Current Realities, Idealised Pasts: Archaeology, Values and Indigenous Heritage Management in Central Australia

By Thorley, Peter | Oceania, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Current Realities, Idealised Pasts: Archaeology, Values and Indigenous Heritage Management in Central Australia


Thorley, Peter, Oceania


Over the last century, heritage protection regimes have been established throughout the world to conserve the heritage of the colonised, whose own notions of heritage as cultural property have previously gone largely unrecognised. Byrne (1991) and Smith (1996, 2000) have examined the operation of conservation values in serving to promote and maintain a dominant colonial position in the heritage management industry both in Australia and abroad. The use of the conservation ethic to denounce Aboriginal repainting of rock art sites is one example given of a failure to recognise or accept that Indigenous societies may hold views of heritage which may be radically different from those which prevail in dominant institutions. Such examples prompted Byrne (1991:273) to write '... what is missing in the consciousness of heritage management practitioners generally [is]: an understanding of the values underlying the Western management ethos and an openness to alternatives'.

By the same token, Indigenous people have in recent times come to use archaeology and heritage legislation to represent their own interests at the political level in a range of arenas. While this process inevitably involves modernisation it does not necessarily reflect wholesale adoption of non-Indigenous values and epistemologies. Lowenthal (1990:302) for example argues that 'the Western emphasis on material tokens of antiquity as symbols of heritage has been all but universally adopted' and sees this as part of the 'diffusion of Western cultural norms'. This raises the question of whether the transmission of new cultural forms and practices must include a corresponding transfer of meaning. It could be argued that rather than the internalisation of Western values, adoption of contemporary heritage practices by Indigenous groups reflects a conscious manipulation of those values in terms of their own priorities and interests.

The archaeological literature of the last decade has increasingly drawn attention to the role of values in the management of archaeological materials and in definitions of what constitutes significant heritage from archaeological and Indigenous points of view. Like Byrne (1991) the work of other Australian archaeologists such as Burke et al. (1994), Murray (1992) and Smith (1996) have helped focus attention on the relationship between ideology, values, discourse and power in archaeological research and management, engaging with the wider discussion in anthropology and the social sciences. These contributions have done much to provide a rationale for the acceptance of Indigenous views in relation to archaeology and an understanding of its role in the construction of Aboriginality. Putting these theoretical concerns into practice has proven to be another matter. There have been few attempts to analyse the 'conflict of values' which underlies the practice of heritage conservation in Indigenous contexts or to bri ng forth alternative constructions of heritage within an Indigenous framework of meaning. Despite the best of intentions, failure to attend to these issues ultimately prevents any real control from flowing to Aboriginal people over archaeological research and management.

Attempts made to address the conflict of values in Indigenous archaeology have come largely from archaeologists working in the Northern Territory and remote Australia (Allen 1997, Strang 1998, Thorley 1996) although the 'Tasmanian Affair', a conflict over demands made by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council for the return of archaeological materials on the basis of their spiritual values, warrants mention (Allen 1995). In the Northern Territory, Allen (1997:151) discusses how values particular to archaeology and its underlying concepts of time and Aboriginal notions of the Dreaming became central to a series of conflicts over the presentation of Aboriginal culture and the role of Indigenous people in archaeological research in Kakadu National Park, concluding that '. …

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Current Realities, Idealised Pasts: Archaeology, Values and Indigenous Heritage Management in Central Australia
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