Reflections

By Mulvaney, John | Antiquity, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Reflections


Mulvaney, John, Antiquity


Professor John Mulvaney, pioneer and champion of Australian archaeology, offers us some reflections from the vantage point of his eightieth year. On his retirement 20 years ago Antiquity was glad to publish his Retrospect (Mulvaney 1986), in which be described his awakening interest in history at Melbourne, his first visit to the Rollright Stones and his fruitful encounters with Gordon Childe, Graham Clark, Glyn Daniel, Mortimer Wheeler and many other great figures of the 50s, 60s and 70s in classrooms at Cambridge and in the field in England and Australia. This paper remains a classic of archaeological history which readers will find in our electronic archive (at http://www.antiquity.ac.uk). It ended with his (victorious) battle for the archaeological heritage of the Franklin River heritage of Tasmania in the early 1980s.

Now he reflects on the subsequent decades in which much has changed. Of especial interest to our readers will be Professor Mulvaney's current assessment of the Aboriginal-European discourse and the management of the Australian heritage.

Aboriginal voices

I returned from Cambridge in 1953 as an archaeologist of the remote Stone Age, backward looking, largely unaware that a rich ethnographic 'living archaeology' awaited recording in my native Australia. In hindsight this may seem misguided and blinkered. But I need to set myself into a Melbourne context. The fifties were the epoch of assimilation policy, when black people were to adapt to white society. To the Victorian government, people of part-Aboriginal descent were non-Aboriginal. Although over 3000 of such people were Victorians, officially there was no Aboriginal population. Immersed in that social milieu I never knowingly saw an Aboriginal person until I visited Queensland in 1960.

In the fifties when I commenced fieldwork, the rule on Aboriginal artefacts was 'finders-keepers' because States lacked legislation for site protection or the laying down of fieldwork rules. When Sydney museum curator F.D. McCarthy proposed a scheme of legislative site protection for New South Wales (NSW) in 1938 his proposal was stymied particularly by a coterie of Victorian stone tool collectors. These were the same people I encountered when, around 1957, I became secretary to the Victorian Anthropological Society. I proposed a motion that any artefacts collected on formal Society excursions were to be donated to the museum. A committee member resigned on the spot and no artefacts reached the museum under that rubric.

Such was the intellectual milieu when I urged State legislation. I set a standard by informing the South Australian Museum that all finds from the 5000 year-long sequence I excavated at Fromm's Landing would be deposited there; they supplied me with catalogue numbers. Robert Edwards, a South Australian Museum curator, succeeded in 1965 in having site protection legislation in that State. Pressure was maintained effectively in NSW by Isabel McBryde. It became a national issue when Fred McCarthy (now AIAS Principal), Edwards and myself organised a conference on Aboriginal Antiquities in Australia: Their Nature and Preservation in 1968 (McCarthy 1970).

All States had passed legislation by 1975, with NSW having the most useful Act. It soon became evident that legislation was one thing, but staff and the will to implement it was another. By 1975, however, other factors arose which ensured greater attention to site protection and the work of archaeology. This was the welcome growth of an Aboriginal protest movement which had profound consequences for archaeology. Over time my own involvement is certain to be questioned, so I present here my own version.

During most of 1971 I was Acting Principal of the AIAS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies). Reports that Aboriginal people were concerned about the attitude of researchers to places and concepts which they believed were secret-sacred matters (as the contemporary term had it). …

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