one student slept in her office for a month. There was just nowhere else to go.”

“When people are talking about it even now it brings a lot of emotion to the surface. I think I cried every night in the shower for a while afterwards.”

It’s been nearly ten months since those devastating floods and Lismore is slowly recovering. Marian’s attention is now on her work as she reaches the homestretch of a PhD that has been years in the making. She is working at Southern Cross University with renowned geoarchaeologist Associate Professor Renaud Johannes Boyau, a world leader in the dating and isotope tracing of teeth. Marian also studies human evolution, more specifically the early life behaviours of a species gone extinct around 300,000 years ago, the Gigantopithicus, thought to be the origin of the Bigfoot myth.

Teeth are the best recording devices of early life and diagnostic machinery at Southern Cross can analyse teeth with incredible precision, identifying what our earliest ancestors ate, how they lived, even the level and frequency of consumption of trace elements like lead in drinking water.

Marian hopes to eventually morph her research into the medical field. “The kind of work we are doing has many applications. There’s been great research coming out looking at the role of trace elements both in their relationship with, and detection of disease for example. Paleopathology is one of my greatest loves, understanding for instance what mummies died of, and how the diseases developed – I love it.”

She has already had some experience of the intersect between archaeology and disease. “One of the first excavations I ever went on was on an island near Venice that was a plague quarantine station. We found some human remains there with severe skeletal deformities. The theory was that people considered ‘undesirable’ were rounded up with the plague victims and kept on the island. It’s just one of the darker aspects of humanity and our past that you uncover in archaeology. Archaeology doesn’t lie.”

It's hard to know what archaeologists of the future will make of 2022, what blend of science and humanity will inform the knowledge they pursue. With any luck, there will be someone like Marian Bailey on the case.