From the Perspective of Time: Hunter-Gatherer Burials in South-Eastern Australia

Article excerpt


In south-eastern Australia thousands of Aboriginal burials, mainly of Holocene date (based on absolute and geomorphological dating), have been exposed through processes of erosion and, less frequently, through land developments (e.g. irrigation, sand quarrying) and deliberate excavation. Here I analyse these burials, taking account of the different time scales and temporalities (Bailey 1983) that apply to the different phenomena associated with them. The goal is to identify the processes which create the current visible pattern of the burials, define their duration and propose the factors operating, including preferred landscape locations, ritual maintenance, and specific memory or knowledge. The results of this analysis suggest a more fluid relationship between individuals and land than hypothesised in previous studies. Hunter-gatherer burials frequently constitute a palimpsest resulting from "natural and cultural processes operating at different spatial and temporal scales" (Anschuetz et al. 2001: 188). It will be argued here, as per Schlanger (1992), that in south-eastern Australia burial grounds operated as persistent places in the landscape, sometimes as the result of deliberate maintenance by people with full knowledge of a locale although not necessarily of specific practices, at other times simply because the form of the landscape prompted similar responses (Jacobs 1995).


Region of study

Inland south-eastern Australia is dominated by the Murray River and its tributaries. These rivers drain from the Great Dividing Range in the east across the extensive plains of New South Wales and Victoria into South Australia where the river, forming a deep single channel, turns southwards to drain into the Southern Ocean (Figure 1). In their middle and lower reaches these rivers cross semi-arid country. Evaporation exceeds rainfall and the average variability in rainfall is 33 per cent (Karoly et al. 2003). But the winter snowmelt generally provides annual supplies of water and is the source of the areas current agricultural wealth.

The research reported here focuses on the central part of the Murray basin, where the Hay Plain is crossed by the Lachlan, Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers (Figure 1). Many authors hypothesise that this was one of the more populous areas in pre-contact Australia. Work on languages (Hercus 1969), tribal boundaries (Tindale 1974) and genetic variation (Pardoe 1995) suggests high levels of diversity, presumably supported by riverine resources, suggestive of higher populations than in other semi-arid areas (Birdsell 1953; Bickford 1966).


The archaeological record of this region has been affected by ploughing, irrigation ditching, sand mining and erosion, all of which have led to the exposure of Aboriginal burials. The area has experienced high rates of soil loss due to a combination of severe drought, stock and vegetation clearance (Johnston & Littleton 1993) and the rapidity of erosion makes for a highly changeable topography.

There have been three dedicated surveys of burials in the area (Pardoe 1985, Bonhomme 1990 and Littleton 1997), undertaken with the permission and assistance of local Aboriginal communities. In contrast, there have been relatively few systematic excavations (Stirling 1911; Sunderland & Ray 1959; Thorne 1971; Blackwood & Simpson 1973; Pretty 1977; Bowdler 1983; Pardoe 1988b; Littleton et al. 1994). Sites are never fully excavated and the relationship between the total number of burials in a locale and those exposed is unknown (Littleton et al. 1994). As a result, the visibility of burials varies a great deal (Littleton 2000); their distribution reflects a landscape of survival and destruction (Wandsnider 1998) and the record is neither complete nor representative.


The recordable data of the burials that can be identified are limited to aspects of the grave (location, shape, form), the body (orientation, placement, age, sex) and associated artefacts (if visible). …