Tracy Ireland (University of Sydney, Australia)
This paper focuses on the archaeology of the recent, colonial past in Australia, a practice that is usually known as ‘historical archaeology’. The archaeology of indigenous people in Australia, prior to colonization, is generally known as ‘prehistory’. The archaeology of Aboriginal people in the colonial period is currently a burgeoning field of interest, but one that received (with some exceptions) little scholarly attention before the last decade of the twentieth century. These disciplinary divisions, and the concepts upon which they are based, are now generally considered to be a reflection of Australia’s colonial history and the inheritance of colonial traditions of science and history. In this paper I want to briefly consider the relationship between nationalism, heritage and historical archaeology in Australia, discussing cultural structures which are relevant to the relationships between these discourses, and some of the actual mechanisms which have entrenched colonialist intellectual traditions within Australian nationalism, and the history and archaeology which inter-relate with it.
I approach nationalism as a species of cultural identity, a species that is significant because it appears to be the modern world’s most pervasive and hegemonic form of cultural identification. Nationalism is a worldwide phenomenon, produced in endless variety through the interaction of global and local contingencies. Nation and national identity (although dynamic) are images which contribute to individual and community identity and which often lie unacknowledged, “always near the surface of everyday life” (Billig 1995). Such images have the effect of “structur(ing) what is thought”, which is to say they become a cognitive tool that may be used to understand and evaluate social experiences (Bourdieu 1992). The concept of habitus has been aptly applied to the daily enactments of national identity: “The habitus – embodied history, internalized as a second nature which people must acquire and so forgotten as history- is the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product”(Bourdieu 1990:56 and see Billig 1995:42).
In the construction of a vision for the future of the state in its world context, various aspects of identity and history are legitimized and emphasized as the basis for an imagined unity, while others are forgotten (Anderson 1983). As many of the theorists of nationalism have pointed out, history, archaeology and the popular narratives of deep time traditions and national development to which they contribute, are used as crucial cultural capital in the legitimization of political projects for the future (Gellner 1983; Hobsbawm 1990; Smith 1996). This is most easily observed in overt debates, such as Australia’s recent ‘history wars’, pitting the ‘black armbands’ against the ‘white blindfolds’ in the field of national parliament. However such positions are enabled through more subtle structures and discourses which are enacted daily, and which appear to be objective and natural concepts. The form of the narrative for instance, is a crucial structure through which nations imagine their progress, and which has led nation to act as telos in historical and sociological investigation.
My approach to nationalism contrasts with that of many recent critiques of identity discourse and archaeology, which have focused on nationalism as a political ideology (Kohl and Fawcett 1995, Atkinson, Banks et al. 1996, Diaz-Andreu and Champion 1996). This leads, in my view, to simplified descriptions of archaeology’s relationship to politics, rather than an understanding of how archaeology, nationalism, and other aspects of identity, interrelate more deeply at the level at which cultures constitute knowledge and structure cultural experience. I prefer to look at archaeology not as a discipline which may be impacted upon, to greater or lesser degrees, by influences outside the discipline, but as a practice embedded within culture. Although the late 1990s saw the publication of several major studies concerning archaeology and nationalism in different parts of the world, these focused on “abuses” of archaeology by fascist or oppressive regimes (such as National Socialism in Germany, Salazar in Portugal and experiences in parts of the USSR for instance). These dramatic examples seemed to have little relevance to Australia, where nationalism in the 20th century has generally been conceived of as quite underdeveloped and as still possessing some radical potential to build a more equitable social order (During 1990, McLachlan 1989, Turner 1994).
