The archaeologist as hero in Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming

‘Possessing the other… like possessing the past, is always full of delusions’ – Greg Dening

Billy Griffiths relates an encounter in Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., 2018) that I think is representative of this readable, journalistic book about the history of Australian archaeology. Driving towards Lake Mungo, Griffiths is guided by Daryl Pappin, a Mutthi Mutthi man. They are discussing the effect of the archaeological ‘discoveries’ in the area and Griffiths tries to draw Pappin into celebrating this new knowledge, and what it means for Indigenous antiquity:

‘It’s amazing how the dating of Aboriginal occupation in Australia went from a few thousand years… then 40,000 years, and now maybe even 60,000 years.’
‘And it’s a lot more than that.’ Daryl smiles at me. ‘It goes up and up and up until forever.’
‘Isn’t 60,000 years pretty much forever?’ I reply. ‘I find it hard to even fathom that number.’
Daryl drives silently, as if to say, ‘Well, no, 60,000 years isn’t forever.’
I gaze out across the vast, flat landscape and make a mental note: I need to start thinking on a different scale.

For Griffiths, this ‘different scale’ is the ‘deep time’ of the title, and the time that archaeology investigates. But I think Pappin meant something quite different; a conception of time not captured within the narrow lens of Western science. From within Griffiths’ own text, Pappin pushes against the very narrative of Deep Time Dreaming, the one that asks us to celebrate the Uncovering of Ancient Australia. Although archaeology in Australia has verified what Indigenous people across the country long knew, its attitude to the human lives and land of the past have been far from exemplary.

Indigenous history should not be a moment for us to validate our own sense of understanding, or think ‘on a different scale’, as Griffiths opines.Being so ‘disconnected from the “spiritual” and “ancient sovereignty” of Aboriginal people’ that suffuses this country, as Mark McKenna writes, we must be more unsettled and more dispossessed by our colonial history. Acknowledgment and reconciliation mean more than converting Indigenous knowledge, lore and law into new national mythologies or objects for science. Despite its impressive scope, and obvious personal investment, Griffiths’ much-praised book fails to uns­ettle. It re-affirms the role of science and knowledge, provoking the question of a standing unsettlement between colonial settlers and the original inhabitants of the Australian continent.

I want to beach Griffiths’ archaeologists on the shores of politics, to see whether their science and knowledge can breath the air of reconciliation, or whether they slip through the hard task of acknowledgement and become ‘prey to the delusions’ of the heroic knower. Archaeology sometimes attempts to possess the past with its numbers, its dates, to pin down the evidence. In doing so, it turns the past into something we can know. But the history necessary for reconciliation is one that will change us, and contribute to the unsettlement of this country; it opens the earth not to bury the cries of the past, but to show how they are as present in their demand for recognition as the earth they are dug from.

Archaeologist as hero

The chapters of Deep Time Dreaming are guided by the stories of individual archaeologists, who achieved discoveries of ancient human lives. From John Mulvaney’s pioneering professionalism at Fromm’s Landing onwards, individual archaeologists orient the book. But, for Griffiths, these patient surgeons of the past are at the frontier, like the ‘cowboy’ Rhys Jones. Griffiths describes a moment during Jones’ early work at Lake Mungo, when, investigating the emergence of bones from the eroding landscape, a group of researchers ‘investigated [a] shattered bundle of bones’:

… out dropped a piece of human jawbone. Geologist Keith Cook recalls Jones dancing as he held aloft the diagnostic evidence. In an instant, the scale of Australian history changed. ‘We were confronted,’ in Bowler’s words, ‘not only with human activity but by the very presence of humanity itself!’

What for others might have been a moment of solemn recognition – disturbing a grave site, the long history of people who preceded them in covering and discovering the country – becomes the eureka moment of scientific heroism. The triumph of the discovery is shadowed by the later history of Mungo Lady, whose remains they removed. Reflecting on the process of repatriation, to which archaeologists such as Mulvaney remained opposed, Wilfred Shawcross reflects: ‘I suppose we felt rather righteous – I felt rather righteous – that here we were rediscovering the past. Shouldn’t they be grateful?’

Such moments recur throughout as signs that what was once the exclusive preserve of the European archaeologist must be open to all, especially those whose past it claims to study. Yet within these revisions, the archaeologist remained at the centre. Each figure provides a propulsive human-interest story for what might have been dry science. But in making the archaeologists those in whom we take interest, Griffiths diverts attention away from the past they research. That past is shuffled to the background of the heroic enterprise of knowledge accumulation.

