Aboriginal history Archaeology News and Reviews

New book: archaeology of ancient Australia

I’ve just finished reading a few select chapters from Peter Hiscock’s new book, Archaeology of Ancient Australia (2008) published by Routledge. The book is a fairly wide ranging overview of Australian archaeology and pre-history from Hiscock’s own particular methodological and theoretical position. I think it is a refreshing account which seems to stress two key issues: change and variability. It is a great introductory text and Hisock seems to relish in using case studies that draw out the disjunctions, divergences and differences that are evident in the Australian archaeological record. In regards to Holocene Australia (i.e. the past 10,000 years or so) he tends to argue against pan-continental models stressing similar trajectories of change and uses the above-mentioned case studies to illustrate the anomalies.

He is critical of the use of ethnographic and historical accounts in archaeological interpretation, suggesting that by the time European observers were able to record information about the lifeways of Australian Aboriginal People, these lifeways had been irreversibly altered by European invasion (and in one case, pre-European contact in the Northern Territory). I’m not particularly enthused by this particular part of Hiscock’s approach because for me understanding change and processes of change is a fundamental aspect of archaeology. Ethnography provides us with an important start point to understanding the late Holocene period in particular. However, at the same time this approach to some extent falls on its sword where hiatus’ exist between the archaeological and ethnographic record, and it is these cases where I suspect that Hiscock’s criticisms are most squarely aimed. In the chapters I read, his approach borders on outright dismissal of anything but archaeological evidence which, applied uncritically is an extremely conservative and possibly dangerous scenario as it potentially divorces contemporary Aboriginal people from their history and heritage. Hiscock does not go that far of course, but he does plant the seed for such views.

Like I mentioned, I have only read perhaps 1/3 of the book but I do like what I see and think people new to Australian archaeology would do well to read this along with Harry Lourandos’ 1997 book, continent of hunter-gatherers. Both come at Australian prehistory from very different angles and reading both would well illustrate the diversity of views about Australia’s past. I should also note that Richard Fullagar has just published a good review of Hiscock’s book in the journal, Australian Archaeology. It’s free online, link below.

Edit: I neglected to link to an ABC Science story that covers this book and some of Hiscock’s arguments. It has a nice rebuttal from Jo Flood and Ian Keen:

“In my view, Peter Hiscock … counts as profound social change what I would see as change in details but not fundamentals,” says Keen. “This allows him to downplay the relevance of the ethnography of the last century and a half for archaeological reconstruction.” (Keen)

“Peter Hiscock and I are poles apart in our view of the past,” says Flood. “I use the ethnographic approach and enlist Aboriginal people and historical records to help illuminate archaeological evidence. Like them, I see continuity from past to present, whereas Hiscock focuses on change, which in politically-correct Western eyes equates with progress.” (Flood)


Archaeology of ancient Australa (Routledge, 2008)

Review of archaeology of ancient Australia by Richard Fullagar oops, this is actually by Brian Fagan (thanks for the tip Adam!)

ABC News article

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Archaeology Environmental issues

AAA 2008: the Indigenous land and sea management session

I just thought I should give a quick plug to a session at this years Australian Archaeology Association Conference where a couple of colleagues and I are convening a session. The session is entitled ‘Land and Sea: Natural Resource Management versus Cultural Heritage Management’ and it is a joint session with Daryl Guse and Cameo Dalley. For the uninitiated, Land and Sea Management programs are a fairly common thing in Australia and they generally set out to provide core land and sea management services for Traditional Owner groups. They undertake various things such as environmental management work, managing or facilitating local tourism enterprises, managing heritage, managing outstations or homeland centres and all sorts of other important things.

I’m not sure where the title for our session came from – the session is not really about NRM versus CHM but more about the way in which NRM and CHM is undertaken in the context of Indigenous Land and Sea Management programs in Australia. The session abstract follows:

In this session we seek papers which explore the interaction of NRM and CHM in the context of Indigenous land and sea management programs across Australia. In recent years, these grass roots organisations have come to the fore as lead agencies in the management of what are conventionally understood as natural and cultural heritage values and resources within many remote areas. Within this context, Natural Resource Management (NRM) has gained a particularly high profile due to the imprimatur of many Government agencies to encourage ‘Natural Resource Management’ programs, i.e. fire regimes, weeds and feral animals. Funding arrangements such as the Natural Heritage Trust and even some environmental lobby groups explicitly favour such programs. This is despite the fact that managing cultural heritage (e.g. recording language, cultural heritage places and Traditional Knowledge) is of utmost importance to Traditional Owners and is often the framework within which NRM activities are understood and carried out locally. In particular, we seek papers discussing:

– successful approaches to developing cultural heritage management programs and projects in the context of Indigenous land and sea management;

– ways in which natural resource management are conceptualised or practiced as ‘cultural maintenance’ or ‘cultural heritage management’ within Indigenous communities;

– how Indigenous modes of natural resource management effectively address cultural heritage management outcomes (or vice versa);