The 1990s also saw a great deal of critical attention paid to the role of colonialism in shaping the archaeology of indigenous people in Australia. In the context of local Aboriginal rights movements and international scholarship on the control of the past by dominant groups, leading to the disempowerment of others, archaeologists in Australia were addressing the contemporary cultural and political implications of their work. The history and intellectual genealogies of many aspects of archaeological practice were subjected to scrutiny – from the level of institutions and professionalization, to questioning disciplinary boundaries, and re-assessing epistemologies of objectivity (see for instance Byrne 1996, Colley 1996, Moser 1995, Murray 1992, Murray 1996). My personal involvement in historical archaeology and settler heritage management in the late 1980s and 1990s led me to believe that, while reflective and innovative in some ways, it was caught within a set of practices, institutions and philosophies that allowed no room for reflective readings of the national heritage. Entrenched practices had lead to a situation where heritage institutions not only represented Australia’s colonial past, but also reproduced it, perpetuating the meaning and power of colonialist myths in contemporary culture. It seemed to me that the intellectual inheritance of colonialism was as significant an issue for historical archaeology and heritage management as it was already perceived to be for prehistory. However, in this context, colonial thought and structures were embedded within the institutions of the nation and the discourse of Australian cultural nationalism, perhaps most obviously within the colourful rhetoric of national identity.
To investigate archaeology at the level of the cultural structures and discourses involved in its creation of knowledge requires commitment to an established (although not un-controversial) position, namely that archaeology is a practice that is not just related to its cultural context, but is co-determined through that context. To look at archaeology as a cultural practice, which can be analyzed as text and as discourse, means looking at what archaeologists do and how they organize their practice, as well as looking at the representations of the past they have produced, in terms of the cultural and political discourses and power relations they reflect. Deconstruction (the term which describes the analytical method just outlined) is primarily seen as a meaningful political gesture which should be an end in itself, and antithetical to the creation of alternative master narratives. However, deconstruction too often leads to a simplistic rejection of traditional subjects of study in preference for areas perceived as neglected. In Australian historical archaeology this can be seen in calls for the replacement of ‘colonial’ subjects with new approaches to environmental and culture contact research (Egloff 1994). While these areas undoubtedly warrant increased attention, it is not within a framework that ignores colonial and national contexts. To simply forget the history of colonialism, and the colonizers, might prove just as dangerous to our cultural future as we now perceive the forgetting of Aboriginal history to have been. It is my aim that this kind of analysis, just briefly introduced here, supports an imaginary process that goes beyond deconstruction: to assist archaeologists in thinking outside the intellectual and geographical boundaries of the nation; and to assist in constructive new readings of existing research, within an enhanced understanding of its cultural context .
Nationalism and National Identity in Australia
The settler makes history, his life is an epoch, an Odyssey. He is the absolute beginning, ‘This land is created by us’ (Fanon 1968).
A revival of popular and scholarly interest in all aspects of Australian history and culture in the 1970s saw the emergence of several, contested discourses concerning nation and identity. The reasons for this revival are complex, but events such as the withdrawal from the Vietnam War, the collapse of the White Australia Policy, and the 1973 commission to advise on Aboriginal land rights, all signal challenges to colonial order and structure in Australia. The election of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in 1972, with its reformist agenda, interest in Asia and focus on cultural development, saw many Australians believing they were on the verge of a new era. Australian society did not change overnight, but “the rhetoric of change” was certainly a feature of political discourse at that time (Alomes 1988:251).
The influence of postmodernist deconstruction saw intellectuals interested in breaking down the monolithic character of Australian national identity as it had been described throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and revealing the interests it had served over time (White 1981). In 1958 Russell Ward had distilled the myths of Australian national development into a “legend” created by a particular sort of man, the typical Australian:
he is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry any appearance of affectation in others. He is a great improviser, ever willing to have a go at anything, … He believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but, at least in principle, probably a good deal better… He is a fiercely independent person who hates officiousness and authority yet he is very hospitable and above all will stick to his mates through thick and thin… He swears hard and consistently, gambles heavily and often, and drinks deeply on occasion (Ward 1958:1-2).
