Thursday, April 16, 2015

New England prehistory: creating synthesis in the face of destruction

Seelands 65 or 66_thumb[4]

This is a photo of Belshaw asleep on the job. It's taken a long time ago. I still have hair! It's taken during a break on one of the digs at the Seelands rock shelter near the Clarence River.

Trying to get back on track with my history of New England, I have focused over the last two weeks on the first chapter in the Aboriginal section, Prehistoric New England. This focuses primarily on the archaeological material. The next chapter, New England on the Dawn of Invasion, focuses on the ethnohistorical material backed by the archaeological analysis. I am probably quite close to being an expert now. Certainly I have enough material to tell a coherent story that you won’t have heard before. But I am also sad.

Go back to the explosion of interest in Aboriginal history and culture during the 1960s. It was an exciting time. Then, somehow, things seemed to collapse. I actually have to research and write this properly, for it’s part of my story. But let me give it to you as it seems now, raw, unvarnished and unbalanced.

Start with Aboriginal languages. In 1967, there were still original speakers of many New England languages, many old. A conference held at the height of the enthusiasm concluded that we must record this material  before it is too late. Then nothing happened. By the time interest resurfaced, much had been lost.

Now go to archaeology. The last synthesis of New England prehistory was published in, I think, 1974. Today outside digs and survey missions associated with development proposals, there appear to be fewer people working on the archaeology of Northern New South Wales, or indeed Australia in general, than there were in the 1960s or early 1970s.

What went wrong? I think, I stand to be corrected, that the whole area got hijacked. In the 1970s, the fashion became black-white contact history. You simply couldn’t get money nor was their interest in documenting Aboriginal languages as compared to other topics.

In archaeology, the focus was dominated by Aboriginal self-determination and heritage protection. It became harder and harder to undertake archaeological work. So from the viewpoint of archaeologists and their students, why bother when it was just so much easier (and rewarding) to dig in Greece or Egypt?  At the same time in Northern NSW, the sea change urban phenomenon was happening, wiping sites out. Yes. there was increased protection, but it was too lagged and too late.

The losers in all this? The Aboriginal people. Yes, it’s partly their own fault. Their obsession with self-determination and with the preservation of uncertain perceived cultural values blocked work that would have given them the story of their past that they really wanted. But it still makes me sad.

I know that Aboriginal people want to know about their past, I can tell them part of the story. But sadly, both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities  have blown the chance to extend the story in the way that seemed possible in the 1960s and 1970s.

Switching from the glass half empty to that half full. Sitting here in the early morning hours looking at carbon dates against a backdrop of climatic change including huge shifts in sea levels, I can see a pattern that explains variances in dates. There is still enough to write a synthesis for further test.                    


Noric Dilanchian said...

Superb photo.

Jim Belshaw said...

Looking at it made me feel quite ancient, Noric. Perhaps I am!