‘This book about Australian archaelogy and archaelogists is a gift to all of us’, Honest History, 10 April 2018
Tjanara Goreng Goreng reviews Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia, by Billy Griffiths
This book reaches into the deep, deep past of ancient Australia through telling stories of the first group of Australian archaeologists who examined our potent natural and geographical landscape to ascertain the secrets of Aboriginal culture. We Aboriginal people know we populated this continent from time immemorial – or, as Western scientists like to say, 80 000 plus years. Scientists carbon date the artefacts, bones, carvings, and skeletons they find to ascertain timelines, but we tell our oral history, passed on from generation to generation, about this ancient landscape. We share with our children and grandchildren what it was like before the white man came – and what has changed.
Billy Griffiths discovered an early passion on archaeological digs. In this book he has eloquently shared the works of these early scientific explorers and their findings – some controversial, some definitive – and has told a story of the deep connections Western archaeologists have found to our ancient past.
The book gives the rest of Australia an idea of what it takes for archaeologists – scientific explorers of the environment – to do their work, to analyse their findings and complete their research. It also shows the tenacity with which these men and women persevered in their scholarship. I was extremely touched by Isobel McBryde’s underlying social justice purpose and by John Mulvaney’s desire to show an ancient past of deep proportions that were not known or cared about when explorations began in the mid-20th century.
Some of the work, of course, was controversial, notably that of Rhys Jones and Richard Gould, but no-one can deny the desire of these archaeological explorers to discover evidence and then to share it, and all this with a deep respect and awe about how Aboriginal people survived over millennia in this continent of diverse and difficult environments. I had the sense that these men and women were discovering not only how to do their work as explorers, but how to give and show respect, to consult, to take advice from their subjects, and also how to understand the violent past of Australia’s invasion and dispossession.
When migloos (white people) first came here they had no sense of recognition, or connectedness or regard for our Aboriginal civilisation. There were, of course, attempts to engage and learn, but eventually these were to give way to violence and attempts to wipe out what were seen as ‘uncivilised’ peoples and to ‘smooth the pillow of a dying race’. What the archaeological explorers have delivered – as Billy Griffiths has so painstakingly recorded – are scientific miracles of discovery, achieved through their own passion for history, for the past, for exploration, and for acknowledging what existed here in this land.
Isabel McBryde (Australian Archaelogical Association)
Griffiths describes Isabel McBryde perfectly in this book. I met her recently and knew of her reputation. Her beautiful and gentle demeanour belies a strength and courage, a rock-hard decisiveness of personality to survive and thrive in such a male-dominated academic world, and then to do it with such empathy and compassion for our culture. I can only thank and bless her for her career and her deep passion to unearth and provide proof of our long existence – and then to train other scholars to carry on after her.
I was a bit taken aback, though, when Griffiths shares David Frankel’s reflection that ‘John [Mulvaney] was now moving into the role of tribal elder’. Griffiths obviously meant this in terms of Mulvaney being a public advocate and protecting and preserving sites, but as an Aboriginal person I cannot see a migloo as a tribal elder, no matter what he was doing. I understand the point being made, but cannot see how a migloo archaeologist and scientist could ever become a tribal elder; perhaps this is my prejudice. Putting that aside, however, I have no issue with the amazing and painstaking work of these carvers of Australia’s new prehistory and of their scholarship. It has been brilliant and it is brilliantly portrayed in this book.
A poignant part of the book is the recounting in the chapter ‘Haunted country’ of Isabel McBryde’s career and some of her early digs on country where Judith Wright, one of Australia’s greatest poets and champion of Aboriginal rights, had lived. I could visualise Judith’s love of the land and everything written of in this chapter, the genocide at Nigger’s Leap and the fight Isobel took up to go against the ‘indifference in Australian culture to Indigenous Australia’.
That chapter hauntingly depicts the deep dark shadows of the colonial past and its attempts to bury our ancient heritage. It says something, too, of how these explorers of science and words felt about this landscape and its terrorised First Nations peoples. This is something I have lived with all my life, being boxed into ‘that box’ when it suits the dominant culture, but then being completely ignored in terms of any academic or other achievement, unless it met the criteria of the dominant culture, in terms of their desire for how you are as an ‘Aborigine’.
This material was painful to read and painful to reflect upon, since these new explorers of scientific landscapes were working when I was born, and it is during my lifetime that they made their major discoveries. How long did that take? From 1788, it took 162 years for any scholar to be interested in what lay beneath what they saw in us.
It is sobering to know that McBryde particularly became such a protector of Aboriginal culture and a deep advocate for it through her enquiry, research and teaching of the next generation of scholars. She went beyond her own field of archaeology into an area of political achievement, drawing upon her evidence-based research into the ancient past, beauty and power of Aboriginal culture that could no longer be denied. McBryde consulted Aboriginal people, she talked to the owners of the land and listened to them, not just to the country she was exploring. I suspect this was a unique form of archaeology and no doubt McBryde has had a deep impact on students in the field through her practice.
