The risks of professional blogging

Colleen at Middle Savagery has been facilitating a discussion about archaeology and blogging for the past few weeks and this week the question she poses is:

What risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

I thought I would participate in the discussion this week by considering blogging in relation to University students and recent graduates. In my experience, a large proportion of those who actively use blogs to write about research are students or recent graduates and I think there are specific risks associated with this (there are also many benefits, but I’ll come to that!).

I fall into a category that is sometimes termed the ‘early career researcher’. I’ve worked as a professional archaeologist for about a decade or so, have recently completed a PhD and I now teach at an Australian University. I have blogged since about 2005 however I have never been a prolific blogger because I’m often very busy with other things.

There is one standard that I have tried to maintain in my blog writing for the past couple of years: is the post professional? By that, I mean is it ethical, accurate, logical, well written and appropriately sourced? Writing unprofessional posts is a very risky business, regardless of how established you are in your chosen career. We simply do not know who will be reading our work: academic colleagues, members of committees (ethics, jobs, funding), community members, developers, school students? If your work does not meet basic professional and ethical standards of the discipline in which you work, then what is the message that you are sending to them?

People who are well established in their chosen career usually have a clear sense of just what is unprofessional and the kinds of impacts that unprofessional work can have when released into the public domain. I think this is less so for recent graduates with limited experience of professional life. However, as we might all  agree, the media landscape today is not the same as it was even ten years ago and there are umpteen opportunities for professionals to get their message into the public sphere and to interact with each other via various kinds of new media. This is a new problem – and opportunity – for archaeology.

There are several key risks associated with students or recent graduates who maintain blogs. First, there is the risk that they unwittingly post material that is unprofessional and that this will negatively impact on their career. We all know that an unprofessional post in your archives that was not very widely read at the time may come up in a web search two or five years later when you are applying for a grant or job. Most bloggers whose work I have time to read are very cautious about what and how they write; however, this may not be the case for those who are new to writing professionally and whose sense of professional standards may not be very well developed. If you seek a career as a professional and you run a blog you will be judged (in part) according to the professionalism of your blog, whether you want to be or not.

Second, there is the risk that an unprofessional post can be influential and attract a great deal of attention. A blog post about a research result or heritage management project that is controversial, for example, may attract the interest of mainstream media outlets or simply be promoted widely through social media: we all see examples of poorly researched and inaccurate popular archaeology stories that are uncritically promoted by dozens of people using social media. Also of concern though is the potential for inappropriate information to be released into the public sphere. For example, a blog post containing information that is culturally sensitive (e.g. about Indigenous heritage), commercially restricted or that includes results that have not been through a peer-review process could potentially have very significant ramifications. I’m not aware of any examples of this occurring in Australia, but very few archaeologists bother with blogs here so that is not entirely surprising.

Some may argue that the beauty of blogging lies in the way that peer review occurs in the comments and that the flaws of unprofessional posts are quickly pointed out by readers. I agree that this can be the case, but it is not consistently so. For most archaeo/anthro-bloggers, our audiences are very small and a problematic post may not be subject to very much criticism at all. Further, it may not be the correct kind of criticism, since readers of blogs may themselves not have the appropriate skills  to identify flaws and may not necessarily even be aware of relevant professional standards. One way around this may be to create a ‘research blogging’ style blog where  posts are to some extent peer reviewed in relation to an editorial policy (see my suggestion about Four Stone Hearth here). But I digress.

I am certainly not suggesting that students and recent graduates should not blog. Learning how to write good research blog posts is almost as important as learning to give a  conference presentation or prepare an academic poster. Blogs are clearly not recognised as a form of academic publishing, but the benefits of writing them are diverse and significant, particularly for students. However, students and recent graduates face unique risks when they decide to start blogging and as such, they should be learning about blogging at University level and encouraged to write and critique blog posts in a sheltered and supportive learning environment. That doesn’t mean telling students to simply “go write a blog”, but rather, incorporating it into the assessment process, providing feedback and helping them to develop and improve their skills. That way, when they do go out into their various professional careers they will better positioned to use blogs professionally rather than as professionals who use blogs poorly.

