A lecture by the returning chair of Australian Studies, Harvard University 2008-09: Australian archaeology as a historical science

Iain Davidson

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    8 Citations (Scopus)


    'Archaeologists make up stories about the past, but not just any stories.' Archaeological stories are written principally from the interpretation of material remains. Increasingly we also use evidence from a variety of other sources, such as genetics and linguistics. In Australia, as in other countries colonised from Europe, the stories are about the past of Indigenous peoples and so are generally believed to have an important relationship with the ethnographic description of traditional behaviour. But the relationship is not straightforward. Ethnographic accounts show that there are oral and other histories that account for the way those people are. For this reason, archaeological histories are not always easily adopted by Aboriginal Australians, particularly as they are, in almost all cases, written by non-Aboriginal people. I suggest that an alternative approach is to look at the record of ethnographies and historical material culture around Australia as indicating what is to be explained through the analysis of archaeological materials, just as geneticists and linguists begin from the analysis of the variation in modern samples. An archaeological approach to the diversity of peoples in Australia requires an understanding of the symbolic construction of identity in the past. But symbols, because of their very nature, are difficult to interpret, so special care is needed to work out how the diversity was constructed, and attention needs to be paid to different scales of analysis. Archaeology has proceeded rather as other sciences proceed, by putting up hypotheses, testing them, and moving on to the next hypothesis once the test is satisfactorily conducted. The conclusions must be understood as historical though the methods of arriving at them are like the process of science. In this regard, just as an unchanging Dreaming is said to be successively revealed as new claims are established, so archaeological history, too, is successively revealed.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)377-398
    Number of pages22
    JournalJournal of Australian Studies
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2010


    • Australian archaeology
    • Demography
    • Historical narrative
    • Hypothesis testing
    • Science


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