Jack Golson and the Investigation of Prehistoric Agriculture in Highland New Guinea: Recent Work and Future Prospects

By Denham, Tim; Ballard, Chris | Archaeology in Oceania, October 2003 | Go to article overview
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Jack Golson and the Investigation of Prehistoric Agriculture in Highland New Guinea: Recent Work and Future Prospects


Denham, Tim, Ballard, Chris, Archaeology in Oceania


This collection of papers celebrates Jack Golson's influence on the investigation of prehistoric agriculture in the mountainous interior of New Guinea. The breadth of Golson's interests and his remarkable intellectual generosity have stimulated several of his former students to attempt to develop some of the lines of enquiry identified through his own work. Golson has already been the subject of a major festschrift volume (Spriggs et al. eds 1993), in which his personal history and professional career are charted, and his influence on several generations of archaeologists is amply demonstrated. However, a number of factors have prompted us to issue a further acknowledgment of Golson's influence, the first being his continued reluctance to disengage from scholarly debate and enquiry following his retirement as the Professor of Prehistory at the Australian National University in 1991 (Spriggs and Jones 1993). Golson continues to publish, to edit, and to challenge those around him.

The authors of this collection represent a more recent generation of researchers than those featured in the original festschrift, all but one of us (John Burton) having worked with Golson in the period since 1991. It does also seem something of an omission in the original festschrift that only one of the papers--Doug Yen's contribution on subsistence systems in the Pacific (Yen 1993)--addresses in any substantial way the history of agriculture in the New Guinea Highlands, given the centrality of the topic in Golson's own work. Each of the authors in the present collection has worked in New Guinea and most have focused at some point on questions of early agricultural history and social transformation in the region.

The continuing investigation of early agriculture

Archaeology in the New Guinea Highlands was in its infancy when Golson first assembled a team to investigate the Manton's agricultural site on Warrawau Plantation in 1966, in Papua New Guinea's Wahgi Valley. A handful of other archaeologists had already initiated work in the Highlands region. Sue Bulmer's pioneering surveys in the Wahgi Valley, Kundiawa and Chuave areas in 1959 (Bulmer 1966), were followed by independent programs of excavation pursued by Peter White (1972) and David Cole (Watson and Cole 1977) during the 1960s at a series of sites in what were then the Western and Eastern Highlands Districts.

The agricultural site at Kuk Swamp was first identified in 1969 by Jim Allen (Allen 1970). Thereafter, Golson focused his attention on Kuk, and many of his colleagues and students tackled projects that were allied in some way or other to the wider questions raised by this talismanic site (Golson 1996). A forthcoming publication will set out much of the history and the results of the Kuk Swamp investigations (Golson et al. eds in prep.).

Golson's work at Kuk, as elsewhere, has been marked by a particular conception of archaeology as a form of historical enquiry unimpeded by disciplinary boundaries. His training as a mediaevalist (Gathercole 1993) may have played a critical part in the formation of Golson's fundamental orientation as an historian employing the various technologies of archaeology and synthesizing the results from a broad spread of disciplines, while always keeping questions about the transformation of societies to the fore. It is not surprising, then, that Golson has urged each of the authors in this collection, at various times, to pursue alternative lines of enquiry: to read more widely in regional ethnography, to experiment with different techniques, and to combine the broadest possible range of perspectives on the past. Some of the consequences of this expansive approach to archaeology are evident in this collection, in which an historian (Chris Ballard), a palaeo-ecologist (Simon Haberle), a plant botanist (Peter Matthews) and an anthropologist (John Burton) feature alongside archaeologists (Herman Mandui, John Muke and Tim Denham).

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Jack Golson and the Investigation of Prehistoric Agriculture in Highland New Guinea: Recent Work and Future Prospects
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