Research

I’m an archaeologist with a fair background in applied cultural heritage management, most notably in north eastern Australia. I teach at Flinders University and sometimes find time for research.

A central element of my research philosophy is that ethical and socially valuable results can only be generated in the context of projects that draw inspiration, motivation and purpose from community priorities and concerns. The ability to carry out research is a privilege and as researchers we should actively seek to address questions and further knowledge in areas that can contribute to the needs and aspirations of communities or specific interest groups.

Most of my research focuses upon the western Cape York Peninsula region, particularly around the townships of Napranum and Weipa where I’ve worked since 2000. I exclusively work on questions relating to Aboriginal history,  particularly those that have relevance to understanding the emergence of contemporary disadvantage and injustice that people in that region experience. I hope that my work in this region spans the full length of my professional career, however I do work on other projects elsewhere.

What follows are a series of synopses of major themes in my research that connect various individual projects, also listed here. I’m always interested in talking to others (including students) who are  interested in working with me on projects both at Weipa and elsewhere.

There are numerous linkages and overlaps between all of these projects.

The archaeology of  Aboriginal production systems

Production, for me, is the means by which humans produce the material means through which they live. This includes the complexities of resource use (scheduling, variability, processing), technology, social organisation and the symbolic or religious aspects of production. My Doctoral thesis (2010) investigated large mounded shell midden sites near Weipa in order to investigate the character of production systems associated with the formation of these unique and unusual sites. I’m currently working on the following projects:

Inside a shell mound

Inside a shell mound

  • Anthropogenic or natural? Earthen mound formation at Weipa. Earth mounds are an uncommon and poorly understood site at Weipa and have been previously interpreted as natural deposits that were formed by nesting scrub fowls (Megapodius reinwardt). However, there is a very high level of variation in earth mound distribution, morphology and composition and  ethnographic and archaeological evidence from elsewhere suggests  that this generic explanation may not be sufficient. This project, with Dr Justin Shiner (Rio Tinto-Alcan), involves attempting to understand earth mound formation processes. Excavations were undertaken in 2007-2008, preliminary analysis in 2009-2010 and additional lab work and analysis and currently underway.
  • Non-molluscan fauna in tropical middens. Shell midden sites are widely considered to have excellent preservation potential for bone. Despite this, excavated shell mound sites in northern Australia typically lack anything other than small amounts of highly fragmented bone, prompting some (including myself) to argue that this is a reflection of what people ate and discarded on these sites. This small project is exploring fine-sieve residues from excavated midden sites at Weipa to understand whether the low proportions of bone are the result of natural or cultural processes that contribute to bone destruction or fragmentation.

For the most part though, my research in this area is focussing on publication of results from my PhD thesis.

The archaeology of capitalism and Aboriginal wellbeing

In 2003, during the early phase of my Doctoral research, I was shown a former Aboriginal mission site near Weipa by a Senior Aboriginal Ranger, Mr Richard Barkley. This place, known as Waypandan to Anhatangaith Traditional Owners is of very high importance to the local community. A few years later, as my Doctoral work came to a close, I began a project investigating the history and archaeology of this place. I’ve blogged previously about the origins of this project, but not enough about our results so far. The project has since expanded considerably and now represents my major research focus.

Broken silcrete flake, Weipa, found on the former Mission site

My research investigates the way that the growth of capitalism in this region has shaped and been shaped by Aboriginal peoples’ efforts to maintain their wellbeing. Northern Cape York Peninsula was colonised from the 1860s onwards by people variously involved in the fishing, mining, forestry and pastoral industries, supported by the Native Police and later, legislation that sought to control Aboriginal people. This project explores the contradiction between Aboriginal and capitalist modes of production and historical shifts in these modes of production through time. Also of interest is the role of Queensland State Government in supporting capitalist expansion by developing legislation and colonial structures aimed at controlling and shaping the lives of Aboriginal people in ways that supported industry.

 

I’m working on the following projects:

  • Close up of the nib of a calligraphic pen found on the former Weipa mission site. Date reads: 'June 15. 86'

    The economy of Aboriginal missions. In 1898 a Presbyterian mission was established inland of Weipa in part to provide a refuge for Aboriginal people escaping violence associated with the pastoral and fishing industries in the region. From the early 1900s, it had effectively become a Church-run Government institution, with local missionaries having increasing control over the lives of Aboriginal people. A major focus of the mission was on preparing Aboriginal people for a ‘civilised’ life, which in practice meant their incorporation into capitalist systems. As such, this mission effectively represented the first sustained interaction between local Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal modes of production and this project traces the history of this settlement’s development and the changing character of its economy until its closure in the 1960s.

  • Mapping capitalism on Alngith country. Since the 1930s, Alngith Country has been the major settlement in the Weipa region. At first a mission, by the 1950s plans were underway for a major mining centre and today the region supports one of Australia’s largest bauxite mining operations. This project has been aiming to document cultural heritage places associated with the history of this township, and in particular, ‘remembered places’ where few or no material archaeological remains exist. Key to the rationale for this project is that these places and the oral histories and knowledge associated with them provide the basis for understanding aspects of the lived experiences of Aboriginal people in the past. This is an important resource for the community, and resulted in the production of a major cultural heritage strategic plan for the Alngith which they are currently seeking funds to implement. It also allows us to build up deeper understanding of Aboriginal peoples’ experiences of and reactions to large-scale industrialisation in the region, which is important for local education and cultural awareness initiatives.
  • Scarred tree

    Scarred tree created by people collecting wild honey

    The archaeology of ‘sugarbag’. Scarred or culturally modified trees (CMTs) are the most common feature of the archaeology of the Weipa region. This project involves using CMTs as a basis for addressing questions about the ways  Aboriginal production strategies shifted during and after colonisation. Of particular focus are ‘sugarbag’ CMTs – those created through production of wild honey and wax. It involves statistical and spatial analysis of CMT morphology and distribution as well as exploring the potential of dendrochronology and dendroecology to better understand the context in which CMTs were created.

Other projects

I’m also involved in the following funded projects which I’ll outline in more detail soon:

  • The Alngith Land and Sea Management Project. I am assisting the Alngith people with developing various strategic plans as the basis for developing their land and sea management program. These include development of a cultural heritage strategic plan, land and sea management plan and a training plan. My role principally involves documenting how Alngith people value their country, key concerns and issues they have with current management arrangements, and finally, their aspirations for community owned management in the future. This project is in partnership with Malaruch Alngith Corporation Ltd.
  • The Muluridji Cultural Heritage Program. Since early 2011 I have been working with the Muluridji People in Mareeba, north Queensland, to develop and implement a cultural heritage program that aims to document and manage cultural heritage values. The project’s major emphasis  is on supporting Muluridji people to actively manage their heritage as well as undertaking research into questions and issues that are of importance to them.