Leadbeater, Kate: Teaching Indigenous archaeology: when the evidence is just next door

Kate Leadbeater*

‘Teaching Indigenous archaeology: when the evidence is just next door’, Honest History, 13 June 2017

When I took on the Stage 1 Ancient Studies class my thoughts instantly went to the Roman Empire, Egypt, Greece, and all those other cool sites located tantalisingly on the other side of the world. Even the students during their ‘Try your timetable day’ at the end of last year were asking, ‘Miss, can we go to Pompeii?’ They, too, were drawn to those great structures of the Ancient World that we see in our textbooks and in shows sometimes aired on SBS or the ABC.

But then the question was put to me, ‘Well, what about Australia?’

I was confused. Australia? What does Australia have to offer over Europe and the Middle East? Well, only evidence of the oldest civilisation in the world!

NT mapI dove into lesson preparations, researching Ancient Indigenous sites around Australia. We were even lucky enough to be shown artefacts that had been uncovered at Malakunanja, an Indigenous site in Arnhem Land, here in the Northern Territory. In the museum, right next door to the school, there is evidence of a civilisation that is dated to around 50 000 years old!

In every state and territory in Australia ancient sites have been uncovered, with evidence of human presence dated at anywhere from 12 000 to 60 000 years old. And yet, many of us – and until I took on this class this included me as well – remain ignorant of the fact that we do have an ancient history in Australia as well. And for us in the Territory, it is right on our doorstep.

The SACE Stage 1 Ancient Studies subject outline does now include an option to look at Australian pre-European settlement. You will probably find, however, that a number of teachers stick to what they know, what topics have the most resources, and what they think will capture student interest the most.

But after teaching Indigenous Archaeology to my class, I think that what we have in Australia is just as important and still just as interesting and engaging for students as some of those sites in Greece, Rome, and elsewhere in that part of the Ancient World that sits in the Northern Hemisphere.

So, I put the question to my students: If sites such as Malakunanja contain evidence of the oldest civilisation on Earth, why do we not know about it or hear about it? Their answers were insightful and well-reasoned, and it really opened my eyes to some of the issues with teaching Indigenous Archaeology, and why it has largely been disregarded in schools. Their reasons included:

  • Not enough information about the sites is readily available to the public (and this is certainly the case with Malakunanja).
  • There are ethical and cultural issues surrounding Indigenous sites that may prevent the publication of findings.
  • Most Indigenous sites are not accessible to tourists and their exact locations are mostly unknown.
  • Archaeology is a relatively new branch of history so the appreciation for ancient civilisations in Australia hasn’t had as long to develop; it takes a lot longer to uncover ancient Indigenous sites.
  • The sites aren’t as impressive as European places and the artefacts (at first glance) don’t appear as interesting.
  • The European sites are more appealing to tourists and they are more accessible. (You can stay in a 5-star hotel when you go there as opposed to camping in the harsh landscape of Australia.)

GENYORNISArnhem Land mural (Noticias de Prehistoria)

And then there were the three points that really packed a punch:

  • The Indigenous contribution to the building of modern Australia isn’t widely known or understood.
  • There is an inherent underappreciation for Indigenous culture in Australia.
  • The Indigenous past has long been ignored by Australian society and probably needs to be taught better in schools. (Pallavi Singhal looked at similar questions in Fairfax media last month as curriculum changes were introduced in New South Wales.)

After some interesting lessons, thoughtful discussions – and also amusing conversations that ended with students laughing at me for incorrectly identifying many of the artefacts in the museum as ‘spearheads’ – the students and I were able to see the value and learning opportunities that Indigenous Archaeology has to offer. Much of our knowledge about the earliest people in Australia comes from archaeology, and the students were able to appreciate just how rich our Indigenous culture is and why it is important to learn about the ancient history we have here in Australia. They were also able, through the sites and artefacts we examined, to recognise how advanced the Indigenous culture and technology was in ancient times. Finally, they seemed to enjoy researching Australia’s past.

Nothing will ever lessen the interest we have in those awesome buildings and sites left for us in Europe. But why not give Australia a go? Isn’t the ancient history of this country just as important and interesting as the ancient history of any country?

* Kate Leadbeater teaches English and Humanities at Darwin High School, NT.

Further reading (from Honest History editor): under Honest History’s thumbnail ‘First Peoples’ there are links to many articles relevant to Kate Leadbeater’s post, including material about recent archaeological discoveries in Western Australia, South Australian research on Indigenous DNA, Indigenous relationships with the land, the fish-traps of Lake Condah, a find in the Flinders Ranges, and other stories. There are also the books by Bill Gammage, Bruce Pascoe, and Rebe Taylor. Finally, there is this from Larissa Behrendt’s chapter in The Honest History Book (emphasis added):

Until we bury the myth that Australia was “settled”, we can never become a country where all Australians see Indigenous history and culture as a key part of the nation’s history and culture – and until we do that we will never have found a way to truly share this colonised country.

(Professor Behrendt is a Eualeyai-Kamillaroi woman who holds the Chair of Indigenous Research at the University of Technology, Sydney.)

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