Deep Time Dreaming, Billy Griffiths
Archaeologists work with toothbrushes and sieves. They sit on folding stools in the bottom of very neat holes they have dug, shoulders hunched and peering at a fragment of something or other between their fingertips. They wear khaki and no-one cares what they think. Ancient Australia has no material record—and therefore no archaeology—because Aboriginal people moved lightweight over the land and didn’t build anything. And even if they did leave traces, and they were found, the material would be of no more than academic interest to a handful of obsessives.
There. Have I covered the canards? Because Billy Griffiths has written a book that tears them up and grinds the shreds under a dusty work boot. Here is archaeology as passion; fierce and relevant. Here are dizzying meditations on time and human purpose. Here are the complex relationships between the hidden traces in the ground and the politics of the day. What does it mean to unearth a human skeleton: a hundred years old, or a thousand, or forty thousand? Where are the lines between scientific study and graverobbing? Who asked those scientists to ‘prove’ the things that Aboriginal people have believed and cherished and argued for all along? And without doing so, how else to establish the enormous gravity inherent in Australian identity? Are we thongs and Cronulla, the Harbour Bridge and an infantile chief executive in a surf cap? Or are we perched atop an unthinkably gigantic mass of accumulated time, mere isotopic specks in the geological strata? Can we be both of these things?
Deep Time Dreaming reads like a family tree of the hardy eccentrics and visionaries who defied a prevailing understanding to re-invent a discipline, to look at the land with new eyes and to teach us an appropriate kind of awe in which to behold it.
Griffiths opens his account with the poetic suicide of Vere Gordon Childe in 1957, then follows the life of his natural successor, John Mulvaney—a man whose name might mean nothing to laypeople, but whose work has shaped our understanding of our continent. Indeed, Mulvaney may have been the first person to imagine an Australian archaeology: to publicly propose that what rested in the earth was evidence of a dynamic and ancient culture. In an age when popular opinion among white Australians was so firmly set against that notion—scathingly described twenty years earlier by WEH Stanner as ‘a mass of solid indifference’—how else would the scales fall from our eyes? Someone had to point at the ground and say here is the evidence. It was Mulvaney who made the critical leaps of imagination—like the one that stills my heart: his idea that a billion people have lived here. I think of it now every time I drive across apparent emptiness. A billion people have lived here.
Griffiths traces Australian archaeology back to Tindale and Hale digging six metres into the banks of the Murray in 1929; but it was Mulvaney who took up that early promise and made it comprehensible with his work in 1956 at Fromm’s Landing, near the Tindale and Hale site. Mulvaney never thought to ask the Ngarrindjeri traditional owners for permission to dig and remove artefacts, because, as Griffiths points out, no-one had seen an Aboriginal person near the site since 1906.
Griffiths writes refreshingly of the women who (for lack of better knowledge in this field I can’t say for sure) might otherwise have been written out of the history of archaeology. From Isabel McBryde on Bundjalung land (modern New England), to Betsy Gould, Carmel Schrire and Betty Meehan, something about the combination of patience and indomitability worked both for feminists in the academy and sifters in the pitiless desert.
Closest to my own interests is a chapter on the Welshman Rhys Jones and the puzzles of Bass Strait. Successive ice ages have caused it to appear and disappear many times over the millennia of human occupation. What does this mean in cultural terms, to be marooned in slow motion over a period of thousands of years? Are we experiencing exactly that now?
It was Jones who invented the term ‘firestick farming’, and who looked out a plane window and came to understand that the Australian landscape is ‘a human artefact in the same way that a cleared field is.’
In describing Jim Bowler’s stunning discovery of Mungo Lady on the lunette dunes of the Willandra Lakes north of Mildura in 1968, Griffiths turns deep contemplation into high drama. The winds of a fierce drought revealed the skeleton: yet even as he probed the edges of the find, a thunderstorm threatened to sweep the bones away forever. The scientists hurriedly adapted a suitcase (John Mulvaney’s suitcase, it should be noted) to carry the remains out. Within days, they had been carbon dated to 40,000 years, and human history on this continent was rewritten. At the time, this was the oldest evidence of a modern human outside of Africa.