Feminists sought not only to challenge such national identity constructions as masculinist, but also to secure women a role in nation building and greater power in contemporary social and political life (Dixson 1976, Summers 1975, Lake 1986; Lake 1992). Some feminists rejected the nation altogether as an “imagined fraternity”, urging women’s voices into a counter-nationalist, internationalist discourse (Reekie 1992). It is on issues of gender and sexuality that the nation has received its most thorough deconstruction in international and local scholarship, illuminating the way in which national identities construct gender roles and sexualities in relation to the imagined community. Anne McGrath has recently commented on the intersections between sexuality, gender and race in Australia. The exotic sexualization of Aboriginal women served, in Russell Ward’s view, to “keep the sodomy out of mateship” and while Black and White women are generally absent from constructions of national identity, McGrath notes that their historical characterization has been according to sexual stereotypes: either as “damned whores” or as “God’s police” (McGrath 1997).
The greatest challenge to the perceived legitimacy of the Australian nation came from Aboriginal rights movements. Aboriginal histories, published from the 1970s, have had an impact on the public consciousness that is growing annually, as more research and more popular accounts have a cumulative impact on community attitudes (see for instance Reynolds 1987). In 1992, the High Court of Australia’s Mabo Native Title decision provided the first legal basis for the recognition of prior ownership of Australian land by indigenous people. Colonization of the Australian continent had been founded on the doctrine of terra nullius, the legal description of the concept that the continent of Australia was vacant wilderness before the possession of the land by the British, based on the belief that Aborigines, as hunter-gatherers, did not improve the land and thus had no proprietorial rights to it. The idea of terra nullius is crucial to popular understandings of Australia as a nation of settlers rather than conquerors. Although no longer upheld by law, this concept remains deeply embedded within Australian culture, from beliefs about pioneers and settler identity, through to understandings of Australian “wilderness”.
As Aboriginal groups developed their own anti-colonial and sometimes anti-state nationalisms, an appropriative discourse of ‘indigenization’ also emerged in main stream nationalist discourse. This was most clearly seen in the cultural policy of the Keating Labor government (1991-96), which aimed to set a future agenda for Australian cultural institutions, including heritage management, by claiming that: “the culture and identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians has become an essential element of Australian identity, a vital expression of who we all are” (Commonwealth of Australia 1994:6). Like most identity constructs, this raises issues of essentialism, in this case the concept of the timeless, unchanging character of Aboriginal culture, profoundly linked with the land and particularly with remote, outback landscapes.
However, the Liberal and National parties on the conservative side of politics disassociate themselves from the postmodern deconstruction of identity, with John Howard, the current Prime Minister, maintaining that:
National identity develops in an organic way over time…social engineers should not try to manipulate it or create a sense of crisis about identity.
It (Australian history) risks being further distorted if highly selective views of Australian history are used as the basis for endless and agonised navel gazing about who we are or, …. as part of a perpetual seminar for elite opinion about our national identity (Howard1996:13).
New understandings of the past (in this case the formal recognition of Aboriginal dispossession and colonial violence) obviously challenge the self-perceptions of individuals who locate their values and identity in that past. More conservative intellectuals, politicians and the media have participated in the Australian cultural revival in a way that is significantly different from postmodern and critical scholars: through the celebration of Australian achievements. This celebratory discourse can be found in many arenas, but particularly in advertising, political rhetoric, and national celebrations (Turner 1994). A distinctive form is found in the heritage industry, which received a huge boost in terms of funds and personnel in the 1980s, leading up to Bicentennial celebrations of 1988. In a similar way, environmental conservation movements embarked upon celebrations of Australian biodiversity with nationalistic fervour (Morton and Smith 1999).
