Many Exchanges: Archaeology, History, Community and the Work of Isabel McBryde

By Davidson, Janet | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Many Exchanges: Archaeology, History, Community and the Work of Isabel McBryde


Davidson, Janet, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Ingereth Macfarlane with Mary-Jane Mountain and Robert Paton (eds)

Aboriginal History, Canberra (Monograph 11), 2005, xxxv+412pp, ISBN 0958563772

As one who maintains only a cursory interest in Australian archaeology, I found this book a fascinating guide to the work of Isabel McBryde, and to the current preoccupations of Australian archaeologists who are building on that work.

The book had its origin in a day-long symposium, held in Canberra in July 2001 and attended by 115 people. Seven of the prepared papers presented at the symposium have been revised and updated for the book; transcriptions of three personal tributes given on the day are also included. But the book has 30 contributions in all: 28 papers and tributes (which grade seamlessly from one to the other), an extensive preface by the principal editor, Ingereth Macfarlane, and a unique 'Spatial history of the work of Isabel McBryde' compiled by Win Mumford. This last, with its map of fieldwork locations and annotated list of studies and their dates, introduces the reader to the scope of Isabel's work with an impact that no essay can match. The Preface fills out the background with a brief review of the various aspects of Isabel's work and an explanation of the structure of the book.

Unlike some festschrifts, this book throughout is closely concerned with the person honoured and work she initiated. It is not just a diverse collection of papers by scholars honouring one of their own. The first section of 12 contributions, 'Exchange of ideas', is a series of evaluations of and tributes to Isabel: her overall career, her New England research, her role as a teacher, her interactions with students, her contribution to public archaeology, Aboriginal heritage and through it, world heritage, and the affection and respect of Aboriginal people for her. If, in the past, Isabel's contributions have been undervalued, as Jack Golson's 'salutation and mea culpa' suggest, this book must surely rectify that and reveal her as not just an Elder but a Giant of Australian Archaeology.

My own acquaintance with Isabel's research has been focused on her studies of stone tools and their distribution through trade and exchange. The full extent of her work was a revelation, not least her enormous contribution to Aboriginal heritage and her ability to reconcile archaeological and Aboriginal interests. But it seems that she did everything--detailed site survey, careful excavation, stone sourcing, experimental tool manufacture and use, faunal analysis, the careful and rigorous consideration of linguistics, ethnographic and archival records; and of course, teaching and heritage management. I find it disappointing that her work on faunal analysis is not being followed; Ingereth Macfarlane notes (p.xxxii) that 'since the late 1980s there has been a shift in the frame of disciplinary enquiry and midden analyses are not currently part of anyone's research interests'. Perhaps the term 'midden analysis' should be banned--what is involved here is the reconstruction of human subsistence and interaction with the environment, as Isabel knew.

The nine papers in the second section consider exchanges in the widest sense, including between disciplines. Some are concerned in some way with stone tool use and exchange, but there are also some interesting historical studies. The seven papers in the last section are more specifically concerned with stone tools. The last two papers, by Robin Torrence and Jim Specht, move beyond Australia, but in ways entirely in keeping with the volume.

All the papers are relatively short. Although one or two are a little dense for the non-Australian reader, there is much that is of wide general interest to archaeologists elsewhere.

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