Monthly Archives: October 2018

‘Swanston: Merchant Statesman’ by Eleanor Robin

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Swanston Street is the main thoroughfare of Melbourne, extending from Melbourne University in the north down to the Yarra, whereupon it becomes St Kilda Rd. It’s a rather unloved road, for many years blighted with dodgy discount basements and even dodgier long narrow cafes with desiccated dim-sims. The street is now blocked with huge sheds and scaffolding hiding the tunnelling works for the new metro line that will run under the city.

Swantston Street was one of the original streets on the Hoddle Grid, but the only one of the north-south streets to be named after anyone associated with the ‘over-straiter’ settlement of Melbourne from Tasmania.* It was NSW Governor Bourke himself who suggested naming the street after Charles Swanston, banker, entrepreneur, member of Legislative Council, and ‘merchant statesman’, but Swanston seems never to have actually crossed Bass Strait to see Melbourne for himself.

As Eleanor Robin explains rather late in the text in this biography of Charles Swanston (Ch.15) , Swanston has not been treated kindly by Tasmanian historians. In 1948 W.H. Hudspeth regaled an after-dinner audience with an entertaining sketch of Swanston’s rise and fall that became the accepted view for the next seventy years.  Other historians, like Kathleen Fitzpatrick relied on the evidence of contemporary detractors and the discomfort of colonial settlers over Swanston’s ignominious end to depict him in a negative light. This book, which conceptualizes Charles Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, places him within a wider imperial mindset, and assesses his intellectual and social capital against the financial business mores of the time.  Drawing on the archives of the Derwent Bank papers, which were only fully catalogued in 2017,  Robin concludes that Charles Swanston was

a vital cog in the rapidly turning wheel of change. He was a man of the world who played out his life boldly in exotic and far-flung regions of the 19th century British Empire (p.198)

Charles Swanston was born in England in 1789 and at the age of 16 was commissioned in the East India Company army. The wide-reaching networks of soldiers involved in Wellington’s armies have been described by historians, most particularly Zoe Laidlaw and Christine Wright . Importantly, Robin alerts us to a different, parallel set of networks that connected India and Australia, first through military men in the East India Company, and then through them to the trade market between the two countries. This connection with India played out in the lives of two of Swanston’s sons too, when they also joined the Indian army before eventually retiring to England.  There was a strong presence of Scots in the East India Company as well, and if the Indian networks were the warp, then the Scots influence -which also ran through Swanston’s family- was the weft running through his financial and mercantile activities.

Swanston first visited Van Diemen’s Land in 1828 when he had been granted a year’s leave from the East India Company on account of ill-health.  He was quickly embraced by the Hobart ‘genteel’ society, several of whom shared Indian ties with him. He quickly found favour with Governor Arthur who declared that he wished that the colony were stacked with “a hundred settlers such as Captain Swanston from India” (p.24) Even before permanently settling in Van Diemen’s Land, which he was to do in 1831, he purchased several estates, including New Town Park at New Town, and under the patronage of Governor Arthur, purchased shares in the newly established Derwent Bank, which he was to eventually control.

Colonial port cities during the nineteenth century were marked by their cliquishness, gossip, social claustrophobia and instability of ‘respectability’, and this was certainly true of Hobart during Swanston’s time.  As an appointed, non-public service member of the Legislative Council in a colony with no popular representation, he was embroiled in the partisan politics of governor-against-Council, especially after his patron Governor Arthur departed the colony and Sir John Franklin was appointed in his place. Apart from political maneuverings  Swanston was involved in the gentlemanly pursuits of many other elite public men in a small colony: the orphan school, infrastructure schemes in water, coal and smelting, insurance companies, church warden, board member for the Mechanics Institute and vice-President and Treasurer for the Royal Society. Like many gentlemen of his time and milieu he had a particular interest in horticulture and viticulture.

In her title, Robin identifies Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, one of those class of men with the British education and contacts to take up the commercial opportunities that opened up in the colonies.