The perceived success of multiculturalism as a social policy, and the Mabo Native Title decision of 1992, led some to state that Australia was finally entering a post-colonial, and even a post-nationalist era. However the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, as well as Prime Minister John Howard’s criticism of “black armband” or revisionist history, have lead others to the conclusion that that particular celebration was premature (see Castles, Kalantzis et al. 1988 and Gelder and Jacobs 1998, and contra see Curthoys 1999a; Curthoys 1999b, Hage 1998, Rose 1996). Despite several decades of critical research and revisionist history, it appears that traditional national stereotypes continue to be enthusiastically regenerated. The Australian bushman, for instance, described in the quote from Russell Ward above and idealized by the poet Henry Lawson, is still associated with not only modern-day bushmen like Crocodile Dundee, but also, in the economics-saturated 1980s, with the larrikin ‘corporate raider’, Alan Bond (Turner 1994:26). Libby Robin has also convincingly argued that the wholesome dream of rural life created by Lawson and other nationalist writers of the 1890s has been regenerated in contemporary society in the guise of the spiritually restorative “wilderness”, which all Australians need to connect with to really belong (Robin 1998).
It is into this fragmented field of debate about the nation, identity and Australia’s past that this analysis of historical archaeology, heritage and nationalism must venture. It is obvious therefore that nationalist discourse has not only changed enormously in the period in which historical archaeology has been practiced (basically from the1960s to the present), but also that representations of the past have played a crucial role in it. There are also competing versions of Australian nationalism, expressed by conservatives, left-wingers, feminists, Aborigines, multiculturalists, monarchists and republicans, to name just the most obvious. Richard White has recently claimed that for many Australian intellectuals, culture has been explicable only in national terms: that in Australia, culture is synonymous with national culture (White 1998:16). It is indeed difficult to think outside this elision of nation, culture and history in Australia, partly because of the clarity and “naturalness” of the national geographical boundaries. The continent-nation, which in recent nationalistic rhetoric imagines its roots in deep antiquity and claims Aboriginal people as the first “Australians”, appears to be a natural, self-evident boundary (Byrne 1996). However, the political history of that national boundary shows that it has been created, just as the highly contested national boundaries of Europe and the Levant have been created (Crowley 1974:48, White 1998). Revisionist Australian history has shown that what the nation has imagined itself to be at various times, did little to reflect the sum of experiences, identities and histories of the people encompassed by the political construct of the nation state (see for instance Dixson 1976, McQueen 1970; Summers 1975, White 1981, Lake 1986; Lake 1992, Curthoys 1993a, Curthoys 1993b; Curthoys 1997, Reynolds 1987). To write the fullest history of what has gone on in this place, the geographical space called Australia, White suggests historians write against the concept of national history which takes the nation not only as its subject of analysis, but also its teleological dynamic.
Colonialism and Race
If a decolorizing process can be seen to have begun in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, then the perpetuation and regeneration of the images of colonial nationalism gives some credence to Anthony D. Smith’s argument for nationalism’s tendency to re-invent, rather than create anew (Smith 1986). However, rather than seeing ethnicity as the essential cultural basis for nationalism, as Smith does, we are more accustomed in Australia to the use of the term ‘race’. Despite Prime Minister John Howard’s rejection of the opinion that we (Australians) have a “racist, bigoted past”, nothing in fact could be clearer (Curthoys 1999a). Colonial ideologies are based upon an understanding of racial superiority. This belief both enables the possession of land occupied by so-called ‘primitives’, and also compels the progressive, modernizing mission of the colonialist (Attwood 1996). The ebullient, nationalistic rhetoric of the 1890s and the period of Federation (1901) clearly establishes national unity on the basis of race, defined as essentially White and British . One of the first acts of the newly-federated nation in 1901 was to pass legislation that was the basis for the White Australia Policy (an immigration policy aimed at keeping Asians and other “non-White” cultures from settling in Australia) which persisted until 1966 (Curthoys 1999b). While nationalism in 19th and 20th century Australia may have often been anti-imperial, it has rarely been anti-colonial, and this is why the Mabo Native Title decision has been construed by a range of intellectuals as the most significantly anti-colonial event in the history of the nation.
