Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

The Texture of Agency: An Example of Culture-Contact in Central Australia

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

The Texture of Agency: An Example of Culture-Contact in Central Australia

Article excerpt


A regional historical archaeological analysis of Strangways Springs Station, northern South Australia, reveals the evidence for interaction in the period 1850-1900 between Aboriginal people and newly arrived European pastoralists. The evidence from campsites and worksites demonstrates differential Aboriginal involvement in the nineteenth century pastoral domain. The nature of cultural interaction changed as the pastoralists adapted and transformed their economic and social behaviour in response to the harsh Lake Eyre Basin environment and to economic and technical parameters related to the fledgling pastoral industry. The case study shows that archaeological and historical evidence each provide different perspectives on past culture contact and human agency.


The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how cross-cultural interaction is characterised by different types and degrees of interpersonal engagement, and how historical and archaeological evidence each provide different insights into contact-period agency. The case study is of Strangways Springs Station in the southwestern Lake Eyre Basin, northern South Australia (Figure 1), where from c.1860 interaction between Aboriginal people and Europeans occurred primarily in the pastoral domain. The historical archaeological evidence from this place is presented under several headings: spatial patterning; labour and economy; social worlds and distinctions; knowledge, power and law; and in two biographies of Aboriginal workers. Each topic considers both individual and group agency by focussing on the evidence for differential indigenous involvement in the pastoral domain. For simplicity the discussion is one-sided, focussing almost solely on Aboriginal people. Despite this, both sides of the cross-cultural interaction at Strangways Springs are evident.


As archaeological records are the cumulative result of the actions of individuals the concept of agency is often central to archaeological interpretation. The use of the term in processual and post-processual literature has lead to a blurring of the theoretical implications of its use, leading a recent publication to ask whether the agency concept is useful (Dobres and Robb 2000:13). Certainly the term 'agency' is used broadly; an historical overview of the many different uses of the term 'agency' is provided by Dobres and Robb (2000 Ch. 1), and expressed by Dornan: "Indeed, agency has alternatively been equated with the individual; individually unique cognitive structures; resistance to social norms; resistance to power inequalities; the capacity for skilful social practice; freedom from structural constraints; and free will" (2002:304). With this range of meanings it is necessary to explain what I mean by agency in this paper. The following discussion explores links between the reported lives of historically described individuals and archaeological records of cumulative individual and group behaviour--testing how the past actions of individuals and groups are represented in the different evidence in this case study. Different evidence provides different insights into individuals and groups according to their gender, age, type of work, and degree of contact with Europeans. Thus I am interested in how the actions of individuals and different groups in society are reflected in archaeological and documentary records.

In addition, this archaeology of culture contact has the potential to provide new knowledge. For colonial central Australia we have some knowledge of recent--particularly post-1900--contexts of cultural interaction (for example Rose 1991; Baker 1999; Rowse 1998), but our historical knowledge of earlier phases of cultural interaction in the nineteenth century is poor.

Strangways Springs Station

Tourists seeking desert landscapes and a sense of remote Australia travel the Oodnadatta Track skirting the edge of Lake Eyre South, passing across gibber plains, dune fields, scrubland and grass plains. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.