Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Contact Archaeology and Native Title

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Contact Archaeology and Native Title

Article excerpt

Abstract: Contact archaeology in Australia is emerging as an important tool in the independent 'verification' of claimants' testimony regarding the post-sovereignty occupation and use of particular parts of the landscape in a continuous and 'traditional' manner. This paper reviews the literature on post-contact archaeology and material culture in Australia, and provides an assessment of the ways in which this evidence has been used in native title claims to date. The utility of post-contact artefact forms, both in terms of providing evidence of post-sovereignty use and occupation, as well as in demonstrating long-term continuities in claimant land-use patterns, is discussed, with reference both to knapped bottle glass artefacts, the most well known post-contact Aboriginal artefact type in Australia, as well as other post-contact artefact forms such as stone artefacts and modified metal tools. It is argued that an examination of a broader range of post-contact material culture items and archaeological site patterning has potential not only in directly informing native title archae-ology, but also in developing more complex archaeological narratives concerning both continuity and change in Aboriginal societies in the past, which may serve political and social agendas in the present.


The purpose of this paper is to review published studies of post-contact archaeological sites and material culture to assess the potential for 'contact archaeology' to inform the native title process. I review a range of different kinds of archaeological data from published studies to suggest ways in which the historical archaeology of Aboriginal Australia might be used as material evidence for continuity of land-use practices and material indicators of the presence of Aboriginal people in the landscape.

I begin with a discussion of knapped bottle glass artefacts as an example of a well-documented class of archaeological object that has been the subject of several detailed regional studies and has formed a focus for the determination of post-sovereignty occupation in several recent native title cases. Some particular issues of relevance from the recent literature on glass artefact manufacture in Australia are discussed. I then argue for the need to move beyond the limitations of study of glass artefacts, the so-called type artefacts of post-contact sites in Australia, to examine the potential of a broader range of post-contact material culture and site patterning in the post-contact archaeological record. I conclude with a discussion of the range of post-contact archaeological evidence and suggest ways that it might be applied in native title determinations in Australia. This call for a broader purview in terms of the post-contact archaeological record is not a criticism of the way in which archaeologists have used such evidence within native title archaeology, but relates to the need for the archaeological community at large to be more mindful of recording such artefacts and site types so that the information collected might better address the needs of native title.

Contact archaeology in Australia

While this research began as early as the 1960s with Allen's study of contact between Aboriginal people and the British at the failed Port Essington settlement in northern Australia (1969, 1980), detailed archaeological investigation of the period in which Aboriginal Australians, settler Australians and other 'outsiders' shared lifeworlds, commonly referred to as 'contact' or 'post-contact' archaeology because of the dominant research questions regarding the impacts of new cultures on Aboriginal cultural experience, is an area of research which has seen enormous growth in the last 15 years (see also critical reviews of the sub-field in Murray 2004b; Torrence & Clarke 2000a; Williamson 2004; Williamson & Harrison 2002).

Research in the first wave of contact archaeology focused particularly on the early contact experience. …

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