Popular Notions of Australian Archaeology

By du Cros, Hilary | Journal of Australian Studies, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Popular Notions of Australian Archaeology


du Cros, Hilary, Journal of Australian Studies


Australian archaeology can be defined as the study of past human behaviour and lifeways in the Australian context. But archaeologists should not be expected to reconstruct the pastfrom archaeological remains which are usually less than completely preserved.(1) As Caroline Bird observes: `Archaeologists cannot observe past behaviour directly but must interpret durable items of material culture, which constitute the residues of that behaviour, within their spatial and temporal context'.(2)

This `spatial and temporal context' either encountered in an excavation or a ground survey concerns the location that an item occupies. Usually excavated sites conform to geological rules with earliest buried layers of debris from a site at the bottom and the latest evidence of occupation at the top. This arrangement is known as the `law of superposition'.(3) The association between an artefact or site and its context is central to all archaeological endeavour whether it is survey, excavation, artefacts analysis or general interpretation. Archaeology does therefore tend to define itself in terms of its methodology as well as its focus on past human cultures. This definition also distinguishes the intellectual socialisation of present day professional archaeologists from those of relic hunters, antiquaries, historians, architects, social anthropologists, palaeontologists and geologists.(4)

In defining the archaeological discipline in Australia, my specific use of a few common terms needs to be clarified. The terms are; pre-contact archaeology, historical archaeology and maritime archaeology. Pre-contact archaeology has been substituted for `prehistory' and historical archaeology for `post-contact archaeology'. The use of the former term instead of the latter is more for accuracy, given the state of current archaeological practice and methodology, than for any other reason. The problem with `prehistory' as a term to define `pre-contact archaeology' is that it negates the presence of Aboriginal oral history, and its usefulness in archaeological interpretation. At the same time, written records and oral history can complement information collected by archaeologists for the `frontier' period of contact and the following phases for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures. Problems also arise when making ethnic distinctions, such as Aboriginal/European, as the Chinese and other races have a presence in nineteenth century history. `Post-contact' is not a useful term either, because it ignores the presence of a lengthy contact period between both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures. Unfortunately there is no current agreement as to how long the contact phase lasted as archaeological research of this phase is a recent development. Most of the research is being conducted by archaeologists with training in either pre-contact archaeology or historical archaeology but very rarely in both branches of the discipline.(5)

Often maritime archaeology is left completely out of the picture. Theoretically, maritime archaeology is the study of archaeological material occurring underwater (such as shipwrecks), except when it includes sites on water margins associated with shipping. No pre-contact sites, particularly waterlogged Pleistocene sites, have been excavated so far in Australia, although there have been debates about the practicalities of doing so. Otherwise, maritime archaeology does in fact employ much of the same skills as historical archaeology (eg. historical research, site recording, excavating and artefact analysis). It can also be undertaken in inland rivers and lakes and not just along the coast.

Archaeological fieldwork in Australia has a tendency to be site based. A site is generally defined as `a locus of past human activity within boundaries distinguished by the presence of physical remains of that activity'. It can also have value and meaning beyond being of interest to archaeologists. An archaeological site or group of sites can be part ora landscape valued for its cultural linkages and natural beauty as in the case of Uluru and the Kakadu National Park. …

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