– the changing role of archaeologists and cultural heritage practitioners working in Indigenous communities;

– case studies on holistic land and sea management programs or community-managed cultural maintenance or heritage programs;

– successful partnerships between NRM and CHM bodies (including Indigenous Rangers).
I’m not yet sure if the session will get enough papers to actually make the cut, but we are really interested in getting a bit more discussion around indigenous land and sea management centres and the important role they play (or should play) in relation to managing heritage. My interest in this stems from my work at Weipa in the area of indigenous land and sea management where I managed one such program in 05-06 and am currently helping develop several other such programs there this year. I am not yet sure what my paper will be on but will throw some ideas up here in time. I am sure Daryl and Cameo will come up with some good papers resulting from their respective work in Arnhem Land and Mornington Island.

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How-to Tech and geospatial

Archaeological survey and geotagging

As a consultant archaeologist time is always valuable and so it is important to have a robust system for recording and capturing field data quickly. By the same token, shoddy field recording practices result in mistakes and at best this results in lost time or a poor report, and at worst can lead to missed sites or poor management outcomes. So developing techniques to help achieve a good balance between efficiency and quality are critical and emerging digital technologies have a lot of potential in this area.

On large projects, there can be a lot of field data to record: site data (including multiple site types), varying survey methods, ground visibility, previous ground disturbance, environmental characteristics and so on. In addition to the paperwork keeping track of  digital photos and GPS data is also critical, after all an incorrect coordinate or photograph number can cause major problems when it comes time to write up your results long after you have left the field. Trying to fill out a range of different proformas and document your digital data can be difficult enough on its own, but the addition of other factors such as hot sun, high humidity and friendly insects really can upset the best field recording system.

Because of all this, I place a lot of effort into my recording system and in particular, over recent months I’ve been looking for ways to help manage my digital data. Particularly digital photos, GPS waypoints and GPS tracks recorded during a survey. One useful trick I’ve discovered is that it is possible to ‘sync’ or cross reference your digital photos and GPS data. Digital cameras automatically embed exif data within the digital image file, and this includes information such as camera settings, date, time and so on. Similarly, the ‘autotracking’ option on most handheld GPS devices records useful data with each point they record – whether that be an automatically created track point, user-created waypoint and so on.

For a while now I have used the exif and GPS metadata to help make sense of problematic digital photographs of sites or places where your paper record is in error (ie, an incorrect coordinate or site number). In this case, it is fairly straightforward process to cross-check the time and date of your waypoint or track point with the time and date of your photos, so that you can fill in the gaps in any missing information. It is a nice fall back position when your memory and field notes have partially failed you and although simple, it is generally quite a reliable way of verifying problematic data. Importantly though, you do need to make sure you have the time and date correctly set on your devices!

In recent years ‘geotagging’ software has started to emerge and these enable you to automatically embed coordinates recorded in your GPS into digital photos taken at around that time. In short, you tell the software where your photos and GPS data files are and the software will automatically sync the exif data from your digital images with the metadata on your GPS, thus generating a series of spatially referenced photos. There are a range of benefits to doing this: you can just use geotagging for maintaining and archiving your own photos, however for me the attraction is the potential for using geotagged photos to report on and communicate results with clients or other stakeholders (such as Indigenous Traditional Owners or the broader community). In a consulting context, this method has potential for presenting your results in a more interactive and interesting way. For example, it is possible to send your geotagged photos to free web or software applications (via Google Earth or Google Maps) so that they display in an interactive format.  With the addition of survey results (eg. site data, survey locations, development areas, etc) it should be possible to create an interactive presentation for your client or others that could be uploaded to the web, sent on a disk or so on.

Geotagging has a lot of potential to help archaeologists with managing their field data and I’ll write more about my trials in this area in future. For web veterans who’ve been following trends in web technology over the past few years, this is all probably be nothing new however I’m yet to see archaeologists talk openly about how their experiences using these types of things. What other ways are archaeologists  using these and other technologies to help with recording and managing field data? Let me know in the comments below!

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Site status


Welcome, this is a blog about all things archaeology and in particular, those that interest me and which relate to my research. I hope to use this as something of a record of my various and ongoing research projects as well as to share information which I think might interest others working on similar issues or areas.

I’ve been reading blogs since about 2003 and have had a couple of attempts at setting up and running them. Each time they faltered because they were too hard to maintain in terms of their subject content. But I think they’re good and important, particularly as an early career researcher. As far as I can tell this is the second archaeology blog by an Australian archy, the other being of course the long-running Space Age Archaeology which is run by one of my PhD supervisors at Flinders University – the great Dr Alice Gorman. Check it out – see my links list in the sidebar.

So if you happen to stumble upon this site then let me know what you think, what you like and dislike, and even consider starting one yourself: I hope this site can go some way to demonstrate the usefulness of blogging to academics and archaeologists.

So enough introductions, on with the blogging.

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