Susan Evelyn Bulmer (nee Hirsh);

February 17, 1933 – October 6, 2016;


I’ve written about my mother, Sue, elsewhere on this website: Songs to Remember and The Family Bat. Last week my beautiful, brave, creative, energetic, passionate, wonderful, crazy, frustrating, infuriating, driven, caring, big-picture-thinking mother passed away. Sue had been sick earlier in the week, and seemed to be recovering. But when I arrived to visit on Thursday afternoon she was waiting for me. We sang some songs; she held my hand – and then she let go. It was a gentle, peaceful ending, for a woman who lived her life as a feisty battler.

This post can’t possibly be the final word on Sue and her life. I’ve written it as a kind of Pensieve – J.K. Rowling’s cool concept of a gadget that gets thoughts out of your mind and into another form, so you can organise them (and also, think about other things). This is my version of Sue’s story. But quite a few people seem to agree with my long-winded description of Sue, in the paragraph above. Sue Bulmer

A hard act to follow

Sue had a 50-year career as an archaeologist in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. In 1959 she was the first archaeologist to carry out excavations in the New Guinea highlands. She spent most of her career as an independent scientist, apart from 15 years working for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and Department of Conservation.

Sue was proud to have a New Guinea megabat named after her, Aproteles bulmerae, Bulmer’s Fruit Bat. And she was very active in her community as a citizen scientist. She received a Living Legend award from the Mayor of Auckland in 2005.

This month Sue’s colleagues in Australia have produced a special issue of Archaeology in Oceania in her honour. Sue would have loved this mark of the respect and recognition of her peers. And she would have thoroughly relished taking issue with some of the points raised in the papers. I contributed a bibliography of Sue’s work to the volume.

Pasadena to Port Moresby

Susan Hirsh grew up in Pasadena, California, the younger daughter of Frederick and Adeline Hirsh. She always considered herself a misfit in middle-class America. Sue studied anthropology at Cornell University, followed by a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii. After that, she signed on as crew on a yacht sailing around the Pacific. She loved the Pacific and was keen to keep travelling. She applied for, and was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to study Samoan migrants to New Zealand.

Sue arrived in Auckland in January 1957. She found that she didn’t enjoy the process of sociological research – “going around asking people silly questions,” as she put it. But she spent time working on excavations run by archaeologists from the University of Auckland, and discovered her life’s passion for archaeology. She enrolled to do a second master’s degree, this time in archaeology, at Auckland University.

Sue on a dig at Sarah's Gully, on the Coromandel, in the summer of 1957.

Sue digging at Sarah’s Gully, on the Coromandel, in the summer of 1957.

In 1958 a young British anthropologist called Ralph Bulmer arrived in Auckland to take up his first job as a lecturer at Auckland University. He started pursuing Sue. Marriage wasn’t anywhere on Sue’s agenda, but Ralph was charismatic and persistent. Eventually she said, “Okay, I’ll marry you if you take me to New Guinea.” They were married in July 1959, shortly after Ralph’s divorce from his first wife, Ellaine, was finalised. (She was pregnant to someone else.)

Sue and Ralph Bulmer, July 27, 1959.

Sue and Ralph Bulmer, July 27, 1959. Where’s the bridal gown, Sue?

A few weeks later the newly-weds were in New Guinea.

Sue was the first archaeologist to carry out research in the New Guinea highlands – trumping some of her friends and teachers at Auckland University, amongst others. She and Ralph co-authored a couple of groundbreaking papers based on that research trip. But Sue was infuriated to discover that in the sexist 1960s, many people assumed that it was Ralph’s work and she was just the assistant. “He doesn’t even like archaeology!” she’d splutter.

Sue Bulmer running an excavation in 1959, with young New Guinea highlanders as field assistants. Photograph by Ralph Bulmer. Original in Auckland University Department of Anthropology online photography archive.

Sue Bulmer running an excavation in 1959, with young New Guinea highlanders as field assistants. I don’t know the names of the young men. Photograph by Ralph Bulmer. Original in Auckland University Department of Anthropology online photography archive.

About five minutes after Sue arrived back from New Guinea in May 1960 she was pregnant with me. Two brothers arrived in quick succession – David in 1962 and Kenneth in 1964.

Having three children and no childcare slowed Sue down for a few years, but never stopped her.

In late 1967 my father was appointed Professor of Anthropology at the University of Papua New Guinea, so we went to live in Papua New Guinea for five years. Sue spent the time running excavation projects in the Port Moresby area and in the highlands. She was also an active member of the National Museum board. One of her staunch allies was an up and coming politician named Michael Somare.

The excavation team, December 1967. "Family to dig in New Guinea", said the New Zealand Herald headline. From left: David (6), Kenneth (3) and me (7).

Sue with the excavation team, December 1967. “Family to dig in New Guinea”, said the New Zealand Herald headline. From left: David (5), Kenneth (3) and me (6).

