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