Skip to content

Teaching Heritage

Board of Studies NSW

Dept House Banner
Contact Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size


excerpts from Denis Byrne’s article examining the ways archaeological traces can be obscured

Byrne, D. ‘The Archaeology of Disaster’, Public History Review, Vol 5/6, 1996-7

excerpt one

In Australia we have a landscape which is replete with traces of our relationship with Aborigines over the last two hundred years, including traces of impoverishment, massacres and institutionalisation. In a sense we look through or around this landscape in order to see instead an indigenous historical landscape populated with traces or sites of pre-contact 'authentic' Aboriginal presence. In this way the Australian historical landscape has come to be composed of Aboriginal rock art sites and ancient camping places littered with stone artefacts, and of old gold mines, historic wool sheds and convict-made roads…

excerpt two

In the forty years or so that archaeology has been practised professionally in Australia, comparatively little attention has been devoted to the record of post-1788 Aboriginal existence. This is reflected in the heritage inventories maintained by Federal and State agencies where pre-contact Aboriginal sites vastly outnumber post-contact sites. Whatever disciplinary fashions have produced this imbalance it is difficult to separate it from the larger European colonial project of possessing and reinscribing the Australian landscape. In quite a real sense the failure to acknowledge the imprint on the landscape of the post-1788 Aboriginal experience has created a vacuum which has been filled by a heroic settler heritage. And increasingly the pre-contact sites are appropriated as 'sacred sites' for a white culture which seeks to indigenise itself by discovering a spiritual affinity for the land, a form of white Dreaming.'

Effectively, by excluding those sites of contact and hybridity we have produced an Aboriginal heritage in which we see no reflection of ourselves. In reality the archaeological record of Aboriginal post-1788 existence reflects the flow of artefacts, thoughts, words and practices between Europeans and Aborigines. It speaks of cultures interacting and entangled with each other; it confronts us with our own image rather than with that of the pure and unalloyed Other. Settler society — with the assistance, it must be said, of heritage practitioners — has produced a construction of Aboriginal heritage in which Aboriginal sites with bottle glass and rusting bicycle parts or spent bullets from nineteenth-century guns, have tended to be inadmissible. Rather than sites of interaction, Aboriginal heritage inventories have come to contain tens of thousands of 'pure products' (such as rock art sites and stone artefact scatters, axe grinding grooves, shell middens and ancient burial grounds) which speak of a pure, authentic and, most importantly, always former Aboriginal presence. The European settler heritage record equally is a realm of pure products from which the Aboriginal element tends also to have been filtered out. An old country town police lockup will, for instance, be listed on a heritage register only for its significance as a European colonial site thus negating its significance as a place where Aboriginal men have died in custody.

This segregationist approach in heritage practice has to a large extent seen Aboriginal heritage and 'historic' (read, European) heritage quite neatly quarantined from each other into separate categories, attended to by different specialists often from different agencies. Because there is an existing colonial discourse which wants to understand cultural hybridity as symptomatic of a culture on the road to extinction (though the dominant, colonial culture never sees its own borrowings in this light) it is important – against this – to credit Aboriginal agency. Aboriginal people not only sampled settler culture and took an interest in new products and practices; they modified or recontextualised those elements of settler culture which they appropriated.

It is we, rather than Aboriginal people, who are obsessed with cultural borrowings. They, for their part, appear not to feel that this sort of hybridity threatens their Aboriginal identity. It is difficult not to suspect that the colonial reviling of cultural entanglement has more than a little to do with the nineteenth-century Western horror of (and fascination with) miscegenation and its 'un-natural' natural outcome – the mixed race. Thus there is something shameful or unfortunate about the presence in the landscape of the traces of 'mixed culture'. At one level these places/traces are subject to an obsessive interest by whites (as places of disorder, disease and lassitude); at the official 'heritage' level, they are treated as invisible. The forced dispersion of Aboriginal fringe communities by local authorities from the edge of one country town to another – which Peter Read has documented for New South Wales in the early to mid twentieth century – later had its counterpart in the exclusion of these communities from the pages of so many of the local history books. Another round of exclusions occurred when historical archaeologists began producing local heritage studies of these towns. Typically, the wool sheds and the old stone walls and churches went in and the fringe camps were left out.

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Denis Byrne.


Contact Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size