Review: Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia


Historian Billy Griffiths delivers a uniquely human and humane perspective on archaeology. Bill Condie reports.


We often think of science as a forward-facing discipline, bringing the promise of tomorrow and the solutions to the problems that lie there. But its most human face arguably looks the other way, with archaeology bringing us an understanding of a shared human culture from the deep past to a point where the historians take the baton.

It is this Australian journey that Billy Griffiths takes us on in Deep Time Dreaming.

As Griffiths notes, Australians – or at least those who arrived in the past 240 years – have an uneasy relationship with the history of their continent, particularly struggling to comprehend and accommodate the Indigenous strand.

A historian, the author spent years around archaeological digs as cook, camp manager, labourer or observer. He saw the archaeologists work – not just the science they applied but their relationships to the cultures they unearthed. They developed attachment to place – to country.

Each of his chapters explores an individual’s relationship with a site or region, setting up a history of archaeology in this country from the late 1950s to the present, and a map of the changing way we think about the link between past and present. One of Griffith’s archaeologists suggests a billion people may have lived on this continent, a realisation that forces a changed way of thinking about Australian history.

But those billion voices speak softly. Without the artefact richness of Western Europe, Griffiths notes, Australian archaeologists work with a subtle material archive: “They read history in landscapes and vegetation, percussion marks and plant residue, sediment and stone arrangements.”

Griffiths hopes his book will open a dialogue with our past and the twin revolution of “the dramatic discovery of Australia’s deep history and the reassertion of Aboriginal cultural identity in the second half of the twentieth century” – one of the most significant developments in Australian intellectual history.

Modern archaeology should be a humanist project. Only by embracing it can we truly appreciate the classical culture of the continent.

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