Archaeology and Education in Australia

By Colley, Sarah | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and Education in Australia

Colley, Sarah, Antiquity

Key-words: Australia, Aboriginal culture, historical archaeology, education, universities, schools


Aboriginal, Historical and Maritime archaeology have been taught in Australian universities since the 1960s, and archaeology has made major contributions to our understanding of Australia's past. Yet many Australians are still more interested in archaeology overseas than in Australia itself. This partly reflects Australia's history as a former British colony which currently has a minority of indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, many of whom regard archaeology as yet another colonial imposition which at best is largely irrelevant to their own understanding of their history. Present government policies empower Aboriginal people to veto certain kinds of archaeological research they do not agree with. At minimum this may require archaeologists to engage in what can become protracted consultation, with uncertain outcomes. Such developments have had a major impact on the practice of Australian Aboriginal Archaeology (e.g. Pardoe 1992; TALC 1996; Murray & Allen 1995; Davidson et al. 1995; Jones 1997; Field et al. in press). Many archaeological projects still do go ahead following consultation, but some research of Australian Aboriginal archaeology has become increasingly hard to pursue. At the same time, to the many people who have migrated to Australia from all over the world, both Aboriginal and historical archaeology are about somebody else's past. This generates far less sense of public ownership of a shared past than might be the case in many other countries. While people are interested in the more colourful and romantic aspects of 'traditional' Aboriginal culture (such as craft and artworks, dance, music and 'bushtucker'), apart from rock-art in specific parts of Australia, very little of this interest includes archaeology. Over 50,000 years of indigenous occupation of Australia has left a rich legacy of material evidence (e.g. Flood 1995; Mulvaney & Kamminga 1999), yet much of this evidence, sometimes referred to disparagingly and inaccurately as 'stone and bones', has limited visual appeal compared to spectacular finds of lost cities and ancient artworks which characterize much overseas archaeology in the public imagination. While Australian maritime archaeology engenders far greater public interest, much terrestrial Australian historical archaeology also suffers from an image problem. To many people, the subject is simply too recent to be interesting, or they believe the knowledge produced tells us nothing we do not already know from documentary sources. This misses the point of Australian historical archaeology, but it can be hard to sell the value of 19th-century corrugated iron and old bricks to a developer who is footing the bill for an excavation, given the heritage management context within which much Australian historical archaeology occurs (e.g. Egloff 1994; Mulvaney 1996; Connah 1998; Mackay & Karskens 1999).

All this is highly pertinent to archaeology and education in Australia. Australia is also a very big country. What applies in remote 'outback' areas of Central and Northern Australia, or in rural areas and small country towns in different parts of the continent, is often completely different to the situation in large capital cities such as Sydney and Melbourne where most people live. Australia's system of Federal government also means that educational policies and practice vary between different States and Territories. In addition, very little has been published about education and Australian archaeology. For example, Barlow's (1990) paper is about Aboriginal education and makes only passing reference to archaeology, which is largely irrelevant to his arguments.

In such circumstances this paper makes no attempt at a comprehensive overview, but instead identifies and discusses some important areas in which professional archaeologists communicate with a wider audience about their work. …

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