Rhys Jones 1941-2001 (Australian Archaelogical Association)
We also read the stories of Rhys Jones, Richard and Betsy Gould, Jim Bowler, Carmel Schrire, Betty Meehan and Lesley Maynard, and other archaeological explorers covering most of the continent, and the ancient past of human existence and its meaning on our continent, and powerful stories they are. Griffiths shares with us the lives of these first archaeological explorers, not just their work. He writes of their backgrounds, their childhood upbringings, the development of their passion for archaeology and their careers in the field. He gives the reader a deeper sense of why a person works in this field, painstakingly trowelling the earth layer by layer to build a history of a place and a people over generations.
This is particularly poignant in these stories, to learn of how these explorers were shaped and what drove them. It gives me a feeling both of knowing them, and of sharing in their successes and mistakes through their stories. It becomes more than just a story of archaeological finds of importance to our Australian heritage, but a delving into the lives and motivations of these scholars and the issues, both personal and professional, they had to deal with.
Rhys Jones was only known to me as a controversial figure of the film The Last Tasmanian, and from his work in Tasmania. In reading his story it is easier to get a sense of his mistakes and the development of his contested theories, but also knowing his background and motivations gave a much clearer sense of how and why he was as he was as a man and an archaeologist. His time in Tasmania fortunately coincided with our movement for more self-determination, recognition and our louder voice. His own colleagues challenged his research into the Tasmanians. But this is par for the course in academia, we develop and put forward theories and then others discuss and disprove them. Jones came up against his own ego and the beginnings of Aborigines taking back their voice in their own land, but he also made great finds and continued a legacy of powerful archaeological scholarship in a distinctly Australian tradition.
The story of Richard Gould, an American archaeologist working near Warburton in the 1960s – who, Griffiths says, ‘came very close to be the first archaeologist in Australia to get speared’ – spurred me on to read why. The ‘Yiwara incident’, as it is sometimes labelled, caused controversy, fear and distrust at the community level and led, fortunately, to a changing focus on privacy and gaining permission when working with Aborigines. As well, Yiwara started the debate into restricted access to sacred and secret materials, a debate that has become a crucial part of respecting Aboriginal ownership and culture since. The controversy caused much change and, as ANU anthropologist Nicolas Peterson recalls, ‘there is no overriding right of scientific enquiry … to intrude into a fragile culture and contribute to its destroying in the name of scientific investigation …We are privileged as anthropologists, to go along and work with the Aborigines and they accept us.’ (p. 103)
Yiwara sparked the most important change for academic institutions, researchers and the ‘Aboriginalisation’ of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, as it was then known. This incident does not diminish the important work that Richard Gould and his wife Betsy did in the Central Desert but serves as a reminder of the importance of respect and honour to a people’s place and customs. The irony, as Griffiths recalls, is that Gould was one of the first archaeologists who always sought permission and consulted with the appropriate Elders before accessing sites. However, as Peterson notes, the idea of ‘publication’ and what it meant, and the control an archaeologist had over publication of their material once written, was a very different notion for the Aboriginal people and for the non-Aboriginal person being granted permission to publish.
Archaelogist Mike Smith at work (Inside Story/Peter Eve)
The Yiwara incident sparked the first legal case in 1976 won by the Pitjanjatjara to prevent the continued publication of Charles Mountford’s Nomads of the Australian Desert, in which he shared secret and sacred material. These incidents occurred during a time of heightened politicisation of the Aboriginal landscape in Australia and the drive for rights, not only over land, but over lives and how researchers use the knowledge shared with them. As a result, universities and other institutions now require another level of ethical approval when working with Aboriginal communities. This was something which I found interesting when getting my own PhD research approved as an Aboriginal academic: the deep lack of understanding in the dominant culture institution about requirements and knowledge sharing and our ways of doing that, fearful that every respect and privacy box is ticked, whether you are Aboriginal or not.
Griffiths returns in 2014 to the site of Gould’s excavations, noting the American and Australian flags still sticking out of the soil and travelling with some of the Aboriginal Elders who worked with and knew Gould from his first exhibition. Griffiths ends this controversial chapter with Gould’s recognition of the importance of Ngaanyatjarra’s ‘ancient and continuing occupation’ and hoped that his work would contribute to ‘future land claims’.
Gould’s respect for the people he spent two years with and who included him in their ceremonial lives is evident in his telling of his work there. It is only unfortunate that, like most dominant culture people of the era, he did not fully understand the implications of the publishing of his work there and how he could not control whether those publications would be returned to the community, when he had promised they would not be.
Perhaps none of these people knew what they were doing at the time. It was an entirely new landscape in scholarship and research, but I am very glad they did what they did. We could not have done it as Aboriginal people: no one listens to us, but the dominant culture listen to their own, to their scholars who so rigorously record everything they find.
We were no longer museum curiosities, but were now seen as a structured civilisation with evidence of sustainability in this harsh and diverse environment, who made use of the land, created a society of depth and lived isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years. They discovered our trade routes, our ‘ritual cycles of exchange’ (p. 47), and what Griffiths describes as ‘an archaeological signature for an oral phenomenon: the travels of ancestral beings in the Dreaming and the epic songs they left in their wake’ (p. 48).