In forming the settler nation colonial control was transferred from the founding metropolitan country (Britain) to the colony itself, the settler group therefore became both colonizer and colonized. The settler nation only exists through colonialism, involving, as it must, facts of dispossession and ideologies of racial superiority. However, the settler’s internal imperial cultural geography insists that psychologically, they remain in a position of inferiority and exile, somewhere “Down Under” or as Paul Keating put it, “at the arse-end of the universe” (Rose 1996, Gibson 1992). Recent engagement with the historic facts of colonialism has undoubtedly eroded the moral authority of the traditional narratives of colonial nationalism (Rose 1996). However, I would agree with Deborah Rose’s caution that it is premature to apply the term postcolonial to present-day Australian society: “ to contend that we are somehow postcolonial obscures that we live in a world that is so effectively colonized that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. Here the culture and practice of conquest … is so deeply embedded in our social consciousness and so institutionalized in political and bureaucratic practices, that it is almost unnoticed” (Bird Rose 1996:209).
Colonial nationalism in Australia has been characterized by an ambivalent, but all consuming concern with identity. Miriam Dixson (1976, 1999) construes the British “thread of kinship” as the expression of the Anglo-Celtic ethnicity which has formed the core of the national community and its institutions. However I would question the reality of a strongly-perceived, shared ethnicity amongst the White settler group as a whole, at any period in the history of the Australian nation. Identification as British, and as a part of a great empire, was obviously a convenient basis upon which to define the identity of Australians at the time of Federation. However, even though predominantly from Britain and Ireland, it would be a mistake not to recognize the settler group as ethnically, religiously and politically diverse in the 19th and early 20th century (Melleuish 1998:10). If a concept of “ethnicity” was not shared, then the events of the First World War indicate that the “imagined community” for White Australia was the British Empire. The Great War was followed by an upsurge of imperial feeling and allegiance to Britain, which seems to have had the effect of blurring the memory of the ethnic diversity of the 19th century settler population (Docker 1992). Indeed, Ghassan Hage has argued that in contemporary multicultural discourse, ethnicity is ascribed only to minorities, while the White, mainstream cultural identity is completely nationalized (Hage 1998). Hage’s recent study of racism in Australia describes racism as a nationalist practice, enabled through deep-seated colonialist ideologies. Ann Curthoys has been quick to point out that Australian multicultural discourse has also perpetuated colonial ideologies, and that all Australian immigrants are the “beneficiaries of a colonial history” (Curthoys 1999b:288). She also points to the problems of a dehistoricized multicultural discourse that casts indigenous claims for land as just another problem of cultural diversity.
As opposed to Dixson’s core-ethnicity theory, Davison suggests that it is ambivalence and confusion about a core culture which leads to Australian nationalism being so focussed on the land, and to the expressions of national “character” being seen as a product of the Australian environment (Davison 1978 and see Ireland, in press). The construct of the Australian environment as hostile, and as the opponent in the battle to establish the nation, still persists as a fundamental tension in Australian society (Gibson 1993, Griffiths and Robin 1997, Lattas 1990). This idea contributes structure and rationale to the Australian mythologies of pioneers and explorers. In seeing the settlers as alienated from the Australian environment, a prime conceptual site for the construction of national identity is created (Lattas 1990). Traditionally in the national “canon”, Aborigines are either absent, as in the genre of national history before the 1960s, or have been seen as part of that environment. This construct is clearly founded in colonial ideologies which not only establish the racial superiority of the colonist, but also commodify the land, as a source of desire, as a virgin to be seduced and tamed (Schaffer 1988).
Historical Archaeology and Heritage
Much Australian literature concerns the theme that settlers could see no trace of the past or of history in the Australian landscape and their response was to look to their shared experiences of pioneering hardships and fear, to form a community identity. This theme has particular resonances for our consideration of historical archaeology, heritage and national identity. It expresses the importance of shared memories to communities and how these memories might be experienced within the context of a cultural landscape. It also hints at why many Australians, particularly rural Australians, cannot see themselves as the beneficiaries of colonialism, because they see themselves historically as victims. Victims in the battle against the harsh environment, unsympathetic governments, falling commodity prices and rising interest rates.