Yet, as much of this chapter is devoted to the painful business of negotiating a reburial as to the exhilaration of the discovery. This stands to Griffiths’ great credit: he carefully recounts the painstaking mediations between the archaeologists and Mutthi Mutthi elder Alice Kelly. For an Aboriginal woman, in 1973, to write and demand to know why she had not been consulted about the digging on her country, and moreover why the bones of one of her people had been taken, was a watershed moment. Ultimately, she welcomed her people (Mungo Man was a subsequent discovery) back to their land in 1992. In a beautiful conclusion to the tale, Griffiths notes that the remains are in a secret locked vault on country, and there are two keys to that lock: one held by scientists, and one by traditional owners.
In a brief passage sketching the geography of Arnhem Land, the author powerfully illustrates the potential for lyrical imagery in the earth sciences. It’s merely the opening to a chapter about Schrire and Meehan. A more functional—and less human—account would have gone straight to the test pit. But Griffiths exquisitely paints the physical and mythical parameters first:
The stony, faulted plateau – home to some of the oldest surface rocks on earth – is also one of the world’s most flammable landscapes, yet in the cold depths of the chasms and gorges, remnants of rainforest survive, protected from fire for millennia. The great cliffs of the escarpment divide the rugged plateau from the sweeping plains below. In the wet, the plains shimmer with fresh water and birdlife, fed by rivers flowing from the stone massif above.
And shortly afterwards—
To the first Australians, it is an inscribed landscape, shaped by the movements of totemic beings and pulsing with the life force of the Dreaming.
But for me, the passage that takes this book from important to monumental is its chapter on Fraser Cave in Tasmania, combatively titled ‘YOU HAVE ENTERED ABORIGINAL LAND’. Griffith’s words here challenged me, troubled me so much I had to go back and read the whole lot again. If you think you understand archaeology’s place in the political and cultural realm, I defy you to read this chapter and hold firm to that belief.
Kutikina, or ‘Fraser Cave’ was a motherlode of 20,000 years of material culture, found deep in the south west wilderness of Tasmania in 1983, exactly when it was needed to provide a reason not to dam the Franklin River. It appeared like a saviour. The scientists involved had named every find after a politician, in a strategic effort to embarrass them into action—there was also a Whitlam Cave and a Hayden Cave, and this one was Malcolm Fraser’s namesake. Bob Brown and others used it accordingly: this priceless inventory of deep human time would be lost if it was inundated.
Griffiths invokes the ghosts of the photographers Truchanas and Dombrovskis in setting the scene for this epic showdown: company versus people, state versus federation, science versus commerce. As Frank Bongiorno put it: ‘The battle for the Franklin remains the single greatest environmental struggle in Australian history.’ Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a moment when Australian archaeology has found itself so urgently positioned on the frontlines. Yet again, John Mulvaney was there at history’s edge.
It should be straightforward then, that the forces arrayed against the project were in common accord. But conservationists, archaeologists and the first Tasmanians found themselves in a mistrustful three-cornered alliance. Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Rosalind Langford took both the activists and the profession to task in ferocious prose: ‘You have come as invaders, you have tried to destroy our culture, you have built fortunes on the bodies of our people and now, having said sorry, want a share in picking out the bones of what you regard as a dead past.’ Excavation work at the site was stopped forever.
Mulvaney’s role in all of this was an isolated one, seeking to expunge the notion that any person or group could claim to speak for the deep past; that time was by definition inimical to concepts of ownership. Jim Allen and Rhys Jones also weighed in against Tasmanian Aboriginal dominion over the site. Reputations were damaged, rifts entrenched, and all of this was obscured by the scale of the High Court proceedings and the federal parliament and a feelgood story of successful activism.
In the acknowledgements section of my most recent novel I paid tribute to a cluster of recent works such as Grace Karskens’ The Colony, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. Each of these books has successfully taken up the task of educating us about our misconceptions, and restoring a sense of fascination in our landscape and its first inhabitants. Billy Griffiths’ book undoubtedly joins that company. We are sloughing off encrusted notions of our own past, and we are new and lustrous beneath.
Jock Serong is a fiction author and features writer whose novels have won the Ned Kelly and Colin Roderick Awards, and most recently the Staunch Prize in the UK. His latest novel is Preservation.