The Childhood of William Lanne: Contact Archaeology and Aboriginality in Tasmania

Article excerpt


In recent years, perhaps as a consequence of the self-reflective turn in archaeology, and concern for the social and political implications of their practice, archaeologists have been more outspoken about their own emotions. They have never been completely silent. Nilsson's (1868) feelings of revulsion towards Lapps were hardly hidden, Worsaae's (1849) nationalistic fervour, Childe's (1933; 1944) horror of Nazi archaeology and Grahame Clark's (1936; 1939) rejection of Childe's Soviet sympathies were real enough. But a post-processual archaeology seems to claim that our emotions (our responses as people?) can be valuable in deconstructing archaeology and archaeological knowledge.

Relationships between archaeologists and post-colonial indigenous peoples have also been fraught with emotion in recent decades. A large literature surveys the topic, usually reduced (ineffectively as it transpires) to a 'debate' about 'who owns the past' (see e.g. McBryde 1985; 1992; Murray 1992; 1993). Competition between indigenous peoples and archaeologists over the control of heritage does still occur (given that issues of identity arise, it is hardly surprising); nevertheless control over sites and artefacts is only part of the story.

Matters of interpretation are much more difficult. Banning unpopular accounts, or granting access only to those archaeologists whose interpretations are 'correct', courts the charge of censorship and, perhaps more seriously, can lead to a loss of moral authority. The lesson that the past does not belong to any single group, hard enough for archaeologists to learn, is all the more difficult for those who consider that their very identity might be threatened by disputes over interpretation -- disputes over which they may have very little control. Australian Aboriginal people now play in the game of interpretation, and can enhance their participation by producing interpretations of Aboriginal history and archaeology which meet their own needs (see e.g. Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc. 1991; McKellar 1984; Benterrak et al. 1984; Shaw 1981). However, the fact remains that they share the field of interpretation with others who may well have different viewpoints and agendas (e.g. Mulvaney & White 1987; Morphy & Morphy 1985).

In this context we might argue that polyvocality is a sign of relevance and significance, and that to repress it would be to reimpose the artificial consensus of positivism and empiricism. However, it is quite another thing to comprehend the emotional consequences of a relativism of interpretation, particularly for those who have rather more at stake than an expansion of contemporary social theory or fun games with signifiers. Of course, part of the power and attraction of polyvocality is connected to the sense of instability of concepts and categories it can bring, an instability that does much to reveal the consequences of previous consensus accounts as limiting or restricting our imaginations as archaeologists. However, instability has its downside, especially for people who may be the victims of clear (and unresolved) inequalities of power and resources. For them polyvocality may threaten the frameworks which underwrite identity and self-determination.

There is no formula solution for these problems beyond a commitment among the disputant parties to communicate, and for them to accept the discipline communication implies (Murray 1993). This discipline, with its emphasis on self-reflection, the building of theory and the exposure of the 'hidden' criteria which allow us to determine the plausibility of archaeological knowledge claims, becomes all the more important in the field of contact archaeology. Here the conceptual field is crowded, and the stakes higher.

In Australia the overcrowded field is a consequence of a shared history, and the arguments turn on matters of identity. Over the last two decades the shared history has dramatically changed its form and content, and identity has proved chimerical. …