May 2018

Arts & Letters

‘Deep Time Dreaming’ by Billy Griffiths

By Robyn Davidson

This history of archaeology in Australia charts our changing relationship with the past

History is the present, they say, and every generation writes it anew. Not just generations, but new contestants in the historical narrative of any country – conquerors and conquered, dominators and dominated. The same holds true for the study of the human past through its material remains: archaeology.

In Australia, it is the only tool available to conjure history before the arrival of Europeans, and that makes it inherently political.

All cultural programs are informed by the sentiments of the age. In the 1950s, those sentiments were Eurocentric, and still suffused with the social Darwinism that designated some cultures “fitter” to survive than others. We, the immigrants of northern origin, who had been on the continent for a mere moment, rose to power, thus proving, tautologically, that we were fitter than the people here before us.

At that time, it was assumed that Aboriginal culture was static and only a couple of thousand years old, that its people had remained stone-agers and were destined to die out.

We live in a different world now, and Billy Griffiths’ book Deep Time Dreaming (Black Inc.; $34.99) charts that changing perspective through the history of archaeology as it has been practised in Australia since the mid 20th century. It is a charming book, full of scientific interest and biographical anecdote, but it is also a very important one. It is a call not just to wonder, but to political engagement. It joins the spate of excellent new science-based books that are elevating the discourse, helping us to rethink our relationship with the past, with the environment, and with Indigenous knowledge.

It has taken time to erode the Eurocentric view my generation inherited. Time and patient scholarship to crack that thin but obdurate upper layer, in order to reveal the complexities and richness of what lies beneath. Along with the voices of Aboriginal people themselves, these new ways of understanding will raise further questions to resolve – a dynamic process, enriching notions of who and how we are, as inhabitants of this unique island continent.

We will have to continually negotiate the inherent tensions between science and culture. To whom does the archaeological story belong? To all humanity, or to the present-day descendants of the first Australians? How do we share the history of this place?

Such contestation is both exciting and confronting. It is, after all, difficult to admit one has been wrong. But what a welcome change from the ignorant tropes that limited the Australian psyche for so long.

“Australia’s human history began over 60,000 years ago.” So, confidently, begins Deep Time Dreaming. Until 2017, that statement could not have been made.

The astonishing figure was the outcome of work done on a site in the Arnhem Land escarpment – an overhang that would once have been far from the shore where the first humans landed. The shoreline is closer now, and the landing site drowned beneath the Arafura Sea.

It is along this elevated edge that it has been possible to find evidence of the first habitations in Australia. Without written records, it is the landscape itself that must be “read” for this information, a landscape that is constantly working to obliterate its own past.

The descendants of those families have been living here for more time than it is natural for the human mind to grasp. (The phrase “deep time” was coined as a response to the immense scales in which geologists and archaeologists have to think. And it was the archaeologist John Mulvaney who estimated that a billion people have lived on this continent.)

As they spread south, they colonised every kind of niche – from frozen southern tundras, to desert, to jungle. They survived geological epochs – the Pleistocene and the Holocene – and sea rises of 125 metres. They witnessed volcanos erupting and lava flows, the creation of inland sand dunes, the inundation of land bridges. Where it made economic sense to do so, they practised agriculture, built villages, constructed complicated systems of aquatic traps, joined together in huge groups to exploit boom times, learned how to survive the bust. They traded with each other across the continent, trusted their neighbours through the sharing of stories, and collectively came up with The Dreaming, a poetical, philosophical and social system of knowledge that is one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind.

They must have made mistakes, but they had an awfully long time to learn from them. They changed and diversified, always demonstrating a fantastic agility in the face of so much environmental pressure. It is a history we, as a species, should be proud of.

Griffiths’ driving passion for archaeology (he is in fact a historian) has taken him to many dig sites across the country, travelling with experts in the field, and with Aboriginal custodians. He was present at the Arnhem Land digs in 2012 and 2015 as camp cook and interlocutor. He and his fellow workers sifted through layers of time under the auspices of the Mirrar people. Their hosts, in turn, were using the archaeological discoveries in their own campaign against uranium mining on their country.