During our time in Papua New Guinea my mother also somehow found time to produce regular (often weekly) dinner parties for our steady stream of international visitors. I really don’t know how she did it. My parents’ values meant that (unlike most of our neighbours) they refused to hire Papua New Guinean people as household staff – they didn’t see themselves as colonials. The price of this was that Sue had no household help.

A problematic marriage

Being married to Ralph was problematic for Sue. On one hand, he was happy for her to be an archaeologist. On the other hand, he didn’t want her to have a paid job. And, he was a very, very unfaithful husband, in the manner of many middle-class Englishmen of his era. Because Ralph was a professor from 1968 onwards, he could actively prevent Sue from getting a job in his department, on the grounds that it would be “nepotism”. Ralph thought that if Sue had a paid job she wouldn’t be a good wife and mother. He may also have suspected, with good reason, that if Sue had her own income she would leave him.

If Ralph was a difficult husband, Sue wasn’t exactly a model wife and home-maker by 50s and 60s standards. I don’t think Ralph can have realised what he was getting into. (You’d think that two people trained in anthropology might have understood each other’s cultural differences, but they didn’t!)

When we returned to Auckland at the end of 1973, Sue worked hard on her PhD thesis, based on her research in Port Moresby. She wanted a job, and knew that she needed a PhD to get one.

In 1978 Sue finally finished her thesis, and took the only paid job in archaeology in New Zealand that my father couldn’t veto – working for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as the Northern Regional Archaeologist. Sue applied for many university and museum jobs over the years, but the timing was never right. And she was an opinionated middle-aged American woman, and she was Ralph’s ex-wife… Meanwhile, she threw her heart into her Historic Places Trust job. For the next 15 years she was an energetic, innovative and highly productive public servant. Possibly too innovative – she often infuriated the bureaucrats in Wellington.

In 1980 Ralph and Sue divorced. In 1985 Sue married Terry O’Meara, who was a friend from high school days in Pasadena. Sue had dated his younger brother, Brian, and Terry had dated Sue’s older sister, Mary. Terry moved to New Zealand in 1984 to be with Sue. They remained married until his death from cancer in 2010.

Terry wasn’t interested in archaeology. He was a psychiatrist (retired by the early 1990s) who loved fixing stuff, and building and flying model airplanes. I think he kept Sue grounded.

Sue (in red T-shirt) with, from left, grandsons Tom and Albert Bannister; her cousins from Delaware, Sue and Jim Payne, and husband Terry O'Meara.

Sue (in red T-shirt) with, from left, grandsons Tom and Albert Bannister; her cousins from Delaware, Sue and Jim Payne, and husband Terry O’Meara. Photograph from 2007.

A big-picture thinker

Sue was feisty, determined, focused. She gave her heart and soul to archaeology. She always had a huge sense of joy and curiosity and enthusiasm for her work.

Sue was a big-picture thinker, who had an intuitive knack of seeing where things fitted together. This was exasperating to many of her colleagues, who couldn’t follow her thinking. But when the data came in, her hunches were proved right, many times. Sue’s intuition was also incredibly useful in reading landscapes – she could look at a landscape and see where the best places were to dig.

I’ve found other examples of this combination of intuition plus scientific method, e.g. Nobel Prize-winning biologist Barbara McClintock.

Sue was rigorous in her research methods, and was exasperated when she found colleagues cutting corners. She didn’t suffer fools gladly.

She had a hunch that Papua New Guinea would turn out to be one of the earliest places for agriculture, along with China, the Middle East and South America. In later years her research materials were starting to point in this direction.

Sue was an early adopter of technology when she could see its uses. She was using a personal computer from the early 1980s, years before most academics and public servants. She was devoted to her Apple computer, with the occasional help of Ray, her Mac trouble-shooter.

Fending for ourselves

A woman who is this energetic and focused can’t do everything. If Sue wasn’t totally motivated in some areas of life, it’s understandable. The practicalities of running a household and raising kids weren’t high on her agenda. (Although we always had meals, had a roof over our heads and were sent to school.)

A case in point is the time we travelled on a boat to England in 1966. My brothers and I, aged five and under, spent six weeks with no shoes, all the way to England.

We did a lot of fending for ourselves. We learned to remember to take our own shoes. We managed not to fall into rivers and we didn’t get eaten by crocodiles in the Waigani Swamp.

Like many young adults, I spent a lot of time wishing my parents would be more “normal”, whatever that was. My childhood was a bit too exciting, a bit too uncomfortable and changeable. I moved school nine times. And because we did so much moving around, we had no close relatives or family friends who could fill in the gaps when our parents weren’t paying attention.

As a young girl, I found it frustrating to have a mother who had so little time for feminine fripperies. Sue was wearing dungarees many years before feminism. I didn’t learn anything about hairstyles from her – in fact, I had to fight to wear dresses. (Many of my friends had the opposite problem!) On the other hand, it means I’ve never been afraid of getting my hands dirty.