Edit (16 March):

You can read Colleen’s wrap of contributions on this question here. Some great work, including some contributions from a few CRM/heritage management archaeologists that I wasn’t aware of, as well as a post from Terry Brock on maintaining integrity in archaeological blogging. However, I don’t tend to agree with Colleen’s implication that maintaining a professional stance means writing boring, dry blog posts – I think the best kinds of blogs are those that are engaging and of wide appeal, provided they don’t send the wrong messages. Colleen’s own blog is a good example of an engaging style that sends the right kinds of messages to readers. Let’s face it, blogging doesn’t count for anything in relation to measurable academic outputs, and so there’s not much point writing posts that 10 people might read. Better to write openly and accessibly so that others might enjoy reading your work and to learn about archaeological ethics and professional standards.

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Publish (high quality research) or perish

So you may or may not have noticed that I’ve been a little quiet of late, both here and on twitter so I thought it worth a quick post explaining why this is the case: I  can put it down entirely to the need to publish, or perish.

A few months ago I took up a new position and within a few weeks became acutely aware of one of the key metrics for securing a position and advancing your career in academia: ticking boxes within the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) Initiative. The ERA is a complex beast and in basic terms it’s a nation wide ranking system tied directly to investment in Higher Education Institutions. This from the Australian Research Council (ARC):

The ERA initiative assesses research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions using a combination of indicators and expert review by committees comprising experienced, internationally-recognised experts

There are many dimensions to the ERA but the one that I have become acutely aware of relates to research quality rankings and its implications for early career researchers.

CC image by Flickr User, Emdot (Marya)
'Typewriter of Capricon' (CC Licensed image by Flickr User, Emdot (Marya))

To assess research quality in a systematic fashion, the ARC ranks publications,  grants and other research outputs into categories; for example, the Journal of Archaeological Science as an A* publication (top ranked) is higher ranked than Antiquity (A) or the International Journal of Historical Archaeology (B). A similar situation exists for grants, conferences and so on. John Lamp has a very useful site with full lists of rankings and rankings can shift from year to year. Higher Education Institutions collate information about the overall quality of the research their institutions produce and submit this annually to the ARC. This then impacts upon how much money is directed to the University from the Federal Government. I’m not so much interested here in the way this works, but more on its implications for early career researchers such as myself. I expect similar situations exist in North America, Europe and elsewhere.

Let me put it in simple terms: if you want a career in academia in Australia, then you need to direct your efforts into activities that result in research outputs that are ranked highly under the ERA. There are two reasons for this. First, Universities tie internal research funding, applications for promotion and so on to your ERA track record: higher research quality is sought out and actively encouraged from the top tier of the University, down. Second,  to win nationally competitive grants (such as ARC grants) you also need a high quality research record under the ERA. A lack of such funding is not only bad because it can be very difficult to obtain funding to  undertake significant research projects, but also, because grant records also tie back to your prospect for academic promotion.

Hence, academic career advancement is fundamentally tied to the ERA framework: other factors count (such as teaching quality) but I’m yet to be convinced that such metrics have equal importance.

I was recently chatting to a senior colleague here in our Department about this and she suggested that junior academics need to place a significant emphasis on publishing in high ERA ranked journals. Her reasoning was that if you have not produced a reasonable number of such outputs within five years of PhD completion, you are not able to catch up to those who have, which can be detrimental when applying for new positions, research grants and so on. In short, publish high quality papers under the ERA system, or perish.

I enjoy using twitter, reading and writing blog posts, reading forums or email lists, and contributing to Wikipedia entries. Indeed, I often advocate the importance of this  for students and others in terms of getting known and owning your identity on the web. But in terms of research outputs, none of this counts for a thing: in the hour or so I have spent drafting this post I could have completed a final proof of a paper that I’m about to submit to an A ranked journal.  You can see where I am going with this.