In the 1970s the Australian settler community began to formalize the curation of the physical sites of shared memory, or heritage, in a new way. Historical archaeology, as a practice which studies the physical remains of Australia’s history, cannot be considered in isolation from the processes which resulted in the attribution of value to the material remains of the national past. Its emergence as a field of interest in the 1960s and 1970s can be historically located within the national revival of interest in Australian history, literature, art and material culture, which I have referred to above (Bennett 1993:236). This in turn was linked to local and international conservation and environmental movements and the bolstering of national and regional identities in the face of perceived cultural globalization. The environmental movement which emerged in Australia in the 1960s has been described as “a fusion of romanticism, nationalism and science, but … also an attempt to reject colonialism” (Morton and Smith 1999:172). Although today environmental conservation and settler heritage movements have many tensions and divergent aims, their roots in essentially nationalistic concerns seem to be clear. The idea that landscape and settler identity are linked has been accepted as a fact within environmental and heritage conservation movements: as a taken-for-granted, spiritual association, rather than a historically-constructed idea. It is also significant that in Australian conservation legislation, heritage is often termed environmental heritage (as in the NSW Heritage Act, 1977) and is constituted in legislation as a part of the environment. This implies that heritage, like biodiversity, exists independently of human thought and is not ideologically constructed. Hence cultural resource management has concentrated on developing empirical methodologies to “discover” heritage and organize it into taxonomies of relative value, rather than approaching it as culturally constructed or examining the role it plays in community life.
The ethnographic and archaeological interest in Aboriginal cultural heritage has a very different history, which is beyond the scope of this paper. It is important to note, however, that this interest developed out of 18th and 19th century interest in the natural history of Australia, in Enlightenment concepts of evolution and amateur traditions of collecting and antiquarianism. Historical archaeology, although now linked to Australian prehistory institutionally and methodologically, draws its concepts of value and significance from a process which historicized the settler nation and constructed ideas of national heritage and identity. This is not to say that, as a practice, historical archaeology has not absorbed ways of constructing meaning and attributing value from other fields of discourse: it is obvious that it has. However, the idea that the material remains of the recent past are worth studying at all is one which has been established within the community predominantly through the discourse of national heritage and identity, rather than through discourses concerned with the universal value of knowledge, such as history, science and archaeology in general.
Griffiths and Davison argue that what was new about the heritage movement of the 1960s and 70s was not its nationalistic focus, as heritage and nationalism can be seen as strongly linked in the 19th century, but the redefinition of heritage as a material rather than a spiritual concept (Davison 1991:3; Griffiths 1996:195). The idea of a material heritage, and its accompanying concepts of collecting, curation and conservation, gave archaeological methodologies an obvious role in the newly-defined heritage movement. Griffiths has shown that an archaeological sense of the past, a belief that scientific methodologies may be used to recover material remnants and decode their meaning, is integral to the nature of the modern preservation movement (Griffiths 1996:196). This linking of materiality with heritage ensured archaeology as a practice became more deeply involved in the discourse of heritage, and of course in the doing of heritage management work, than was the case with the related disciplines of history and anthropology (Byrne 1996:101). Archaeologists such as Jim Allen, Judy Birmingham, Anne Bickford, Isabel McBryde, and John Mulvaney, who were specifically concerned with the potential of the new field of historical archaeology, also played a significant role in the formative history of the Australian Heritage Commission, the national body responsible for heritage administration since 1974. They ensured that historical archaeology defined a strong niche as a discipline responsible for an important component of the nation’s heritage (Bonyhady and Griffiths 1996:9).