This is the most powerful part of these scholars’ work, providing the existence and presence of the Dreaming, our Tjukurpa (Anangu Pitjanjatjara language, meaning ‘sacred business, Law, Dreaming’). The impacts of these scholars on environmental sustainability, as seen, for example, during the Franklin River campaign 1976-83, to preserve and understand our ancient landscape has been both important and deeply significant. Their work has helped Australians maintain and sustain, preserve and become more deeply connected to the uniqueness of this country and its beauty.
Imagine if the Franklin River campaign had never happened. What we would have lost for eternity is now preserved because of the passion and commitment of many, including the scientists who fought to preserve the paradise of that place. Griffiths describes the campaign as a ‘rare example of archaeology capturing and holding public attention with profound political results’. It enabled Aboriginal heritage to be recognised as a significant contributor to our global heritage and to be preserved for a global audience.
Griffiths presents Jim Bowler’s story and the discoveries of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man and the dead and the living being uncovered by the drought and aridness of the environmental damage done on a large scale by over-farming, rabbits and the lack of Aboriginal burning of the land. It’s a poignant and beautiful rendering of Bowler’s work and his connections with Aboriginal people.
Then there are the stories of Betty Meehan’s work in Arnhem Land, Rhys Jones again and his decades of connections with the Mirrar people from the 1960s through to the beginning of uranium mining and the impacts it had on both the people of the region and on archaeology, as archaelogy became the important science for mining company consultations.
Mungo Man repatriation, November 2017 (Guardian Australia/Dean Sewell)
Archaeologist Mike Smith says in the book, ‘it’s not just that people are losing control over the sites or losing access to land; the actual land is being shipped off to China. I mean, there goes the Dreaming! There goes the body of the ancestral beings!’ (p. 170) A more powerful description of loss could not be stated.
The two Aboriginal Elders who worked with Meehan presented a Rom at the Institute after their initial visits. A Rom is an ancient ceremony of respect and diplomacy to the ‘big men’ in Canberra. Yolngu leader Galarrwuy Yunipingu wrote: ‘[R]ecognise us for who we are, and not who you want us to be … [B]e proud of us.’ (p. 173)
I’m running out of space to share all of this book and will only say that its beauty continues from chapter to chapter, from story to story of these 20th century discoverers of rock art, of an Australian prehistory, of Australian disciplines of study, of marking country, of the early fights for Aboriginal rights over decisions about research and excavations on their country, and of the early developments of national trusts and conservation of our ancient culture. These historical contributions to our cultural landscape, the growing recognition for Australia’s First Nations people and their survival, a history of Indigenous Studies, and the rights movement are all so very important that I welcome Billy Griffith’s wonderful book.
Griffiths is a beautiful writer, a detailed observer and researcher, an eloquent purveyor of history and the ancient stories that emerged from the work of these archaeological explorers, and of his own reflections, as he documents their major works and lives as archaeologists. I was struck by his descriptions of the way in which they formed their vigorous academic enquiry and his description of them is poetry in itself.
Indeed, I was struck by the beauty of this book as a whole. When I first picked it up I thought,
I know nothing of archaeology, but I do know about our culture and its oral history passed to me by my mother and extended family, of our sacred sites, our song cycles, our Ancestral Beings and ceremonies. I know of my Central Desert family and their deep self-sovereignty and the way they hold the Laws and culture for the following generations, the places they treasure and the sites they protect.
I was curious about why this man would want to write of such things. And then I couldn’t put the book down. It not only contains evidence of a deep, deep past, but it tells such beautiful stories of something many of us know nothing about, how archaeologists do what they do and the gift they have given our nation by preserving and developing an ‘Australian Archaeology’.
I understand how Billy Griffiths became hooked. He describes this book as a gift to himself, and I describe it as a gift to Australia, and to me and to First Nations peoples, to understand more about how migloos have come to love our culture and deeply honour our ancient Tjukurpa.
The book finishes with a reflection of what it means for Australia to have an ancient Aboriginal heritage and to reconcile itself with its history. In the words of a man I once worked for, Charlie Perkins, are found the difficulty, the desire for sharing and acceptance, and the reasons why we are always ‘other’ in Australia. Perkins said of his ‘expectation of a good Australia’, it ‘is when White people would be proud to speak an Aboriginal language, when they realise that Aboriginal culture and all that goes with it … is all part of their heritage … [A]ll they have to do is reach out and ask for it.’ (p. 293)
This book is a gift to Australia to enable us all to overcome the shame of the past, to see how these archaeological historians have enriched Australian heritage through discovering the ancient past we have known has always existed and is sacred to us. They have enabled us all to be proud of the ancient culture that has existed here for millennia, perhaps the oldest living culture of the world.
Tjanara Goreng Goreng is a Wakka Wakka Wulli Wulli Traditional Owner from Central Queensland. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Canberra and a Research Scholar and PhD candidate at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra. She reviewed Rebe Taylor’s Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity.