Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Looking for the Proverbial Needle? the Archaeology of Australian Colonial Frontier Massacres

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Looking for the Proverbial Needle? the Archaeology of Australian Colonial Frontier Massacres

Article excerpt


Amongst other issues, the 'History Wars' raise the question as to whether or not sites of conflict on the Australian colonial frontier will be preserved in the archaeological record. We explore this question through a consideration of what the expected nature of any such evidence might be, based on general and specific historical accounts and an understanding of site formation processes. Although limited success has been achieved to date in locating definitive evidence for such sites in Australia, we conclude that there are some specific situations where archaeology could usefully be applied to give rise to a more multi-dimensional understanding of the past.

Keywords: frontier conflict, massacre sites, History Wars, colonial Australia, site formation processes


In recent years the extent and nature of colonial frontier conflict has been at the fore of Australian public consciousness as a result of the widely publicised 'History Wars'--a fierce academic debate that has garnered extensive media coverage (Attwood 2005; Attwood and Foster 2003; Birch 1997; Blainey 1993; Clark 2002; Connor 2002; Keating 1992; Macintyre and Clark 2004; Manne 2003; Stanner 1968; Windschuttle 2000a, 2000b, 2002, 2009). The crux of the argument is historiographical and also founded in issues associated with the nature and reliability of social memory, and the manner in which stories about the relationships between settlers and Indigenous peoples have been constructed. As various scholars have demonstrated, archaeology has the potential to provide alternative views of the past, and in particular of Indigenous-settler relationships (e.g. Harrison and Williamson 2004; Murray 2004; Paterson et al. 2003; Silliman 2004; Stein 2005). Accordingly, some historians have called for archaeologists to engage in explorations of frontier conflict events through the application of archaeological techniques (e.g. Attwood and Foster 2003: 23). Such an approach affords the opportunity to inform the historiographical debate, through elucidating written and verbal renditions of frontier conflict events and/or satisfying the lacunae evident in some historical and oral accounts.

While most archaeologists are aware of the adage that 'an absence of evidence does not necessarily indicate evidence of absence', beyond our discipline this is not always the case. There is concern that some people interpret the surprisingly small number of massacre sites listed in state and national heritage registers as further proof as to the falsity of claims of extreme violence against Indigenous people on the frontier. In this paper we provide an explanation as to why so few massacre sites have been identified archaeologically to date and, through a consideration of their expected archaeological signatures, discuss how researchers might effectively engage in the investigation of such sites. We suggest that such investigations do not necessarily run the risk of satisfying revisionist arguments (cf Barker 2007: 12), if discussions of site formation processes are well incorporated in published accounts thereafter. Despite arguments by Barker (2007) that the nature of Australian frontier conflict was such that there is little probability of massacre events being manifested in the archaeological record, anecdotal accounts from archaeologists and Indigenous people dispute this, and we argue below that evidence from particular types of frontier massacres are more likely to be preserved than others. While these might be comparatively rare, there is little doubt they will be of extreme cultural significance to Indigenous people. They will additionally be of high social, historical and scientific significance to non-Indigenous people and are worthy of identification, investigation and protection.

The language of conflict

Given the emotive and contentious nature of the topic of frontier conflict, and the perils of becoming enmeshed in semantics, it is important to provide clear definitions for the terminology we utilise in this paper. …

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