Those around him recognised his global outlook. He had the eye of an army strategist and, as financier and legislator until his last tumultuous days, he operated in the national interest, as well as for his own good. (p.101)

His control of the Derwent bank gave him contacts with merchants and entrepreneurs, and he leveraged his Indian and Scots networks in the importation of manufactured goods from both India, the Far East and ‘home’. Most particularly he acted as agent for  Edinburgh-based George Mercer, encouraging Mercer to invest in Van Diemen’s Land and to  purchase land and properties for his children who emigrated to Australia, and most importantly, like Swanston,  in becoming involved in Melbourne as a new investment opportunity.

As Robin demonstrates, Swanston provided much of the financial and intellectual muscle behind the Port Phillip Association’s attempt to ‘purchase’ huge swathes of land through a ‘treaty’ with the Kulin nation.  He was “the chief strategist and spearheaded the Association’s campaign for legal title to the ‘new country'” (p. 114) It was probably Swanston, along with Gellibrand or Wedge, or all three, back in Van Diemen’s Land who took Batman’s diary and wrote it up into a more polished report. It was Swanston who acted as a conduit between Governor Arthur and the members of the Association, as a lobbyist with the New South Wales government, and who briefed George Mercer to lobby the British government. The treaty was always legally dubious, but there was a concerted and well-co-ordinated lobbying campaign at local, colonial, and metropole level to have it, and the claims of the Port Phillip Association, recognized.

Even though the treaty was disallowed,  along with other members of the syndicate Swanston lost no time in sending his own flocks over the strait, and arranging for Mercer to deploy his finance in the same way.  He organized the shipping, taking shares in ‘The Adelaide’ to convey the sheep, and organizing all up twenty sailing vessels. The Colonial Government, in rejecting the ‘treaty’ allowed remissions up to the value of £7000 (a sizeable amount!) for any expenditure that had been forfeited. Swanston took up any of the shares in the now-discredited Port Phillip Association and established the Derwent Company, a new entity.

Robin is non-committal about the intent of the treaty for the men in the Port Phillip Association, beyond commenting on the entrepreneurial spirit from which it emerged and pointing out the flaws in their reasoning. It struck me that we tend to think of frontier conflict in terms of spears and guns and the physicality of violence, and not so much the mindset of the capitalists who were financing the expansion. Swanston himself stayed in Tasmania, arguing that his business and legislative commitments precluded crossing the Strait. I have read much about the frontier conflict later in Port Phillip, but I was particularly struck by the violence and resistance to this first wave of men and sheep, including amongst Swanston’s own overseers (p.134) In this recounting of those very early years, focusing closely on the experience of those first syndicate members, there was no period of benign wariness.  The deaths and outrages on Swanston’s own properties made it harder to argue that the ‘treaty’ was an alternative approach that could avoid bloodshed.

As Robin shows, Swanston was a man of his time, and those times were both exhilarating and challenging for entrepreneurs and merchants.  Profits and investments expanded dramatically in the 1830s,  and they contracted the same way in the 1840s.  It is likely that his own actions as a banker contributed to the collapse of the Van Diemen’s Land economy, when he changed the Derwent Bank from a bank of issue to a mortgage bank. He, and bankers in NSW alike, assumed that because land was finite, an investment in land was “safe as houses”- an assumption that was rendered untrue with the opening up of Port Phillip.  Those networks and connections that had bolstered his reputation in Hobart were now a burden as friends and acquaintances who had once approached him for advice now approached him for relief. As Robin says, “With hindsight, the collapse of the Derwent Bank, taking Swanston with it, was inevitable.” (p. 184)

Kirsten McKenzie has pointed out in Scandal in the Colonies, the question of personal integrity in business was vital to economic success (p.79). As economic historian Syd Butlin wrote, while not doubting Swanston’s good faith, “[Swanston] had simply ceased to distinguish the policy and affairs of the bank from his own interests and business”(p.184). Robin admits that his business operations occasionally shaded into ‘sharp practice’, but that this was not unusual. His business model was based on growth,  which could not be sustained in a changed economic environment. (p.196)  Disgraced and depressed after the failure of both the Derwent Company and the Derwent Bank, Swanston left Van Diemen’s Land to join his son on the Californian goldfields. Their paths crossed, and Swanston died at sea, aged sixty. He was not to know it, but the ‘new’ colony which had dominated his lobbying and financial acumen was about to undergo its own transformation through gold.

