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


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.


One response to “‘Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia’ by Billy Griffiths

  1. This sounds like an important book, thanks for an informative review:)

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