This thesis charts the development of the modern discipline of Aboriginal archaeology and the shifting cultural and political climate in which it has emerged. It is a history of the people, places and ideas that have shaped our understanding of ancient Australia. Each chapter explores an individual’s relationship with an archaeological site or region, beginning with John Mulvaney’s excavation at Fromm’s Landing (Tungawa) and Isabel McBryde’s field surveys across New England. These interwoven portraits reveal the changes within the discipline from the 1950s through to the era of the Mabo and Wik decisions of 1992 and 1996. They also offer an episodic view of how archaeological insights have filtered into the public sphere.
The chapters explore the controversy that engulfed Rhys Jones with the release of the film The Last Tasmanian and the tragic repercussions of Richard and Betsy Gould’s ethno-archaeological work in the Western Desert. They reflect on the place of the Willandra Lakes, Arnhem Land and the Franklin River in the national imagination and the powerful roles played by Aboriginal leaders such as Alice Kelly, Frank Gurrmanamana and Rosalind Langford in shaping research in these regions. The chapters also address the early history of rock art research in Australia, debates about social change over millennia and the discovery of Pleistocene dates for colonisation. Interspersed throughout are short ‘interludes’ that analyse the institutional development of the discipline and the rise of the parallel field of Aboriginal history.
Although influenced by international ideas, Australian archaeology is distinctive for its close engagement with the culture and politics of the first Australians and their histories of invasion, dispossession, adaptation and self-determination. This thesis argues that the richness of Indigenous history is to be found not only in its depth, but also in its dynamism and diversity over time. It makes the case for the immense archaeological story that has been uncovered and interpreted over the past sixty years to be recognised as the opening chapters of Australian history.