Robin closes her book noting the lack of acknowledgment of Swanston in the town with a main street named in his honour. She’s right, and her book goes a long way towards filling this vacuum. In a narrative sense, she has walked around Charles Swanston, profiling him from different perspectives: military man, legislator, merchant statesman, Port Phillip Association member, financier and family man.

In recent years there has been increasing discomfort about the role and behaviour of the ‘over-straiters’, most particularly John Batman, as seen by the renaming of the ‘Batman’ electorate to ‘Cooper’ to honour William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta activist and community leader. There is now a question over whether the statues to Fawkner and Batman that previously stood in the now-demolished National Mutual forecourt will see the light of day again.

Additionally, the opprobrium directed towards ethically questionable economic ventures now  tends to extend to the financiers as well, as seen by the pressure on financial organizations not to invest in the Adani coal mine. In Charles Swanston we see colonization in its white-collar guise, and an abstract concept like ‘settler capitalism’ exemplified in an individual. After Robin’s book, Swanston will not be so invisible. Time and politics will tell whether that’s a good thing or not.

Sourced from: review copy Australian Scholarly Publishing

Eleanor Robin will be speaking about her book at the RHSV on Tuesday 16 October.

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2081.

 

 

*[An aside: Spencer St was named after 3rdEarl Spencer, the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Melbourne 1830-1834; King St after Philip Gidley King, 3rd governor of NSW; William after King William 4th who reigned between 1830 and 1837- the years of Melbourne’s white settlement; Queen after Queen Adelaide, William’s wife; Elizabeth after the wife of Governor Richard Bourke (contested); Swanston, Russell after Lord John Russell, then Home Secretary, Stephen after Sir James Stephen Permanent Under-secretary for the Colonies (later renamed Exhibition Street) and Spring for Thomas Spring-Rice, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1835-1839]

I hear with my little ear: 1- 7 October 2018

Russia if you’re listening (ABC) Another Trumpdate- this time “Why Brett Kavanaugh matters to the Russia Investigation”

Mr Deakin – Judith Brett. Here historian Judith Brett discusses her book ‘The Enigmatic Mr Deakin’ with Kerryn Goldsworthy at the Adelaide Festival. Available on Soundcloud here for streaming but not download. It goes for nearly an hour, so it’s an expansive interview. What a fantastic resource the Adelaide Writers Week Soundcloud account is:-they’re all there!

News in Slow Spanish Latino Episode #277. I really enjoyed the segment about Spanish words for which there are no direct translations.  Like anteayer – the day before yesterday. Or friolentos– people who always feel cold. Or desvelarse when you’ve become over-tired and then you’re wide awake.  Or sobremesa which means the talking around the table after the meal has finished.  They didn’t mention this one, but I like it: consuegra– the mother-in-law of my child.

Revolutions Podcast 9.06 The Presidential Succession of 1910 Portfirio Diaz said that he welcomed a contested election but he was just joking.  9.07 Morelos looks at the province of what was to become Morelos as a microcosm of Mexican history so far, and introduces Emiliano Zapata (and his mustache)

History Week 2018: Melbourne Footballers and the Great Depression

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Remember the three old blokes who sat on the bar stools in the Prince of Prussia in the Jack Irish books and television series? They’d sit there, mentally replaying and commentating football matches concluded decades ago, yarning about footballers long gone with names like “Chicken Smallhorn” and “Captain Blood”.  I must confess that I felt a little bit as if I were sitting on the middle stool in this presentation by Timothy Lambert at Ivanhoe Library today.  But there were plenty in the audience who were  obviously just as familiar with statistics and personalities from Melbourne footy history.

