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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