Coastal Archaeology

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I am currently reading a fantastic new book by Billy Griffiths entitled Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia. It has been described by Tim Flannery as “the freshest, most important book about our past in years”, and by the historian Mark McKenna as a book “that marks the emergence of a powerful new literary voice and shifts our understanding of the nation’s past”. This book explores the history of Australian archaeology in a very readable style and helps us better relate to our long and dynamic human history that is so profoundly connected to country.

The author discusses the way in which professional archaeologists and geologists have explored the past and in so doing offered scientific insights into Indigenous knowledge of our continent. He contrasts their work with the “cowboys “of the past who exploited Aboriginal sites without understanding the damage they were causing. He selected a number of these professionals for detailed description of their backgrounds, field methods, and what they discovered. Importantly he was able to show how they often were able to link their work to contemporary Indigenous people’s understanding of the country in which they were working although at times not without controversy. It was exciting to read of how John Mulvaney, for example, developed and applied the techniques of the dig and in the process building on the work of previous archaeologists. Mulvaney also started the practice of interdisciplinary engagement with geologists, geomorphologists, palynologists, and others. But one of the key aspects of his work was the rigorous use of radiocarbon dating. This technique and other dating techniques have been fundamental in documenting the chronology of indigenous occupation and settlement of the continent as well as cultural shifts that have occurred over at least 65,000 years.

I have been privileged to have both direct and indirect association with many of the archaeologists and geologists mentioned in this book. This association commenced back in the early 60’s when I was wandering the NSW coast looking at Holocene and Late Pleistocene landforms. I must admit behaving on one occasion like a “cowboy” when I collected some stone tools from a site on the Macleay delta without proper documentation and taking them the Australian Museum. Fred McCarthy, mentioned in the book, gladly received them but did not berate me for my failure to provide site details. But my association in later years with prehistorians from ANU made me more informed of the need to treat such sites with more respect. It was that association which helped me appreciate what can be done by teams who can systematically undertake field research on Aboriginal antiquity.

Coastal Australia offers much of the narrative of what Griffiths terms “deep time dreaming”. Over the years the research has expanded the time frame from late Holocene on many coastal midden sites to periods extending back over 30,000 years. In 1973 Ron Lampert and I led a pre INQUA field trip on the NSW South Coast. Ron had studied a site at Burrill Lake that was late Pleistocene in age. Isabelle McBride working on the NSW North Coast was searching for older occupation on Last Interglacial landforms with Trevor Langford-Smith only to discover they were late Holocene in age. But a number of studies at coastal sites around Australia started to extend the time scale such as those of Rhys Jones in Tasmania, then in South Australia, Roger Luebbers, and in Western Australia, Charlie Dortch. However, the grandiose attempt in 1982 that included me to dive on the shoals north of Darwin to find evidence of Aboriginal occupance during low sea levels was not very fruitful. Yet it was a great time of science “dreaming” involving Nick Fleming from the UK and Rhys Jones and John Chappell from ANU. I got to dive on some deep early Holocene reefs.

The book by Griffiths tells us much of the work of various individuals and teams. It was great to know and engage with many of them especially during my years at ANU in the 70s. Colonisation of the continent around the coast as argued by Sandra Bowdler, the age and significance of deposits and human remains at Mungo and Kow Swamp, controversies over the prehistory of Tasmanian sites, faunal extinction and cultural shifts were all hot topics. Much later it was exciting to see how the application of new dating techniques added more to our knowledge.

The book by Griffiths is testimony to how excellent scholarship can enlighten us all on the history on our continent. It throws light on what has taken place over 65,000 years or so of “deep” human history and how that history needs to be told and understood so that proper respect can be made to those who shaped this land. As others have said who have commented on this book, it is rich and absorbing, at times spell binding, respectful of the complexities and difficulties of archaeological practice yet able to convey the excitement of discoveries while being sensitive to the achievements and concerns of Indigenous peoples. It is a must read.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2018, posted 26 March 2018, for correspondence about this blog post please email