The silences of the past are filled not with those voices that were forgotten or suppressed, but with the historian trumpeting their own discovery. The archaeologist ‘deciphers’, ‘uncovers’, reads ‘cryptic’ messages in the strata of a midden. Indigenous history lies everywhere ‘beneath’ the surface of the land, buried and repressed, not living alongside us like colonial history. Jim Bowler had to wait for the ‘ordained members of the intellectual clergy’ to interpret the ‘scripture’ of the land.

Archaeologist as scientist

Deep Time Dreaming is suffused with tensions between the archaeologist’s endeavour to knowledge and the need for self-awareness. Archaeology, according to Griffiths, has accompanied its own professionalisation with the usual move of insisting upon the legitimacy of science. Griffiths admits that the ‘Dreaming is distinct from a scientific approach to the past. It conveys its own truth.’ However, he largely takes this distinction, which may be true enough, as license to leave out this other truth, in the process ignoring archaeology’s stated aim of understanding the human lives of the past.

One trend that accompanies the professionalisation of disciplines is the increasing interiority and exclusivity of the knowledge they produce. Not only are the anointed practitioners uniquely capable of deciphering evidence, but the knowledge they produce also becomes increasingly detached from the human lives they claim to study. A typical sign of this is the intensity of debate and discussion about the exact year of human arrival, and other events, in the history of Indigenous Australia. Thus, Griffiths writes that at the ‘heart of the hunt for the Pleistocene is a shift in control within the discipline of archaeology, from history to science. “Why does the world think it is so special?” asked Antiquity editor Christopher Chippindale… “Because of the numbers.’’’ I think of this as an accidental joke about the narcissism of the scientific study of human history. It believes itself special because it has access to the numbers; the (human) world believes itself special because of its numbers. The ‘it’ of the first sentence actually refers to Madjedbebe, at which the oldest recording of human occupation of Australia was recently dated at around 65,000 years.

The ever-shifting landscape of dates seems to divert attention away from what they actually mean. Of course, not all archaeology is so disposed. Many archaeologists have incorporated anthropology, ethnography and history to re-animate the past. Isabel McBryde’s findings in New England revealed the ‘complex system of exchanges that was intimately entwined with the symbolic construction of the landscape.’ Such a moment is often quickly cast aside by the return to data gathering.

Even the study of that irreducibly human practice – art – is reduced to a punch-card system of identifying motifs. The complex and culturally significant marking of land is turned into an archaeologists’ game of continental spot-the-difference by the identification of Bob Edwards’ ‘stylistic unit’, such as the Panaramitee. Using ‘predefined categories’ and the punch-card system of identification allowed archaeologists to ‘move beyond questions about the meaning of motifs.’ Griffiths’ research indicates that they found very little information about what the figures mean or why they were sacred. The punch cards converted art into ‘data’, which allowed them to be compared to sites across Australia and ignore the value and specificity of each site, and the complexity of human activity they represent. The strange discrepancy between the reverence for the Lascaux caves in France, and archaeologists’ treatment of Australian rock art as signs of economics, megafauna or items for museum classification, puts the entrenched colonial attitudes in sharp relief.

Archaeologists and politics

Yet in some instances, archaeologists saw themselves as contributing to Indigenous claims for recognition, through their scientific verification of the length of occupation and the complexity of cultures across the continent. However, at times, the archaeologist’s scientific vocation comes into conflict with these political goals. The chapter that best illustrates these tensions is, ‘You Have Entered Aboriginal Land’, which deals with the campaign against the Franklin River dam in the 1980s. Archaeology and science do not necessarily come out clean, nor does the environmentalists’ insistence on the term ‘wilderness’ fit well with the long Indigenous history being brought to light.

Sharon Sullivan describes the tension well, calling Kutikina a:

sacred site in two cultures: sacred to archaeologists who have a cultural belief in the importance of knowledge; sacred to Aborigines who believe that the strange rituals which archaeologists perform at the site constitute desecration.

The incident reveals the way in which science is not politically neutral, despite the chief geologist of the dam project ironically accusing archaeologists of ‘subordinating science to the promotion of a cause’, as he rubber stamps environmental destruction.

Once the country is protected on the basis of historical land claims, and the Tasmanian Aboriginal community begin to ask that further excavation be stopped, the archaeologists show their colours. Having defended the protection of the site on behalf of science, they continue to see Kutikina as their field, and rightly theirs to study. But to those such as Rosalind Langford of the Tasmanian Indigenous community, this is a ‘sacred place’, not a wilderness to be explored and examined; a mere field site to be excavated.

