The TAG Antiquity Lecture 2014

Undisciplined realities: mutually informed uses of ethnography, history, and archaeology

A plenary in two parts


Over the past two decades interdisciplinarity and cross-disciplinary collaborations have been favoured by research funding agencies around the world. Putting together otherwise disparate intellectual pursuits and scholars is thought to enrich the process and produce results that extend understandings beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries. In contrast to anthropology and history, archaeology has always been an interdisciplinary process. Yet contemporary archaeological and historical narratives about the past are by their very nature composed of and reliant upon analogies and comparisons. The past is a series of taxonomies, categories, and intellectual constructs that jostle for position in our analyses. In archaeology this jostling has been expressed through the use of ethnography and history and engagement of anthropologists and historians. In this session we will explore the interplay and mutual dependence of ethnography, history and archaeology as it is practiced in settler-colonial societies. Taking two very different but ultimately sympathetic approaches we will attempt to unravel a series of cross-disciplinary intellectual straightjackets and divides. In particular we will be asking: How do we come to know and understand the past? How do we explore cultural difference in the past? Does interdisplinarity promote new understandings of the past?

Paper 1

‘Mind forg’d manacles’: how can we think our way out of the conceptual straightjacket?

Lynette Russell

ABSTRACT. In his quintessential poem London William Blake wrote of the ultimate urban world where the streets and the river, the very geographic spaces are ‘charter’d’, mapped and legal. On these mapped and constrained streets, Blake implied we run the risk of ‘mind forg’d manacles’. In this paper I consider two ways that the categories of analysis can indeed manacle our interpretations. My examples are the result of Aboriginal/European engagement and contact in Australia.  While the setting might be specific, the findings have currency in many locales, periods and phases. In my recent work I am drawn to the intercultural spaces of camp sites and stations occupied by both Aboriginal people and European newcomers. These sites transcend easy categorisation. They are historical; and, as they once were occupied by Aboriginal people they are also Aboriginal, yet they are also archaeological. I will attempt to unravel the complex ways that these categories can play against one another and reveal these can be deeply productive. The second aspect that I will examine will be a series of objects/artefacts from the historic period which are not readily categorised into black or white; European or Aboriginal. These are forms of bricolage. Understanding the mechanisms by which these entered the Aboriginal context and considering the transformative processes these have undergone requires a confluence of disciplinary approaches. This is where history, archaeology and ethnography meet.

Lynette Russell is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow (2011–2016) and Director of the Monash Indigenous Centre (Archaeology, Anthropology and History). For 2012–13 she was Creative Fellow at the State Library of Victoria. She is widely published in the areas of history, post-colonialism, indigenous or native studies and representations of race. Her current work is in the area of anthropological and post-colonial history. She is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences of Australia and an elected fellow of both the Royal Anthropological Institute (London) and the Royal Historical Society (UK). She is currently vice president of the Australian History Association. In 2015 she will be visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. She has written, co-authored or edited ten monographs and numerous articles and book chapters. Her books include: Roving Mariners: Aboriginal whalers, in the southern oceans 1790–1870 (2012). Boundary writing: living across the boundaries of race, sex and gender (2006); Appropriated pasts: archaeology and Indigenous people in settler colonies (2005); A little bird told me (2002); Colonial frontiers: cross-cultural interactions in settler colonies (2001); and Savage imaginings: historical and contemporary representations of Australian Aboriginalities (2001).

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Paper 2

Dissolving divides: Indigenous archaeology and the quest for cultural and theoretical relevance

Ian J. McNiven

ABSTRACT. The past two decades have seen Indigenous archaeology formally coalesce as a distinctive archaeological practice. This practice emerged from a desire to make archaeology more culturally and epistemologically meaningful, interesting and relevant to Indigenous communities. Development of Indigenous archaeology has focused on laudable processes of collaborative research. Yet ensuing theoretical developments, while desired, remain minimally explored. This situation raises the question: does Indigenous archaeology have theoretical dimensions that extend beyond collaborative research processes? Furthermore, can Indigenous archaeology make theoretical contributions to better understand the past with broader application to the practice of archaeology? This paper addresses both these questions. I argue that theoretical development of Indigenous archaeology requires challenging a series of ontological and epistemological divides and dualisms within mainstream Western archaeology. To explore these challenges I focus on what I consider to be three key emerging theoretical domains of Indigenous archaeology. First, ‘encountering the past’ challenges objectivist tangibility of the archaeological record with ancestral presence and artefactual absence. Second, ‘historicising the present’ challenges secularist archaeologies of ancient difference with archaeologies of the more familiar recent past linked to identity and diachronic explorations of ontology and spiritualism. Third, ‘narrating the past’ challenges processual approaches to the past with humanised cultural histories, oral histories and multivocality. Meeting such theoretical challenges has the potential to alter the practice of mainstream archaeology such that the current distinctiveness of Indigenous archaeology dissolves.

Ian J. McNiven is Professor of Indigenous Archaeology at Monash Indigenous Centre, Monash University, Melbourne. He specialises in the archaeology of Australian Indigenous coastal societies, in particular the Queensland coast and the islands of Torres Strait. He has held academic positions at the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne, and has considerable private industry experience as a cultural heritage consultant. He has worked on numerous native title cases and was an expert witnessed for the Torres Strait sea claim. His research focuses on understanding the long-term development of specialised maritime societies with a focus on the archaeology of seascapes and ritual and spiritual relationships with the sea. Other research interests include the archaeology of the southern coast of New Guinea and ancient cultural connections with Torres Strait and northern Australia, the development of Aboriginal eel aquaculture facilities in western Victoria, and the colonial history of archaeology. In 2007–2009, he was President of the Australian Archaeological Association and is an elected Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries of London (since 2007) and the Australian Academy of the Humanities (since 2013). In addition to over 120 refereed papers and book chapters, his co-authored/edited books include Constructions of colonialism: perspectives on Eliza Fraser's shipwreck (1998); Australian coastal archaeology (1999); Torres Strait: archaeology & material culture (2004); Appropriated pasts: Indigenous peoples and the colonial culture of archaeology (2005); and The social archaeology of Indigenous societies (2006).

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