Lambert took his time frame from 1929 to 1939, at a time when Richmond, Collingwood and South Melbourne dominated the VFL competition, while Hawthorn and North Melbourne almost folded. At a time of high unemployment, VFL Firsts players received £2 per match, although the seconds  didn’t receive any payment at all. As a result, there was huge competition within a team to be selected to play.  Under the Coulter Law, passed in 1930, no player could receive more than three pounds per match, but the wealthier clubs found ways to get around this e.g. John Wren’s famous ‘five pound’ handshake for the Collingwood boys after a match, or enticing players with the prospect of secure employment as South Melbourne president Archie Croft was able to do through his chain of grocery stores. He also lured so many interstate players that South Melbourne would be dubbed “The Foreign Legion”, with so many from Western Australia that it was suggested that they should be known as “The Swans”. The name stuck.

Lambert also emphasized that the VFL and the VFA were still direct competitors at this time, with both League and Association games played on a Saturday afternoon, and with the VFA untrammeled in how much they could offer a player.  Although this might suggest that the VFA would have been stronger, it was common for a player to play in the league for several years until they were picked up by a country club as a player/coach where he could earn £10 a game.

Football was tremendously popular during the Depression. Entry was 6d. It has been estimated that during the Depression years, 1:10 Melburnians attended a football match on any given Saturday.  In spite of 2018’s turnouts of more than 300,000 to a round, the ratio to population today would not be anything like that.

So all in all, a real session for footy tragics!

A day trip to …Ormond

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To be honest, I wasn’t really quite sure where Ormond is. Having now visited it to see Box Cottage, which was open for History Week, I can now tell you that it’s on the Frankston train line.  Ormond station has been rebuilt as part of the Level Crossing Removal Project and looks quite a lot like Rosanna station except that it is below street level and Rosanna is high above it. I guess that there will be a legacy of these concrete and stainless steel stations, with their orange and limegreen geometric ‘decorations’.

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North Road Ormond is rather unprepossessing.

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We had lunch at Mountains of Bears, and it was excellent. It’s located down a little 1950s arcade with tables outside in the arcade, as well as in the cafe. We had an excellent paella- better than I had in Spain and much closer to home. They took a great deal of care with their coffee art.

We had ventured down to Ormond to visit Box Cottage Museum, which houses the City of Moorabin Historical Society.  The cottage has been reconstructed after falling into disrepair on the adjoining block. Another house had been built in front of it, and so it stayed at the back, used as a shed in what had by 1970 become a timber yard.  The timber yard owner, Mr Lewis suggested that the cottage be dismantled and relocated. It was reconstructed in the adjacent park as part of Victoria’s bicentenary, with timbers donated by Mr Lewis.

The original owners were William and Elizabeth Box, who arrived in Melbourne in 1855. At first they leased market garden allotments before they purchased two ten acre lots on what had been the Dendy Special Survey in 1868 and 1869. The cottage was built sometime in the 1850s.  They were successful market gardeners and raised 13 children in the cottage before building the larger house at the front.  From 1917-1970 it was occupied by the Reitman family who leased and then purchased the houses and land. August Reitman was a monumental mason, potter and sculptor, and was employed to carve war memorials in Victoria after WWI. His business shifted to Highett and the cottage was used as a workshop.

There is also an outside barn area with agricultural and household artefacts, including an original wagon that took vegetables from the market gardens to Melbourne. Because of the sandy road, a sort of tram line was built into the roads to assist the wheels on heavily laden drays.

Box Cottage was open today for History Week, but it generally opens on the last Sunday of the month between February and November between 2.00 and 4.00 p.m.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Outsiders to….

I did this last month and enjoyed it, so I’ll do it again! See the ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ meme over at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest. This month we start off with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I’ve never read it and I confess that I had to look it up on Wikipedia to see what it was about. I knew that it was ‘young adult’, but I thought it was science-fiction. It’s not- instead it’s about gangs in 1960s Oklahoma.

larrikinsAh! they’re a gang of larrikins – such a beautifully Australian word!- which is explored in Melissa Bellanta’s history Larrikins: A History. Bellanta’s book takes larrikins like Steve Irwin, the forgettable (and best forgotten) Corey Worthington, the Beaconsfield miners and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and explores the concept of the larrikin throughout Australia’s history.