The only way I can find time to publish is to grab each and every moment to work on something – anything – and whatever that ‘anything’ is, it is far more important than spending that time on twitter. The #200rule has never had so much relevance. I edited a thesis chapter into the first draft of a paper yesterday while flying across the country and waiting in airports. Tomorrow morning I need to tidy some images for the paper I mentioned above. This is why my activities on the web have declined: once, I saw this as semi-productive downtime and spent it reading my blog or twitter feeds and chunky ‘space opera’ Sci Fi paperbacks.  It’s also impacted in other ways: I now check journal rankings before submitting a paper, and I won’t consider anything below an A. I assume others work this way as well, and I wonder what kind of impacts this might have on academic publishing, particularly on small journals.

I am a great believer in open access academic publishing. Unfortunately though, to have an impact you need an income and if you desire an academic career, then to obtain this income you need to work as an academic. And therein lies my quandry. My advice (and philosophy) is this: if you are serious about making an impact on your discipline and building a career in academia, then re-evaluate how you spend your time on Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere on the web. Try and justify (to yourself) how this time will benefit to your career, or whether it might be better spent writing papers (or a thesis). I’m not about to suggest that you should abandon these services (I certainly won’t be), because they can be a useful supplement to academic writing and networking.  But be realistic about how useful it really is, particularly given your career goals.

I do hope I’m wrong and that someone points out the error in my logic, though I don’t think I am. It’s a major change in direction in terms of my thinking about the web, but ultimately a successful career measured by making an impact on my discipline is more important than promoting myself on the web.

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AAA conference is here again

It’s conference season again here in Australia and all of the major anthropology and archaeology organisations have held or will soon hold their annual conferences. The only one I’ll be attending is the Australian Archaeology Association (AAA) in December at Bateman’s Bay on the New South Wales south coast and which is being hosted by the Australian National University. It’s become something of an annual tradition for me and I usually try and contribute something – as I did in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

I’m presenting a paper and a poster this year, and have posted both abstracts below as part of my ongoing efforts here to self archive my work. Both are collaborative projects; the first is a paper with Dr Justin Shiner on some preliminary results of excavations of earthen mounds we excavated a couple of years ago at Weipa, which we hope to submit for publication early next year. The second is a poster with Dr Nicky Horsfall which explores some issues associated with  heritage management near Cape Flattery on south eastern Cape York. I have a half written blog post on this, which I’ll try and get onto over the coming weeks. I’m also co-convening a session with Oliver Brown on behalf of the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists (Session 15 – abstract here).

I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but last year a new Executive Committee was elected by the membership, which traditionally happens every two years. Dr Lynley Wallis (UQ) is now President, Andrew Border Secretary, Dan Rosendahl membership secretary and I was nominated as Treasurer (see full details here). So we have quite a bit to get organised in terms of preparing for the Annual General Meeting.  One of our major projects is to redevelop our existing website in line with this brief, and so we’ll hopefully be able to present some options for members to vote on.

In any case, it should be a hectic but enjoyable 4 days in what appears to be a very nice part of the world.


Shifting sands: archaeology and heritage management in the Cape Flattery dunefields, eastern Cape York (Poster)

EDIT, 26 November: unfortunately we won’t be presenting this poster this year.

Dr Mick Morrison1, Dr Nicky Horsfall2,

1. Department of Archaeology,Flinders University; 2. Consulting Archaeologist, Edge Hill, Cairns; 3. Nguurruumungu Clan Group, Cape Flattery; 4. Diingal Clan Group, Cape Flattery.

The Cape Flattery region on eastern Cape York is renowned for its extensive dunefields comprised of silica rich sands. While the vast majority of the area is listed on the National Heritage Register for its natural heritage values, one isolated sand mining operation continues. This paper addresses two issues. First, it highlights the contribution of consulting archaeology to understanding what is, in archaeological terms at least, a relatively poorly understood region. Second, it explores a range of issues relevant to identifying, assessing and managing archaeological places within these complex and dynamic landscapes. Of particular note at Cape Flattery is the way in which archaeological deposits are shaped and reshaped by the dynamic nature of the landscape itself particularly in regard to the ways very large dunes form, move and are dispersed as a result of wind action. This ongoing research is being supported by Cape Flattery Silica Mines, Cairns.