Sue Bulmer with grandchildren

Sue with four of her five grandchildren, waiting for a train. (Photo from 1998)


Sue was an “armchair green” who enjoyed gardening, and could intuitively grasp why Roundup is a bad idea. But she could never concentrate long enough to look after plants properly – she was always going back into her research.

She was practical, and would willingly turn her hand to building a pigeon cage or painting a window – until the next big archaeological idea came along to distract her.

She was a lifelong liberal, on the left of politics. She loved a good argument.

Sue had a love-hate relationship with the United States. I was fascinated to read in Barack Obama’s autobiography Dreams of My Father that his mother used to talk to him about the US Constitution, when they were living in Indonesia. My mother shared almost nothing about her homeland or culture with her children. We never celebrated Thanksgiving or other American holidays.

What Sue did share with us was her love of archaeology. As soon as we were old enough to talk about archaeology with her, that’s what we talked about.

I think my brothers enjoyed the process of digging, but I’ve always had mixed feelings about archaeology. Partly I was resentful that it took so much of my mother’s attention. But also, like my father, I really didn’t enjoy sitting in the sun in a dirty hole for hours on end. On the other hand, like both my parents, I’m a big-picture thinker and I’m fascinated by the way archaeology connects up the past and the present.

Public archaeology

Sue was passionate about communicating the excitement and the ideas of archaeology to the wider community. She never saw what she was doing as a specialist field that could only be understood by experts. She realized that archaeology can be interesting and relevant, without “dumbing down” the science. In later years she loved watching the Time Team, a UK TV series popularizing archaeology.

Sue was continually bumping up against New Zealand pakeha attitudes that history is something that exists elsewhere and not in our own country. New Zealand is a young country, even by colonial standards. And also, in the 1980s many people, even within the Historic Places Trust, thought that Maori history wasn’t interesting or important. When British archaeologist Lady Aileen Fox spent time working in New Zealand in the late 1970s, Sue was inspired by her observation that Maori pa were a similar kind of technology to British Iron Age hill forts.

Sue in her back garden with chocolate wheaten terriers Jessie and Lucy.

Sue in her back garden with chocolate wheaten terriers Jessie and Lucy.

Life, death and archaeology

As a political liberal who was motivated by human rights issues from early adulthood, my mother was aware there were ethical problems around archaeology. In many ways, archaeologists can be seen as tomb-robbers dressed up as scientists (e.g. Indiana Jones). As well as digging up sacred relics, many archaeologists have a creepy fascination for excavating human bones of non-western cultures, and then keeping them in boxes in a laboratory. Native American cultural historian Barbara Alice Mann has written about this in her book Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds. Sue did her share of excavating human burials in her Port Moresby excavations, but as soon as she realized the political and ethical implications, she returned the bones to the Papua New Guinea National Museum.

For many years Sue was actively involved in the World Archaeology Congress – a progressive international organization which includes the rights of indigenous people in its charter. One particularly memorable WAC conference Sue attended was at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of a massacre of Lakota Indians in 1890 by US cavalry.

The next great adventure

There’s much more that could be said about Sue. She got through a lot in one lifetime.

I haven’t mentioned the New Guinea Singing Dog (it’s a real animal!), or City Without A State?, her 1993 paper theorising that prehistoric Auckland had enough residents to be considered a city, or Ngaa Timatanga: The Beginnings, her controversial 1988 paper proposing that Polynesian settlement of New Zealand could have taken place several hundred years before the thirteenth century, but because it suits most pakeha to regard Maori as relatively recent migrants, nobody is looking for evidence to the contrary.

I also haven’t written about the time Sue took her beloved grandchildren (all five of them) to visit Disneyland, in 2003. (She was the only family member who was security-checked at L.A. International airport.) And the Friends of Maungawhau, the group she formed to advocate for the volcanic cone and historic paa known as Maungawhau or Mt Eden. Sue would be delighted to know that tour buses are no longer crowding the summit. And the long-standing relationships she maintained with friends and colleagues in the New Guinea highlands.

Albus Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “To the well-organised mind, death is just the next great adventure.”

Sue adored Star Trek. I can see her standing with Kathryn Janeway, on the bridge of the USS Voyager, setting course for the far reaches of the galaxy.

Goodbye and thank you, Sue. You are a wonderful role model of the practice and importance of being a scientist in the 21st century. You refused to accept limitations. You never needed someone else’s permission to do something – you went ahead and found a way to do it, if you thought it was important. You didn’t do things by halves – you threw your heart and soul into what you did. You did everything to the absolute best of your ability.

Your integrity and your inspiration lives on, in me and in many others.

Some links

Sue Bulmer – Wikipedia

Sue Bulmer – Archaeopedia page

Dr Susan Bulmer – A Bibliography 1956 – 2009

Archaeology in Oceania

City Without a State? Urbanisation in pre-European Taamaki-makau-rau

The Family Bat