Workshop: The Archaeology of Culture Contact in Australia and Beyond

Hosted by the Centre for Archaeology, University of Western Australia at Mandurah, Western Australia, 8 December 1999

Rodney Harrison and Alistair Paterson (University of Western Australia),


Interest in the archaeology of culture contact in Australia and the Indo-Pacific region has a long history, although until recently archaeological studies of cross-cultural interaction between Aboriginal Australians and European settlers have been relatively rare. Allen’s (1969) PhD research considered explicitly the archaeology of contact between Indigenous and settler Australians at the failed settlement of Port Essington on Australia’s northern coast. Mulvaney, in his Prehistory of Australia (1975), devoted a whole chapter to the subject, which he termed ‘protohistory’. Birmingham’s (1992) work at the Wybellena Aboriginal establishment on Flinders Island during the 1970s examined issues of acculturation, resistance and cultural change amongst Tasmanian Aboriginal people who had been forcefully relocated to the settlement during the middle part of the 19th century. Looking further afield, the archaeology of culture contact as a sub-field of the archaeology of global colonization has also long interested archaeologists working in the Americas (e.g. Deagan 1983, Deetz 1963 and 1991, Ferguson and Green 1983, Thomas 1989, 1990 and 1991), South Africa (Schrire 1991), Canada and New Zealand.

Despite such promising beginnings, until recently the archaeology of culture contact in Australia has not developed the interest or theoretical and methodological richness that has characterized that of the Americas. However over the last decade there have appeared numbers of new research projects in Australia or by Australian archaeologists, which have begun to re-consider the archaeology of culture contact and the post-colonial archaeology of Indigenous communities in settler societies (e.g. Murray 1993, Clarke 1994, Mitchell 1994, Birmingham 1997, Head and Fullagar 1997, Frederick 1999 and Paterson 2000, see also Byrne 1996 and Murray 1996).

This one-day workshop was designed to consider issues relating to the archaeology of culture contact and the archaeology of recent (post-European) Aboriginal history, and was run as a ‘piggy back’ session to the Australian Archaeological Association’s annual conference, which in 1999 was held in Western Australia. The aim was to illuminate the diversity of research into cultural interaction that is currently being undertaken. Although the geographic focus of the workshop was Australia, participants represented research perspectives from South East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region and considered such issues as contact between settler Australians and non-Indigenous peoples, such as overseas Chinese in the north of Australia. The timeliness of the workshop was indicated by the participation of academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, heritage consultants, museum curators and heritage managers from Australia and South-East Asia.

The workshop had its genesis in discussions following the 1998 Australian Archaeological Association Conference which identified a diverse range of archaeological studies being undertaken in Australia and the Indo-Pacific region considering issues of culture contact and change in colonial settler contexts. One problem facing researchers is that much of this work is presently unpublished. The workshop was conceived as a forum for discussion of current research, and the broader theoretical and methodological issues that characterize the archaeology of culture contact. Potential participants contributed to the formation of the workshop program, which incorporated methodological, theoretical, terminological and practical issues raised by the participants and by others with research interests in this developing field who were unable to attend the workshop.

The workshop consisted of three sessions with general themes as outlined below. The informal nature of the forum initiated broader discussion than is often possible in a conference session. Participants were asked to present a short summary of their research specifically relevant each session’s theme, after which a round table discussion was initiated.

The use, modification and identification of material culture and sites in the archaeology of culture contact

Chaired by Martin Gibbs and Rodney Harrison, the first session of the day considered methodological matters. Key issues to emerge were the range and diversity of material culture that characterizes cultural contact in settler societies in general, and Australia specifically, as well as the ways in which archaeologists define a ‘contact site’, or sites of cultural interaction between groups. Discussion also explored how archaeologists use material culture to interpret Indigenous historic period sites and how material culture is used by settlers and Indigenous people as part of the process of cultural negotiation and interaction. An important outcome of the first session was that it was impossible to consider issues of material culture in isolation from a consideration of continuity and change, so this session flowed logically into the next, which considered cultural continuity and change in the archaeological record of settler societies.

