Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Radiocarbon Dates from Middens around Darwin Harbour: Cultural Chronology of a Pre-European Landscape

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Radiocarbon Dates from Middens around Darwin Harbour: Cultural Chronology of a Pre-European Landscape

Article excerpt

Radiocarbon estimates from recent salvage excavations of Anadara-dominated mounded midden sites at Wickham Point just south of Darwin double the number of this type of cultural deposit in this area known to date to the period 500 to 2000 BP. These data, together with recent dating of surface scatters of shell and stone artefacts to the contact period, add to our knowledge of the chronology of Aboriginal occupation of the Darwin Harbour coastal landscape.

Dated samples from the mounds are from rough-backed cockle shell (Anadara granosa) and from charcoal obtained in situ during excavations, as well as from Telescopium telescopium obtained from surface scatters of shell and stone artefacts. Most (39 estimates on eleven middens) of the 58 radiocarbon estimates in Appendix 1 were obtained from samples submitted by C Crassweller in 2002 and 2005 as part of salvage excavations (Crassweller 2002, 2006), undertaken when some 20 shell mounds were destroyed due to construction of the Wickham Point Gas Plant on Middle Arm Peninsula about 12 kilometres south of Darwin. The remaining dates in Appendix 1 are from previous studies. Eight estimates from five middens were obtained by Hiscock (1997; Hiscock & Hughes 2001) from salvage work undertaken a decade ago. Eleven were obtained by Bourke (2000) from three shell middens also a decade ago, and more recently on one midden and three shell scatters (Bourke 2005a). Results presented in Appendix 1 include radiocarbon ages and show the range of calibrated dates at two standard deviations; these were calibrated by Patrick Faulkner of the Australian National University with the CALIB 5.0.1 program, using the marine 04.14c calibration curve with a delta R of 65 [+ or -] 24 for the marine samples and for the terrestrial samples (charcoal) the SHCal04.14c calibration curve for the southern hemisphere (Reimer et al. 2004).

The dated sites are all located on the eastern side of the harbour--close to Darwin city at Bayview Haven and Winnellie and on both sides of Middle Arm Peninsula--on the northern Wickham Point and on the southern shoreline around Haycock Reach. They represent about a 15% sample of about 120 middens recorded on this side of Darwin Harbour (Begnaze 2001a, 2001b; Bourke 2000, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c; Burns 1994; Hiscock 1997; Hiscock & Hughes 2001; URS 2002). Only approximately 12 middens have been recorded on the western side of the harbour (Bourke 2005c). These known site distributions reflect the current full extent of investigation and represent an incomplete picture of the archaeological record. Midden sites recorded to date are clustered around the relatively steep, indented shoreline of Darwin Harbour, often at the junction of mangroves and high ground. Some lie at the foot of hill-slopes next to or just within the adjacent mangrove forests. Some are situated further inland within woodlands and some on the crests of discrete hills with expansive views of the surrounding landscape and harbour. All are within a few hundred metres of mangroves, in easy reach of the sea and shores, swamps, rivers and creeks as well as the inland woodlands.

The dated middens are typical of Anadara-dominated mounds in this region that have been dated thus far, all belonging to the pre-European period. The main period of mound building, between 1500 and 500 years BP (Bourke 2000:243-4), is similar to that reported for northern Queensland (Bailey 1999). Anadara granosa, the dominant shellfish taxa in most of these sites, no longer occurs in any significant quantity in the local Darwin coastal environment of extensive mangrove-colonised flats, considered to have formed within the last 700 to 500 years (Hiscock 1997). One interesting, and as yet undated, exception to the ubiquitous Anadara mounds--a cluster of some 30 mounds along the mangrove-fringed banks of the Elizabeth River that flows into Middle Arm is dominated by the mangrove tree oyster Melina ephippium, and may represent continued mound building during this more recent period of mangrove expansion. …

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