Preliminary results of investigations of earthen mounds at Weipa, western Cape York Peninsula.

Michael Morrison1 and Justin Shiner2

1. Department of Archaeology, Flinders University; 2.  Specialist Archaeologist, Rio Tinto-Alcan
Recent research and cultural heritage management activities near Weipa  on western Cape York Peninsula has identified numerous low earthen mounds. These bear strong similarities in appearance to published descriptions of anthropogenic mounds from coastal Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory. They are frequently associated with low density surface deposits of stone artefacts and marine shell, and are found on narrow, seasonally waterlogged alluvial plains near tidal creeks. They have also been identified on a post-contact mission site in association with surface deposits of historic material and remains of built structures. This paper presents preliminary results of excavations and radiocarbon dating of some of these mounds and considers whether they were formed by people, or alternatively, represent natural processes of accumulation, including formation by the scrub hen, Megapodius reinwardt.

Post image by : Christian Senger, Conference Time…, June 28, 2009,

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New paper: Mission-based Indigenous production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission

In 2007 Jane Lydon, Jeremy Ash and I co-convened a conference session at the ‘New Ground’ Australian Archaeology joint conference at the University of Sydney on the archaeology of Indigenous missions and reserves in Australia and the Pacific. A range of papers were presented exploring the contributions of archaeological approaches to the history of missions and reserves,  with case studies including work from the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, Torres Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria and a series of papers on work throughout south eastern Australia. After the great feedback we received at the conference, we explored publication opportunities and I am (belatedly) glad to report that this collection of papers has recently been published in the March 2010 edition of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.

One of the key motivations for publishing the papers was to showcase the diverse histories of Indigenous missions in the region, and the equally diverse approaches employed in the investigation of those histories. Lydon and Ash wrote a great introduction to the volume which aptly locates the papers in relation to international debates on missions and the archaeology of cross-cultural interactions, as well as the history of research into Indigenous missions and reserves in Australia and the Pacific.

Darlene McNaughton, Justin Shiner and I wrote a paper that set out to explore the economic contributions of Indigenous people who lived in and near a former Presbyterian mission at Weipa, and the significance of those contributions to both the mission and the health and wellbeing of the mission community. We were most interested in looking at wild food (that is, foods that were gathered and hunted from the bush by Aboriginal people), and we focused upon the case study of culturally modified trees (scarred trees) as well as relevant historical and oral history data. The abstract is below:

Mission-based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932-1966)
Michael Morrison, Darlene McNaughton and Justin Shiner

Previous research on remote nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Indigenous missions in northern and central Australia point to their often tenuous existence and the complex nature of engagements between Christian Missionaries and Indigenous people. This paper explores the contribution and significance of Indigenous production of wild foods in the context of one such settlement located at Weipa on Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. It is premised on the assertion that investigation of the
economies of these often remote settlements has the potential to reveal much about the character of cross-cultural engagements within the context of early mission settlements. Many remote missions had a far from secure economic basis and were sometimes unable to produce the consistent food supplies that were central to their proselytizing efforts. In this paper it is suggested that Indigenous-produced wild foods were of significant importance to the mission on a day-to-day basis in terms of their dietary contribution (particularly in terms of protein sources) and were also important to Indigenous people from a social and cultural perspective. We develop this argument through the case study of culturally modified trees that resulted from the collection of wild honey.

Highlights in the volume for me included the paper by Lydon and Burns on the Ebenezer Mission in Victoria (see also Lydon’s recently published book), Angela Middleton’s comparative paper on Missionization in New Zealand and Australia, and finally, the paper by Birmingham and Wilson comparing the well known Wybalenna Settlement (Tasmania) with  the Killalpaninna Mission (central Australia). We hope to have the volume reviewed in the coming months and I’ll post that once it comes out.

EDIT (26 Mar 2010): Alun Salt has written a great blog post about our paper, which you can read here.