A range of research into post-colonial material culture emerged. Alistair Paterson discussed recent work on pastoral properties where contact ensued between Indigenous people and European sheep station workers in central Australia, and the identification of Aboriginal contact-period settlement based on reconstruction of work practices, rationing regimes, and knapped bottle glass artefacts. Andrew Wilson spoke about intra-site and inter-site spatial variation of artefact scatters being studied as part of the Central Australia Archaeology Project. Martin Gibbs posed questions about how the discovery of post-contact Aboriginal material could be incorporated within the framework of historical archaeological surveys that had traditionally focussed only on non-Indigenous archaeology. Rodney Harrison discussed regional variation in glass artefact forms from Western Australia and the material culture of Aboriginal pastoral station workers in the Kimberley, while Pam Smith examined issues of dietary change on pastoral stations in Australia’s northwest. Recent advances in analysis in the study of key indicators in the material cultural record, particularly flaked glass artefacts and other European items modified by Aboriginal people previously identified only with Europeans, were evident. Richard Fullagar referred the workshop to advances in residue analyses on glass artefacts by students at Sydney University. Juliet King discussed work undertaken at the Western Australian Maritime Museum identifying maritime sites in Western Australia where there may have been contact between shipwreck survivors and Indigenous people.

Change, continuity and frontiers

Steve Brown and Andrew Wilson chaired the first session of the afternoon, in which issues of continuity and change in the archaeology of culture contact dominated. The types of questions raised included: Can we recognize and measure cultural continuity and change? What are the potentials and limitations of documentary sources, environmental data, and oral histories in archaeological analysis? What is appropriate theory for studies of interaction? What role do perceptions of frontiers have to play in contact archaeology?

This session began with an enlightening discussion by Scott Mitchell on the archaeology of overseas Chinese within the context of a settler society from Australia’s Northern Territory, reminding us that cultural interaction occurred between many different groups, not just Aboriginal peoples and an amorphous European ‘other’. In this spirit Matthew Spriggs described ongoing research into the 17th-century Spanish interaction with Melanesians, as part of the Spanish in the West Pacific Project. Ian McNiven described his project on sea-frontiers in Torres Strait, where the contact-period was characterized by continuity and change amongst island and coastal inhabitants of this region, including themes such as cultural practice, economy, and recent environmental change. Susan McIntyre drew on examples from Cape York to discuss the often fragile and fragmentary archaeological record of the adoption of Christianity by Aboriginal people in 20th century Australia, and the results of recent relocations of Indigenous peoples.

Alistair Paterson discussed recent research in central Australia which demonstrated that forms of change and continuity were varied within the Indigenous population, and this was structured by the internal elements of the pastoral domain and responses to seasonal environmental demands. Complementary evidence by Rodney Harrison, Ken Mulvaney and Richard Fullagar revealed that, unlike central Australia where great stress occurred in the dry summer, in northern Australia the wet/dry seasonality of the pastoral work calendar allowed access for Aboriginal participants in the pastoral industry to ‘country’, and the ability to maintain ‘traditional’ practice and meet social and ceremonial obligations. Robin Stevens discussed his doctoral research into the archaeology of recent Indigenous history in the Pilbara, Western Australia. Ursula Frederick’s work on the contact period at Watarrka National Park also demonstrates the potential for concepts of continuity and change to be explored, this time using the rock art corpus.

Heritage, ethnicity and Native Title

Denis Byrne and Jo McDonald chaired the third and final session of the workshop considered the archaeology of culture contact and interaction within the context of heritage management and Native Title. Denis Byrne discussed the dearth of post-colonial Indigenous places on Aboriginal Site registers throughout Australia, which he has discussed elsewhere as part of a ‘structure of forgetting’ (Byrne 1997) the events and consequences of the European invasion and settlement of Australia. Steve Brown discussed work undertaken by Aboriginal Affairs Victoria on Aboriginal historic places. The role of ‘contact’ archaeology and more broadly the archaeology of cultural continuity in Native Title was central to the afternoon’s discussion, with contributions by Jo McDonald, Richard Fullagar, Susan McIntyre, Ken Mulvaney, Ian Lilley and Ian McNiven on the potential contributions of the archaeology of the recent past to Native Title in Australia and Torres Strait.

The need to develop an appropriate terminology to describe the archaeology of culture contact and the historical archaeology of post-colonial indigenous communities emerged as an important outcome of the workshop. As one participant observed “We all know what it is that we are doing, but we don’t have the language to describe it”. While there was no firm consensus reached as part of this workshop, responses to the use of terminology such as ‘contact’, and the assumptions behind the use of such language emphasize the strength and diversity of points of view being explored in studies of cultural interaction in the Australasian region. These issues will continue to be a focus of the post-workshop polemic; one way participants intend to continue this dialogue is through forming an electronic discussion group with a view to organizing future topical workshops and continuing the discourse initiated by the workshop. If you would like to subscribe to the contact archaeology discussion list, ContactArch-L, send e-mail to with ‘subscribe’ as the subject, leaving the body of the message blank.


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