Historical archaeology in Australia still possesses only a limited (although growing) base in universities and receives relatively little funding from the Australian institutions which traditionally fund research in Old World archaeology or prehistory (Egloff 1994). Alternatively, most historical archaeological work is funded through private clients complying with cultural resource management requirements embodied in legislation, which varies from state to state (Connah 1998:3; Colley 1996). Thus historical archaeological research proceeds within a framework where virtually all research must justify itself in terms of its ability to address issues of importance to national cultural life. This in itself need not, and of course in many cases has not, prohibited creative responses to archaeological research issues. However, this has tended to link historical archaeological research to a framework of national history which has traditionally supported dominant identity constructions and which reflects colonialist myths about the nature of the land and men’s relationship to it (Ireland 1996:92). A further point is that although these ideas have been deconstructed and critiqued, heritage is institutionalized as a national bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is resistant to change on the broad scale: individual bureaucrats, with a charter of ensuring legislative compliance, create management systems based on an analysis of issues, but if these issues change, the system tends to obscure it by constraining and contriving input to fit its structure.
As I have mentioned, historical archaeology began to be practiced in the late 1960s by archaeologists interested in both the research potential and field-training possibilities of Australian historic sites (Temple 1988:57, Jack 1985:156). I have argued that such interest developed in the context of international preservation movements, local conservation and environmental interests, as well as a nationalistic renewal of interest in Australian history, literature, art and culture (Bennett 1993:236). Early examples of historical archaeological research in Australia express great confidence in the ability of the material remains of the colonial past to contribute to Australian history and an understanding of Australian (settler) identity, through archaeological analysis (see for instance Allen 1973; Bickford 1981; Birmingham and Jeans 1983). Such studies were equally concerned however, with the disappearance of this material evidence and the landscapes of the colonial period. Hence, while the earliest historical archaeological exercises were based on excavation, the 1970s saw a concentration on survey and inventory. This work was spurred on by the creation of the Australian Heritage Commission in 1975, and its associated funding programs, and also drew on the already extensive activities of groups such as the prolific NSW National Trust’s Industrial Archaeology Committee.
The implications of the nature of this practice for the theoretical development and institutional support of Australian historical archaeology were discussed in 1986 by Murray and Allen, who claimed that conservation philosophy not only formed the greater part of historical archaeology’s theoretical foundations, but was also responsible for its failure to develop an internally logical theoretical framework beyond the requirements of a conservation ethic (Murray 1986). Whereas management of settler culture heritage was based upon a more or less explicit understanding of historical significance, archaeological significance remained a strangely unexplored category. Murray and Allen claimed that this was caused by four interrelated factors. First, very small numbers of researchers were employed full time in historical archaeology, especially as academics. Second, there was an acceptance within the discipline that preservation was both the main justification for, and activity of, the discipline. Third, the discipline had such a short history that its identity was unformed, and fourth, it was not supported by any intellectual tradition, such as antiquarianism, as was prehistory. The central argument here, that there is a circular preservationist justification for historical archaeology, remains an important problem for historical archaeology as we enter the new millennium. A large part of the reason for this is that within the nationally-accepted framework, archaeological significance and scientific significance are synonymous and supposedly self-evident, and as I have mentioned above, there has been little critical attention paid to the contemporary cultural context of the construction of historical archaeological values. The conservation ethic of the heritage movement became the central theoretical underpinning of historical archaeology. This lead to the development of methodologies designed to enable preservation, but not really to explain why it was necessary. Of course, the latter relies on an explication of research potential – which was, and is, seen as the central, defining characteristic of archaeological heritage. But research potential must be theorized in some way in order to be expressed. Murray and Allen claimed that historical archaeology had relied on cognate disciplines, such as history, geography and architecture, for this theoretical structure. Irrespective of the theoretical framework employed to realize research potential, it must also be understood that historical archaeological sites and objects have been endowed with meaning by a cultural process and within specific historical parameters. Australian nationalism has been particularly significant in this cultural process, and the intellectual inheritance of colonialism remains deeply embedded, sometimes in subtle ways, in the way colonial history is approached.
