Emerging from the Abyss-Archaeology in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia

By Morse, Kate | Archaeology in Oceania, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Emerging from the Abyss-Archaeology in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia


Morse, Kate, Archaeology in Oceania


Deep within the abyss of archaeological consulting reports in Western Australia numerous archaeological sites lurk. Often comprehensively described with artefacts systematically measured and occasional radiocarbon dates, these sites should contribute much to our current understanding of the archaeology of Western Australia.

But these sites have been recorded as part of consulting projects.

Archaeological consulting is not research and is rarely carried out with research questions in mind. Sites are recorded because of their location in relation to a proposed mineral development project, road realignment, or town expansion. The consultant's job is to get there promptly, and, working with Traditional Owners, record what is there and, more often than not, provide the 'heritage clearance' that will enable a proposed development project to proceed apace. Roads and drilling programs can after all be realigned to avoid archaeological sites. Where this is not possible, sites may be recorded in detail, their archaeological significance assessed and recommendations made for their management. Assessing archaeological significance is often problematic and often able to be achieved in only a very limited way, since the only other comparative local data that may be available will be in other consulting reports written by the same consultant. Questions that might allow significance assessments some consequence are not researched or tested in any meaningful way (cf. Brown 2008).

Sometimes, albeit rarely, sites may be comprehensively recorded, salvaged or excavated. It is at this point that the opportunity for research may step in, although what exactly constitutes detailed recording or salvage is not clearly specified under current Western Australian heritage legislation and has been open to tragic interpretation. Moreover, Aboriginal communities, perhaps unaware of the stories that can be retrieved from sites where a comprehensive analysis of archaeological material has been undertaken, may prefer that collected material is not researched but simply bagged and stored for future redistribution on the land. Whatever happens, it is rare for the results of these projects to see the light of day.

So what does this mean for archaeology? Consulting reports are not published or readily available. Peer review is not sought. Data collected are not easily accessible to archaeologists interested in research. And then there is the question of time. Time for research or review is a dream or perhaps a nightmare for many consultants. For at least the last decade, mining in Western Australia has been booming. Archaeologists have been in high demand, yet the interpretation of Pilbara sites and landscapes, and the archaeological context used to assign a significance to sites is based on models and a radiocarbon context largely established over 20 years ago (Brown 1987).

This volume of papers has evolved from the "North West CRM Workshop" run by the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists Inc. (WA Chapter) in April 2004. In response to a call for some publications detailing the archaeology of the Pilbara in the 21st century, consultants, mining company archaeologists and other workshop attendees made numerous and enthusiastic suggestions for papers. Everyone it seemed knew what should be included as part of an Archaeology of the Pilbara and what issues should be addressed. Getting the words down on paper has been, of course, a different matter. While the bibliographies of consulting reports are long and heavy with references to reports of archaeological surveys and site recording done by the authors, turning site recording into archaeology is challenging, time consuming and unpaid.

The Pilbara is a substantial area of north Western Australia, ecologically, geographically, topographically, and hydrologically diverse. Stretching from the flatlands of the coastal Abydos Plain, the remarkable rocky promontory of the Burrup Peninsula and the mangrove flats at Port Hedland, the Pilbara extends inland through a plateau and escarpment geography of steep ironstone ranges with their extensive seasonally flooding river systems, across the broad dry dune landscape of the Great Sandy Desert to the Northern Territory border (Figure 1). …

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