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PhD is done!

At long, long last I am happy to report that my doctoral dissertation is through the examination process and came out largely unscathed. Although I need to make some minor corrections and graduate before it is ‘official’, it really all hinges on examiners comments which I received a few weeks ago. They were good, so I thought it might be timely to post my abstract.

The shell mounds of Albatross Bay: an archaeological investigation of late Holocene gatherer-hunter production strategies near Weipa, north eastern Australia.

This thesis presents the results of an archaeological investigation of shell matrix sites, and in particular, shell mounds sites that occur around the shores of Albatross Bay, near Weipa on the north western Cape York Peninsula, northern Australia. It is the contention of this thesis that earlier approaches to the investigation of shell mound sites in northern Australia have tended to place too much emphasis on developing long-term explanatory models that gloss over explanations for the specific roles of these unique sites in past economic systems. While long-term explanations represent important contributions, it is argued here that short-term decadal scale modelling of the production systems associated with shell mound formation and use are required in order to fully understand the significance of the mid- to late Holocene emergence of these types of sites. It is argued that a focus on production – defined in a substantive economic sense – is a suitable avenue through which archaeologists can expand our understanding of the role of these features in past Indigenous societies, and their broader importance on longer-term time scales

The thesis thus develops a detailed model of the production strategies associated with the formation of shell mound sites that occur around Albatross Bay, while also considering the broader significance of this model, particularly within the context of Cape York Peninsula. It presents the results of field surveys and excavations carried out around Albatross Bay by the author, as well as a detailed review and analysis of work carried out by others. It is argued that shell mounds are the result of relatively specialised production activities focussing on a very specific resource base: mudflat shellfish species. Shell mounds offered a range of unique benefits for people engaged in these specialised activities, including as camp sites and as specialised activity areas. These events were inherently flexible in size and in terms of timing, reflecting the dynamic nature of the resource base itself; yet the flexible nature of this production strategy also enabled more regular small scale social gatherings, along with a range of social and economic benefits to participants, than would have been otherwise possible. It is proposed that these types of strategies may represent an important characteristic of the production systems employed by gatherer-hunter peoples in late Holocene Cape York.

Overall, this thesis makes a significant contribution to both our understanding of late Holocene lifeways at Albatross Bay as well as to our understanding of the significance of the emergence of shell mound sites in Cape York. Furthermore, it highlights the importance of a focus on short-term modelling of Indigenous lifeways alongside approaches oriented toward longer-term explanations of economic, social and environmental change.

I’m in the process of making the final corrections and within a few months expect it to be available online and open access via the Open Digital Thesis Program. I’ll post again when that happens.

Morrison, M.J. 2010 The shell mounds of Albatross Bay: an archaeological investigation of late Holocene production strategies near Weipa, north eastern Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, Adelaide: Department of Archaeology, Flinders University.

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Australian Archaeology Association Conference 2009

September to December is typically the ‘conference season’ in Australia and is when most major archaeology conferences are scheduled. The largest of these is the Australian Archaeology Association’s annual conference which this year is being held in Adelaide, South Australia in early December. The keynote speaker is Professor Geoff Bailey (University of York) and the conference seems to have a good selection of sessions on offer. (more…)

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Evidence for genetic links between Indian and Australian populations ~55,000 years ago

New genetic research reported in the July edition of BMC Evolutionary Biology (1) suggests shared mitochondrial DNA between some ‘relic tribes of India’ and Australian Aboriginal people.

Our complete mtDNA sequencing of 966 individuals frm 26 relic populations of India identified seven individuals from central Dravidian and Austro-Asiatic tribes who share two basal synonymous mtDNA polymorphisms … with the M42 haplogroup, which is specific to Australian Aboriginies.

They suggest that divergence between the two populations occurred at 55,000±10,800 years BP, an estimate based on statistical analysis of mtDNA mutation rates. They argue that this is consistent with current evidence for early occupation of Australia and suggest their data supports Australian colonisation via the southern dispersal route through south Asia ~60-50,000 years BP. Kris Hurst at has a good overview of the southern disperal route though her suggested dates for earliest colonisation of Australia are quite conservative.

