Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Coastal Sites and Severe Weather in Cape Range Peninsula, Northwest Australia

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Coastal Sites and Severe Weather in Cape Range Peninsula, Northwest Australia

Article excerpt


The occurrence of Tropical Cyclone Vance, which entered the Exmouth Gulf on March 22 1999, presented an opportunity to study in detail the effects of extreme storm conditions on coastal sites in northern Cape Range peninsula. A post-cyclone survey of all sites in the study area was undertaken in July 1999, four months after the cyclone struck and aimed to quantify and characterise the effects of a single extreme cyclonic event on coastal archaeological sites. This paper presents the results of this survey and implications for studying coastal archaeological sites in Australia.


All open sites in Australia are exposed to various weather conditions, the severity and duration of which is dependent on geographical location and season. Archaeological sites located in tropical and northern Australia are subject to seasonally severe weather in the form of tropical cyclones, which can be extremely powerful and destructive. They generally occur between November and March. While many archaeologists acknowledge the potential impact of atypical, unpredictable or stochastic climatic events on sites (eg Hughes and Sullivan 1974, Meehan 1982, Beaton 1985, Rowland 1989, Sullivan and O'Connor 1993, Fullagar et al. 1999, Clune in prep.), research investigating and assessing the effects of severe weather on archaeological sites in the Australasian region has been limited. A notable exception is Bird (1992) who described the destruction of a number of coastal shell middens in Queensland by two tropical cyclones in quick succession. Bird found that from an original sample size of 93 middens, more than 50% had been obliterated by the storms. Similarly, Spennemann has discussed the impact of cyclonic storms on archaeological sites from a number of Polynesian islands (1987, 1998). In an alternative approach Craib and Mangold (1999) argue that the impact of cyclonic storms on archaeological sites has been `overestimated', and damage by storm erosion is used as a convenient explanation by archaeologists to explain stratigraphic anomalies. They conclude that the general lack of empirical data and geoarchaeological evidence contributes to the apparently persistent assumption by archaeologists that cyclonic erosion is potentially damaging to sites (Craib and Mangold 1999: 305).

The study area

The study area for this research is a 15km section of arid Western Australian coastline, at the northernmost tip of Cape Range peninsula (Figure 1). Cape Range peninsula is a narrow protrusion of rugged limestone range projecting into the Indian Ocean at the western extent of the Australian mainland. It is flanked on both sides by coastal plains and sand dunes. The western coastal stretch to a distance of 100m to 300m from the shoreline (depending on the width of the dune system) of the study area was surveyed for archaeological sites in 1998. Over 15km of coastal dune was surveyed on foot, and 60 shell midden sites were located and recorded. All of the recorded shell middens in the Cape Range region are unstratified surface sites, ranging from dense surface accumulations of marine shell and artefactual stone to small sparse scatters of one or two species of shell (see also Morse 1996). To date, no shell middens located in Cape Range peninsula extend more than two or three centimetres below the surface, usually no more than the depth of a shell deposited edgeways in the sand.



Northern Australia, constituting approximately one third of the Australian continent, is susceptible to tropical cyclones. Occasionally the effects of particularly powerful or prolonged cyclones can be felt considerably further south, reaching as far as Perth in the west and Sydney in the east. The average cyclone season lasts from November to May, and can bring to a region more than the average annual amount of rainfall in one storm. …

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