An example of a structure which promulgates a colonialist and nationalist teleology in Australian heritage management is its characteristic use from the 1970s to the present of lists of ‘historic themes’, aimed at aiding both the identification of heritage items, as well as the establishment of relative levels of heritage significance. The use of these lists as heritage management tools has meant that historical archaeology’s research agenda (especially in relation to the choice of sites for investigation) has been formally tied to a somewhat simplified, thematic rendering of national history, through the heritage management framework and through funding channels such as the National Estate Grants Program. Heritage themes have tended to reflect the influence of popular histories of Australia, such as Blainey’s (1966, 1978) The Tyranny of Distance and The Rush that Never Ended, which are constructed as narratives of national progress and development. Significance assessment methodologies entrench and codify this relationship, through concentration on links with historically significant events and people, and with the processes of settlement, exploration, pioneering, agricultural innovation and industrialization. Therefore the process of the constitution of historical archaeological evidence, which has been conceived of in heritage management as a neutral “discovering” of remains in the environment, has in fact been firmly constructed as an illustration of national developmental themes. Such a process not only reflected the colonialist construction of how the nation developed, but also produced the material remains to confirm it!
Conclusions: National Interests and Disciplinary Neo-Imperialism
It is easy to characterize an Australian national archaeology as one which provides both the deep time tradition of an essentialism, ahistorical Aboriginal culture, as well as a ‘colonial history’ of exploration, expansion, modernization and development. There is overwhelming evidence that archaeological research (prehistoric and historical) has been used in nationalist and colonialist discourses (Byrne 1996; Head 1996; Murray 1996; Head 1998). However, Australian ‘national archaeology’ is neither so homogenous nor so simple. Historical archaeology has been somewhat blindly mobilized by a heritage-led establishment on a task of historicizing and providing material evidence for national development. However, there is also evidence that in many aspects of their work, individual archaeologists have responded to ethical questions current in the community, have challenged dominant discourses and been aware of the contemporary cultural meanings of their interpretations.
There is currently an interesting tension in historical archaeology as a discipline. Practices in Australia, U.S.A., South Africa, Canada and New Zealand for instance, have traditionally been very nationally defined (and confined), closely linked to local heritage management structures, and often to particular community concerns. Career structures for historical archaeologists rarely cross national boundaries, although there are of course notable exceptions. With nationalism considered to be an essentially modern phenomenon, it is hardly surprising that the archaeology of modernity is so defined by this pervasive expression of cultural identity. However, the tension to which I refer arises from the desire, on the one hand, to contextualize historical archaeology within the complex global networks of the colonial, modern period, as it should be, while on the other hand, making the most of the particularizing concerns of the nationally distinctive practice. In Australia this has led to, on the positive side, a practice strongly grounded in local communities, experienced in methodologies for community participation, and grappling meaningfully with the realities of cultural diversity. From the perspective of “Down Under”, calls for a world or global historical archaeology sound suspiciously like another form of archaeological neo-imperialism, which yet again belittles the proliferation of locally-defined archaeologies, and privileges, the superior metropolitan discourse emerging from the Anglo-American core of the broader discipline. Postcolonial theory is often criticized for its basis in fairly attenuated generalizations about the global experience of colonialism, with insufficient attention paid to local historical, political and cultural specificities. Historical archaeology, combining spatial analyses and material culture studies, with historical and environmental approaches, could contribute important perspectives on colonialism and nationalism within multidisciplinary research. The challenge of course will be to balance local insights, with global perspectives.
In operational terms, historical archaeology’s position within heritage management has both problems and opportunities. It is essential that all levels of work, from survey and rescue excavation to multidisciplinary research projects, maintain a critical, self-reflexive perspective on the values and meanings implicit in the heritage framework. The opportunities however arise from the way in which the heritage management context requires engagement with communities, both in developing research agendas and in interpreting their results to a broader audience. This is an opportunity to participate in an intellectual response to the national community’s need to understand the colonial past and to draw positive directions from postcolonial confusion.
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