Such a long period of Aboriginal presence had been suggested back in the ’70s, but scientists remained sceptical. It wasn’t until a new dating technology could be used that the number was accepted, and Nature magazine published its landmark paper last year, extending the time horizon of human occupation here to 65,000 years.

There is a kind of sexiness attached to these numbers: bigger inevitably being better. But Griffiths is keen to point out that, more importantly, Australian prehistory reveals the variety of societies that have made this place their own, by song and story, fire and resource management – etching their presence into a landscape once thought so extraterrestrially pristine of hominid interference. Australia is now understood to be profoundly humanised, inscribed literally and figuratively, by culture.

It is not just Australian prehistory that is backing further and further into “deep time”.

Recently, the discovery of a 200,000-year-old human jawbone in Israel pushed back the clock on humanity’s exit out of Africa. Most scholars had previously agreed that modern man did not appear in Europe until 70,000 years ago. But this new evidence suggests that we were already populating the globe rather than still evolving in East Africa.

No one knows precisely when homo sapiens became the dominant power on the planet. No one knows when we developed our unique ability to tell stories that bind us together and allow us to cooperate on a large scale – our best evolutionary survival trick.

Science provides us with not so much facts as the least wrong answers, given the evidence we have, and the technologies available. It is quite possible that the time line for human occupation in Australia may increase again, the number coming even closer to the Aboriginal understanding of their history on this continent.

When Griffiths struggles to get his head around 60,000 years, a Mutthi Mutthi man says, “And it’s a lot more than that. It goes up and up and up until forever.” Sixty thousand years and forever are, at least poetically, pretty similar.

But until the ’70s, very few people were asking Indigenous Australians much about anything. Some of the early archaeologists had never met, nor felt they needed to meet, an Aboriginal person. The way this has so radically altered is the thread binding Deep Time Dreaming – “the reassertion of Aboriginal cultural identity in the second half of the twentieth century”. While non-Indigenous Australians were trying to comprehend the time frame of human existence here, the descendants of those humans were transforming archaeological practice itself. They would no longer accept being mute objects of study; they were now living agents, in charge of or at least in negotiation with the people who studied them, or wanted access to their land.

But the book is not written as a seminar, or a polemic. It’s full of stories to pull you in as it introduces the eccentrics, geniuses and crooks of the archaeological trade, who, according to Griffiths, have been a pretty extraordinary bunch.

We first meet Professor Vere Gordon Childe, who, having decided that his best work was done and that “there is nothing more I want to do here; nothing I feel I ought and could do”, jumped from Govetts Leap in the Blue Mountains. “Life ends best,” he said, “when one is strong and happy.”

Then we are introduced to John Mulvaney, who really got modern Australian archaeology going. It was he who introduced new ideas of Aboriginal antiquity and cultural change to the field.

Rhys Jones – something of a showman – contributed hugely to the popularisation of archaeology in the ’70s. He was a journalist’s dream, coming up with such durable phrases as “fire-stick farming”. He ran into trouble later, when he seemed to be proposing that the Tasmanian genocide had left no descendants.

The book describes the way women came into the field, how they, too, altered the tenor of the discipline, beginning with the redoubtable Isabel McBryde, who was one of the first practitioners to connect with the traditional owners on whose land she excavated.

But it isn’t just individuals who are lauded. Griffiths pays tribute to the team effort that is the basis of the best scientific research.

All in all, Deep Time Dreaming is a hopeful book. As Griffiths says, if we are to move forward, we need to listen to Aboriginal voices demanding reconciliation. We need to understand the magnitude of the dispossession, of what has been lost, and come to terms with it. Archaeology is giving us new insights into the deep history of our country, and new tools with which to approach the mutable, complex story of “us”.

The future will be full of surprises. It always is. But so will the past.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

Archaeology student Rhonda Deans exploring “the Squeeze”, Koonalda Cave, South Australia, 1967. Photo by Robert Edwards, courtesy of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

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