Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Patterns of Chronological Variability in Occupation on the Coastal Margin of Blue Mud Bay

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Patterns of Chronological Variability in Occupation on the Coastal Margin of Blue Mud Bay

Article excerpt


This paper presents an analysis of radiocarbon dating of shell mounds and middens in Blue Mud Bay, northern Australia. The aim is to investigate variability in use of the landscape and foraging activity through time. By considering both mounded and non-mounded shell deposits, results indicate that occupation and use of coastal landscapes during the Holocene in this region of northeast Arnhem Land was highly variable, with several overlapping phases of occupation and gaps in site formation. As in some other Australian regions, this implies a discontinuous or nonlinear pattern of occupation, one that suggests the late Holocene occupation of coastal Blue Mud Bay may be characterised by variability in the distribution and intensity of foraging behaviour through time and space.

Keywords: Northern Australia, shell mounds, chronology, Holocene, variability


A number of recent studies have demonstrated that detailed investigation of local or regional chronologies can provide insights into potential variability in the intensity and distribution of foraging and use of the landscape (e.g. Attenbrow 2004; Hiscock and Attenbrow 1998; Holdaway et al. 2002; Ulm 2006a). As such, our ability to establish secure chronologies at a regional level will ultimately enable us to draw meaningful comparisons at the inter- and intra-regional scales. Recently, several researchers have noted that the chronology of human occupation within any given region cannot be based on individual radiocarbon determinations alone, it is through multiple determinations that landuse patterns may be recognised (Holdaway et al. 2002; Ulm 2006a). For that reason, when reconstructing the past in this way, we need to base our interpretations on a pattern based on the accumulation of multiple events (Holdaway et al. 2002: 356). Therefore, although there are certain limitations and problems of resolution when interpreting the available radiocarbon chronologies from any given area, by using this kind of approach, we are able to characterise long-term temporal trends, thereby building a picture of occupation. This paper presents the results of recent research in Blue Mud Bay, northeast Arnhem Land (Figure 1), with a specific focus on the chronological patterns of occupation on the Point Blane Peninsula where a large sample of radiocarbon dates (38 dates from 20 sites) was obtained from a cross-section of site types in varying environmental contexts. This approach provides a basis to investigate variations in the intensity and timing of human activity in the landscape.



Of the 141 sites recorded during the course of the landscape survey across the Point Blane Peninsula 119 are shell midden or mound sites (Figure 2). Fourteen excavations were carried out on shell mound and midden sites situated at various points along the coastline. Sites selected for excavation were determined primarily by location, environmental context and site morphology, and content to represent the range of sites and contexts encountered. For example, there are distinct differences in the distribution of sites between the two broadly defined areas of Grindall and Myaoola Bays. Anadara granosa-dominated mound and midden sites occur in distinct clusters, largely along the raised laterite ridge bordering the former shallow, prograded embayment of Grindall Bay. This pattern contrasts well with the low and horizontally spread midden sites on Myaoola Bay that show higher shellfish species variability, being largely dominated by Gafrarium tumidum, Marcia hiantina, Septifer bilocularis, and Anadara antiquata.

All dates were obtained from marine shell samples, all from near-shore habitats. The specific species and their habitats were Anadara granosa (littoral sand/mud, intertidal/marginally subtidal), Anadara antiquata (sand/ mud, intertidal & sublittoral), Gafrarium tumidum (littoral sand/mud, estuarine, mangroves), Marcia hiantina (littoral sand/mud, intertidal and subtidal, estuarine) and Septifer bilocularis (attached to hard substrate, littoral/sublittoral). …

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