ABC Science (2) have published comments from Dr Jeremy Austin at the University of Adelaide who suggests that “…this is the first time people have been able to find these exact same mitochondrial DNA types inside and outside Australia”.

Full abstract and the open source paper can be accessed from the Biomedcentral website. Thanks to Tim Jones who first blogged this at as well as @jorgenholm on twitter who picked up the ABC story.


(1) Kumar, Satish, Rajasekhara Ravuri, Padmaja Koneru, B Urade, B Sarkar, A Chandrasekar, and V Rao. 2009. Reconstructing Indian-Australian phylogenetic link. BMC Evolutionary Biology 9, no. 1: 173. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-173.

(2) Phillips, Nicky. 2009. DNA confirms coastal trek to Australia. Item. 24T14:40:00+10:00 7.

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New book: “New directions in archaeological science”

The Terra Australis monograph series has traditionally provided an important publication opportunity for researchers working in the Australasian region, particularly for those wanting to publish lengthy data rich work such as PhD theses or other major archaeological projects. The series started in 1971 and despite a 10 year gap in new volumes between 1989 and 1999, the series has had a notable resurgence in recent years supplementing the traditional monograph format with edited volumes and conference proceedings. The most recent Terra Australis volume ‘New Directions in Archaeological Science’, edited by Andrew Fairbairn, Sue O’Connor and Ben Marwick is I suspect one of the first conference proceedings to be published in the series.

This volume emerged from the 2005 meeting of the Australasian Archaeometry Association and includes papers on geoarchaeology, archaeobotany, materials analysis and chronometry:

Archaeological Science meetings will have a personality of their own depending on the focus of the host archaeological fraternity itself. The 8th Australasian Archaeometry meeting follows this pattern but underlying the regional emphasis is the continuing concern for the processes of change in the landscape that simultaneously effect and illuminate the archaeological record. These are universal themes for any archaeological research with the increasing employment of science-based studies proving to be a key to understanding the place of humans as subjects and agents of change over time.

This collection of refereed papers covers the thematic fields of geoarchaeology, archaeobotany, materials analysis and chronometry, with particular emphasis on the first two. The editors Andrew Fairbairn, Sue O’Connor and Ben Marwick outline the special value of these contributions in the introduction. The international nature of archaeological science will mean that the advances set out in these papers will find a receptive audience among many archaeologists elsewhere. There is no doubt that the story that Australasian archaeology has to tell has been copiously enriched by incorporating a widening net of advanced science-based studies. This has brought attention to the nature of the environment as a human artefact, a fact now more widely appreciated, and archaeology deals with these artefacts, among others, in this way in this publication.

You can find the chapter list here and the editors provide a good overview of the volume in their foreword. For me, stand out papers include a series on open sites within the complex semi-arid landscapes of western New South Wales (papers by Fanning, Holdaway and Phillips; Shiner; and Holdaway, Fanning and Littleton) as well as several considering some of the complexities of using marine shell for radiocarbon dating (Petchey; Bourke and Hua). However this only reflects my personel interests rather than the quality of other papers on topics including OSL dating, chemical characterisation of pottery, analysis of megafaunal bones and macrobotanical analysis.

Significantly, the volume is published both in printed form and as a (free) electronic download by the Australian National University E-Press. For some reason, it appears as Terra Australis 28 (2009 publication date) while another good volume published last year (Islands of Inquiry: colonisation, seafaring and the archaeology of maritime seascapes edited by Clark, Leach and O’Connor) was published in 2008 as volume 29.

Via the Archaeometry blog

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History of Indigenous wellbeing at Weipa

I apologise for the slim offerings to be found here on my blog so far this year. By way of explanation (particularly for my regular readers!) I have had a touch of writers block due to an identity crisis regarding the overall purpose of my blog. To my mind, my blogging seems to have drifted a little away from archaeology and more into technology and gadgets which is not at all where I want to to take it. While relevant, I want to make that type of content more of an aside to posts that are principally about archaeology: it is after all supposed to be an archaeology blog. So in this post I thought I should get the ball rolling again, so to speak, by writing about a research project I am working on at Weipa in northern Australia. It will be split up over a few separate posts, with what follows simply serving as something of an introduction to the issues were are exploring.

