The Archaeology of Mungo and the Willandra Lakes: Looking Back, Looking Forward

By Allen, Harry; Holdaway, Simon | Archaeology in Oceania, July 2009 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Mungo and the Willandra Lakes: Looking Back, Looking Forward


Allen, Harry, Holdaway, Simon, Archaeology in Oceania


Twenty five years ago. Peter Hiscock published a critique of methodological frameworks used in Australian archaeology (1983:51). He pointed out three problem areas, firstly, the application of inappropriate levels of analysis (scale); secondly, a failure to take account of the conflict between archaeological interpretations and ethnographic observations, and, finally, an acceptance of archaeological analyses without attention to the theoretical assumptions on which they are based.

Analysis of Australian archaeological data (surveys, dating, fauna and stone artefacts) has changed considerably since 1983. Over this period studies reflect the application of rigorous standards linking archaeological methodologies and inferences (Hiscock 2007). However, apart from limited research dealing with individual finds (Bowler and Magee 2000, Muhlen-Schulte 1985, Webb et al. 2006, Williams 1991), and some reanalyses (Hiscock and Allen 2000, Shawcross 1998), little archaeological work was carried out in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area after 1985. The archaeological papers published in the Willandra Lakes: People and Palaeoenvironments volume (Johnston et al. 1998) reported older research.

A recent assessment of archaeological research in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area (Allen et al. 2008) concluded that archaeological work to date conformed to older standards criticised by Hiscock. Problem areas included the inappropriate use of ethnographic, ecological and geomorphic models to organise the data, an inattention to questions of scale, and a failure to analyse the archaeological record in a manner capable of providing testable statements regarding the utilisation of this Pleistocene landscape (Allen et al. 2008). Here, we wish to take this discussion a step further to challenge existing archaeological ideas concerning the Pleistocene Willandra in some detail and to map out the shape of archaeological work that should be carried out there in the future. To do this, we will also draw comparisons between the archaeology of the Willandra Lakes and that of Tasmania, the only area in Australia with comparable data for the Pleistocene.

The use of ethnographic information to interpret archaeological data has a long history (Lyman and O'Brien 2001, Stahl 1993). In this article, we criticise some, but not all, uses of ethnography in archaeology. Stahl (1993), following Wylie (1989), separates source considerations, the collection of ethnographic information, from subject-side considerations, which involve the application of analogical models to archaeological data. Bailey (1981) makes a similar distinction in his discussion of the use of uniformitarian principles to interpret the past. He differentiates substantive and methodological uniformitarianism, the former involving specific processes that occur with a rate the same today as in the past, while the latter involves procedures for the empirical investigation of past events through the use of general laws. It is the latter which is compatible with the time perspective approach Bailey advocates (1981:107). It is clear that considerations of time, scale and theoretical approach affect the use of ethnography as much as they do archaeology (Bailey 1981, 2006, Stahl 1993). Substantive ethnographic observations are commonly used in Australian archaeology. A methodological example, however, might be the interpretation of Aboriginal heat retaining hearths where observations of the use of earth ovens are aligned with a physical understanding of how soils and retainer rocks are affected by intense heat. It is important to differentiate the use of ethnography in a direct historical, comparative, or illustrative sense, from methodological applications based on general foraging or other theories (e.g. Bird et al. 2004:183-4, O'Connell 1995). We argue for an understanding of the different ways in which ethnography is used and where this use is central to archaeological interpretations, that this should be both explicit and theoretically informed. …

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