hazelBob Hawke was a bit of a larrikin, and played up to the image. His America’s Cup jacket and white bathrobe were a bit cringe-inducing, but many Australians had a soft spot for his wife, Hazel. She was a dignified Prime Minister’s wife, especially after he left her for a younger woman, and she was courageous in her openness about her battle with Alzheimer’s (or ‘The Big A’ as she called it), documented in her daughter Sue Pieters-Hawke’s book Hazel’s Journey.

russell_franklinBefore there were Australian Prime Ministers, there were Governors, and Lady Jane Franklin was the wife of Governor Sir John Franklin in Van Diemen’s Land in the late 1830s and 1840s, before he sailed off into the Arctic in the Erebus, never to be seen again. On a much smaller scale, Jane Franklin was pretty intrepid too, traveling alone to Port Phillip and Sydney, and in An Errant Lady, historian Penny Russell presents Jane Franklin’s diaries.

wantingJane Franklin has spawned a number of biographies and has been incorporated into fiction as well, most recently in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting where Flanagan draws together a whole cast of mid-century ‘historical’ characters – Charles Dickens, Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin, George Augustus Robinson, Wilkie Collins – into the fictionalized rendering of the true-life story of the young Aboriginal girl Mathinna in Van Diemen’s Land.

shakespearePeripatetic English author Nicholas Shakespeare was not born in Tasmania, but felt drawn to it by its beauty, only to find that he had family connections there as well: Army officer and merchant Anthony Fenn Kemp and Petre Hordern, a failed alcoholic from a wealthy family, who submerged himself in the bush and dragged his family into poverty. In his book In Tasmania, he uses these two characters as bookends to explore a narrative of Tasmania.

lakeshorelimitedAnd with a surname like ‘Shakespeare’, of course one thinks of plays – especially ‘Hamlet’.  The play-within-a-play is a motif that Sue Miller, whose books I’ve been reading for decades, uses in her The Lake Shore Limited, set in Boston. Not quite Oklahoma where I began, but a round trip from America to Australia and back again.

‘From Strength to Strength’ by Sara Henderson.

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1993, 337P.

This book made me break two of my maxims. The first is that book-group selections must always be finished. My second is that if I find a book unreadable, I generally don’t blog about it at all.  In  this case, however, I found From Strength to Strength so enervating that I didn’t finish it even though it was a book-group selection. And as for the second, well, Sara Henderson has sold enough copies of this drivel that obviously other people found something in it, even though it completely eluded me. My little blog isn’t going to change that.

Born into a fairly affluent family, Sara had dreams of being a world-class tennis player. An accident which left her with serious injuries, put an end to that. She was swept off her feet by an American ex-serviceman, who spirited her away on his yacht. Always a womanizer with big dreams but poor follow-through, her husband Charles brought her and their young daughters to Bullo River Cattle Station in outback Northern Territory, where they lived in a tin shed for years. After multiple affairs, they separated although she nursed him when he was gravely ill, only to find herself a widow with a huge debt for the station. She and her daughters turned the station around economically, and she was proclaimed Telstra Businesswoman of the year in 1991.

The book started relatively well, where the author admits that this is the second version of her memoir, having decided after finishing the first draft that she does have to tell the truth about her no-good, womanizing, irresponsible husband Charlie. But I soon realized that her commentary – it is too kind to call them ‘reflections’- on her husband became engulfed by a tsunami of anecdotes, all told in the chatty, light tone of a Christmas-letter. The cliches and minutiae mounted; important events (like, say, the birth of her children) happened almost in passing, and it was not hard to discern that this book is a completely self-serving endeavour.

And not just this book either. She went on to write another five books. Her daughters, with whom she fell out at different times, wrote their own books, challenging their mother’s narrative.  Suffice to say, I am not tempted to read any more.

My rating: 2/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup.

‘Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia’ by Billy Griffiths

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2018, 296 p. & notes

For me, one of the signs of having read a really good history is that on finishing reading, suddenly the themes explored in the book seem to pop up everywhere. This is the way I felt after finishing Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming. I pricked up my ears at the the news of the nomination of the Barrup Peninsula for world heritage listing, and it seems that I’ve had several little prods over the last couple of days that have brought Deep Time Dreaming to mind. It imbues the Uluru Statement from the Heart with new meaning.