Way back in 2005 I was in a meeting with a number of Elders from the Aboriginal community of Napranum (near Weipa). At that stage I was managing an Indigenous land and sea management program, so my role was to liaise with people about land management issues – which almost always came back to heritage management – and obtaining funding to do management oriented projects. Although we were supposed to be discussing weed management issues (a particularly exciting topic I might add), the conversation quickly drifted onto more interesting issues.

The Old Ladies I was meeting with had all grown up in the mission dormitories which, by all accounts, appears to have been a traumatising experience for many. Removed from their families at a very young age they were essentially locked in dormitories at night and were only able to see family on a fairly infrequent basis. Often their only substantive interaction with older kin was during camping trips out bush away from the mission. Along with the need to regularly attend church and school, they were also expected to work which the Presbyterian Mission superintendent considered to be a form of preparation for the practicalities of their adult lives. This meant domestic chores for girls and young women, and gardening and manual tasks for the boys and young men.

During our chat I scribbled down a few quick comments and wish now I had recorded the entire conversation. In particular, in talking about the original mission (which operated from 1898-1932) one of the women stated:

“they were healthier times (at Waypa). Waypandan, that is my mothers land. They ate wallaby, drank Nonda milk, collected ambanum [hairy yam], sugarbag, all those things. We need to tell people about those times”

The quote was quite significant at the time because from earlier work in the area I was well aware of a widely held view at Weipa that bush foods (i.e. bush ‘tucker’) are considered more healthy than store bought foods. This is because many people associate getting bush foods and being on Country with a sense of health and wellbeing. Simply put, being on Country and eating bush food is good for you in all respects: socially, emotionally, physically, spiritually. In my view, the statement was important because it indicated that the Elders saw a link between history, learning about history, wellbeing and health. Looking at it now, I’m not so sure that this quote best demonstrates this point, but it was certainly the idea that I went away with that day. The other idea that those Old Ladies shared with me was that despite all of their bad experiences, people remember the ‘mission days’ as a period of comparative health and happiness compared with today. In short, ‘they were healthier times’ in the sense that health meant more than just physical health as such.

After that meeting it took a further few months of discussions with Elders to develop a research project. We entitled it ‘they were healthier times: indigenous health and wellbeing within the Weipa Presbyterian Mission’. The broader project idea was to look at the history of Indigenous health and wellbeing (defined broadly as emotional, physical, social and spiritual health, after Anderson 1996) from an historical perspective. Simply put, our core question was: what was the nature of Indigenous wellbeing throughout the history of missions in the area and how is this relevent to the community today? The project also explores an important view held by community Elders: that younger people in the community do not ‘know’ the real history of their community, and that learning about this would in fact contribute to improving their wellbeing. This is because they associate a knowledge of history, culture and Country with improved health and wellbeing.

Our evolving project involves recording of oral history, Traditional Knowledge, archaeological surveys around key mission settlements and also work on historical documents. We obtained initial funding from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in 2007 and from the Federal Government’s Indigenous Heritage Program (IHP) in 2008 and began work on the project in early 2008. Since my original conversations with Elders and anthropologist Darlene McNaughton, several other people have become involved in the project including fellow archaeologist Justin Shiner and more recently historian Geoff Wharton.

Our results are preliminary at this stage, with our first concerted period of fieldwork mid 2008. In the next post I shall write about the original Weipa Mission site which operated from 1898-1932 and the results of archaeological and oral historical work we completed there last year. The photograph below was take in the early 1900s at this site.

From Weipa historical photos


Anderson, I. 1996. Aboriginal well-being. In C. Grbich (Ed.), Health in Australia: sociological concepts and issues (pp. 57-78). Sydney: Prentice Hall.

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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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