John Mulvaney, a figurehead for Australian archaeology, thought of reburials as ‘vandalism’, proposing a ‘middle ground’ such as a Keeping Place, where remains would be kept, ‘controlled by scientists and Aboriginal custodians… until dialogue had taken full course and mutual trust and understanding had been reached.’ His assumption that this would be a ‘middle ground’ reveals how far white settlers need to go before they understand the extent of acknowledgment necessary for reconciliation. His statement reflects the assumption that Indigenous people will one day be assimilated to the scientific viewpoint, and the belief that ‘Aboriginal people might wish to preserve those remains “in the name of science’’,’ as Colin Pardoe writes. The failure to recognise what it means for something to be ‘sacred’ indicates the attitude that such ways of life are less valid, or will one day be forgotten and renounced in favour of scientific knowledge, as though that could replace the Dreaming.

Archaeology and irony

Certainly the field has developed from its amateur days of looting and vandalism, and its collaboration with Indigenous Australians has improved and increased. One thing strapping Australian archaeology to its colonial past seems to be the lack of theoretical reflection on knowledge production and research practice. The introduction of a new ‘theoretical language’ by Harry Lourandos in the 1970s was ‘unfashionable’, yet his reading led him to the recognition of Indigenous agricultural practices previously ignored by white researchers. Griffiths asks, ‘Is it necessary to turn to Eurocentric language and ideas to acknowledge the richness and complexity of Indigenous economies?’

Regarding the actual description and research into Indigenous societies, it is clear that Eurocentrism is wholly inadequate. However, with regard to developing self-awareness among researchers, I think it is important to understand the European background of our modern university disciplines, if only to criticise it. Australian archaeology seemed under the sway of an illusion that it was beyond theory, and that archaeological knowledge ‘emerged from deep engagement with documentary sources and patient, systematic fieldwork.’ Mulvaney was educated in Cambridge, hardly a neutral wellspring. Sylvia Hallam denounces ‘introspection’, and rightly so when conducted in a narcissistic or solipsistic manner. However, as I have argued, failing to understanding theoretical contexts can lead to heroic individualism and an aversion to critical awareness of the ideological background and uses of science and knowledge.

The moments of greatest insight in this book are those in which I am provoked to recognise certain ​limitations to both my own perspective, and that of archaeology. Not the ‘cruel irony’ to which Rhys Jones referred half a century ago in his strange identification with George August [sic] Robinson, a ‘Protector’ [sic] whose ‘efforts’, Jones writes, ‘in conciliating the Aborigines probably hastened their final extinction’. No. No, it is the irony of survival within the colonial narrative of extinction, the insistent and brightly burning presence within tales of absence. Griffiths cites a scene from the controversial film The Last Tasmanian, where a descendant of the ​survivors of the genocidal frontier wars, Annette Mansell says, ‘I’m not an Aboriginal. I’m only the descendant of one …’ Notes Griffiths: ‘And yet, as she says these words, she is plucking the feathers from a mutton-bird, an evocative display of cultural continuity.’ It is the irony of a blossoming new tradition of Indigenous art at the same time as archaeologists reduced ancient art to mere statistics.

In the conclusion, Griffiths’ quotes the Uluru Statement: ‘this ancient sovereignty can shine through… When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.’ We have yet to learn how to receive this gift. To recognise the way in which accepting the gift of being on this country, an ancient country with history on a ‘different scale’, we must take on obligations, of respect and acknowledgment, and care for country and its people. Gularrwuy Yunupingu wrote in his essay ‘Rom Watangu’: ‘To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you… What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.’

Australia needs to be unsettled. Increasing awareness of Indigenous history is important, and has led to changes in public opinion. But the gap of recognition is not a problem of knowledge, science or statistics. It is a problem of giving back control, ceding sovereignty, caring for country. It is precisely in those gaps produced by knowledge, ones that show up only ironically, ones we must bury into, excavate and reveal the holes and flaws of single-minded colonial Eurocentrism. We must find those ways in which white settlement reveals its loose ends and pull them until they unravel the entire edifice.

Griffiths tells of Frank Gurrmanamana and Frank Malkorda’s journey from Arnhem Land to Canberra, to ‘present a Rom… as an extension of friendship to those who had taken an interest in their life and culture.’ It is a ‘ritual of diplomacy’, the kind white settlers have ignored since the early settlement. Performed in 1982, then again in 1995 and 2001, the:

full significance of the Rom ceremony has yet to be appreciated by the Australian public. At the heart of this symbolic act is a gift – of song and dance and cultural knowledge, but it comes with obligations. The acceptance of such a gift enmeshes the recipients into a continual process of reciprocity.



Ed note 1: This review was edited 29 November 2018 to correct two citation errors (initially the Wilfred Shawcross quote had been misattributed, and Madjedbebe was misidentified as Jinmium).

Ed note 2: This review was further edited 12 December to correct some citation and paraphrasing issues brought to our attention (in paragraphs: 3, 12 and 20), which indicated positions not put forward by Griffiths in Deep Time Dreaming.


Image: Round Tank goat trap, Lake Mungo – Stephan Ridgway / flickr

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique.

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