The book has attracted a lot of attention from historians I admire, but it wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. I expected an archaeologist’s account of pre-settlement Australia, but  Griffiths is not indigenous, nor is he an archaeologist but a historian writing about archaeologists.  I wondered a little at his choice of title, but it was quite intentional and double-barrelled:

The Dreaming describes a varied, contoured and continually transforming tradition. But here I draw upon the word’s more common, vernacular meaning: the archaeologists in this book imaginatively inhabit the deep past; they dream of deep time. The Australian public, with their seemingly insatiable thirst for old sites, are also deep time dreamers….The revelation at the heart of Australian archaeology, as this book demonstrates, is that Indigenous history is ancient, various and ever-changing. (p. 8-9)

This book is not a history of Australia, but is instead a history of the archaeology discipline as practised in Australia, written from an outsider’s perspective, “from the fringes, steeped in the neighbouring discipline of history”.(p.4)  Moving chronologically, each chapter is devoted to a particular archaeologist (Mulvaney, Bowler, Rhys Jones), or an archaeological dig that moved out of academe into the wider politics of Australia (e.g. the Franklin River, Lake Mungo). The book documents the recognition of an ever increasing span of indigenous habitation in Australia, from 5000 years to 40,000 and now pushing 60,000. It reflects the interest in ‘deep time’, and the question of human activity in a starkly changing climate.

In Australia, over the past sixty years, we have had our own time revolution. The human history of Australia is now understood to have spanned three geological epochs: the Pleistocene, the vast period of recurring glaciations in which Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa and began to spread around the world; the Holocene, the most recent interglacial or warm period that began some 11,700 years ago; and the proposed ‘Anthropocene’, beginning around 1800, marking the era in which human activity became the dominant influence on climate and the environment. When people discovered geological time, they were themselves becoming a geological force. (p. 5)

His survey approach, moving across the work of multiple archaeologists and sites, throws up several themes.  First, it illustrates the change from the ‘cowboy-dig-it-up’ method, where archaeologists scooped up the surface to extract and spirit away the largest artefacts, to new recording and dating methods including stratigraphy, carbon and luminescence dating, and integration with written and oral history sources.  Some of these methods came from the increasing academic training, most particularly from Cambridge, which in turn influenced Australian universities when they began offering courses in archaeology.  Other methodologies emerged from the disposition and values of individual archaeologists, most particularly female archaeologists, who are well-represented in this book.  Some of the archaeologists are Australian-born, while others are from Britain and America, signposting the increasing importance of Australian sites as part of the world-wide question of early man’s mobility and settlement patterns.

Second, the book highlights the way that archaeology fed into wider political debates. Rhys Jones, for example, felt the backlash from the resurgent Tasmanian Aboriginal Community for his involvement in the film The Last Tasmanian, and from other archaeologists over his claim that Tasmanian isolation led to cultural degeneration.  In the political arena, the discovery of archaeological remains was fundamental to saving the Franklin River from being dammed, and in the declaration of Kakadu National Park.

Third, and most importantly, the book documents the increasing recognition of Australia’s first people as a living culture, that has given indigenous people a claim on archaeology, challenging the authority and proprietorship of the profession.  Some archaeologists became gradually aware of a stiffening of attitude, others  learned the hard way, as they were excluded from further excavation for years. In this regard, I’m surprised that there is no little representation of indigenous people as archaeologists in their own right in this book, even though it is often mentioned that they are working as archaeology students themselves, or alongside European Australian archaeologists. The indigenous voice ‘informs’, but it is not considered in the same professional frame. What is unmistakable is that the era of the white academic archaeologist sweeping in, digging up, and moving on is over.

This is a beautifully written book. Each chapter starts with an engaging anecdote, making you feel as if you’re starting with a clean slate each time, although the connections soon become apparent.  The narrative is broken up with three ‘interludes’ that place archaeology within the broader political and professional context. At heart, his argument is that archaeology is a human endeavour, and this humanity shines through. It’s an excellent and important book.

My rating: 10?/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.