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Inventing Australia’s desert archaeology

June Ross, John Mulvaney, Barry Cundy, Giles Hamm and Chris Turney, 8 February 2013

PETER STANLEY: Ladies and gentlemen, in structuring today’s tribute, my colleagues Anne Faris, Heidi Pritchard and I tried to express Mike’s career in three themes and so we’ve assembled three panels to discuss them. To chair those panels, we’ve asked three close colleagues of Mike’s to lead us through the discussion. I’m delighted to introduce the first panel ‘Inventing Australia’s desert archaeology’, which will be chaired by the distinguished rock art scholar Associate Professor June Ross from the University of New England. Thank you June and her panel members.

JUNE ROSS: Ladies and gentlemen, friends of Mike: this is the first chaired session and, when you are all able to get a copy of Mike’s book, you’ll see that the very first chapter is called ‘A chapter of ideas: The history of ideas of desert research’. We thought that, as the opening session, it would be a very good idea if you could understand the sorts of ideas that we have had about the desert when Mike first began to study archaeology in 1974. We can follow through and see how those ideas have changed with the work and some of his colleagues have done through that period of time until we get an understanding of the desert today. The first speaker in my panel is going to be somebody who’s known Mike probably longer that most of you, Professor John Mulvaney.

JOHN MULVANEY: I just wanted to say a few words about the prehistory of Mike Smith. [laughter] Our department at the Australian National University (ANU) started in 1971. Some time before that Mike Smith had arrived as a school boy with his mother all the way from Adelaide to talk about whether he could enter for archaeology. Well of course he could, but it was a very rewarding thing to think of a person who was brought up in Adelaide where Norman Tindale had done so important work on at the classic site of Devon Downs, and Mike knew about this and wanted to go on and do his work. I think he began his course in 1974. From the start he was doing first class honours work, and for his honours thesis he concentrated on an analysis of the fauna from the Devon Downs site excavated in 1929.

I had excavated the site at Fromm’s Landing from 1956. Many of the things that he learnt from his analysis had a very important impact upon Fromm’s Landing as well. That re-analysis was a very important piece of work. Then he graduated with first class honours, and he wanted to do an MA. He headed out west of Alice Springs. This is where he really cut his teeth on working in very extreme conditions. He had an oil rag for his meals, I think. His party included Manik. We’re talking about the times before much funding was available for work. He really carried out a marvellous piece of research outback on almost nothing, and this is what really equipped him for further desert work, I think.

It just seems to me interesting that in 1974 I wrote a revision of my Prehistory of Australia book - this is the year he started - I asked a question in reviewing the desert regions of Australia: Was the desert heart penetrated? Systematic research has barely begun. But at Puntutjarpa in the Warburton Ranges Richard Gould found that occupation ran continuously from about 10,000 years. By the time Mike went to the centre in the 1980s he had occupation over 30,000 years.

Just to conclude my comment, this morning, Steve Morton reminded me that Mike Smith took part in another important thing. He introduced me to Steve Morton, and over a short discussion we formulated the project of the centenary of the Horn Expedition of 1894. In 1994 we had a major conference in Alice Springs, and Mike has contributed substantially to that. So good luck to you, Mike. [applause]

JUNE ROSS: The next speaker on our panel is Barry Cundy. Barry is one of Mike’s oldest friends - perhaps not in age, but certainly for a long time. Barry worked in the Northern Territory with Mike after being a student with Mike. He’s probably got a lot of tales that he could tell, but I think he understands that period where Mike transferred from being a student through to being an archaeologist working in the desert.

BARRY CUNDY: Thank you very much, June. Yes, that’s true. If Mike invented the desert archaeology, in the words of the Duke of Wellington, ‘It was a near run thing.’ Let me go back a step. Mike arrived in the Territory in 1980, he had taken up a position as the field archaeologist in the Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences, and I followed up in 1981 as the curator of archaeology at the museum. My talk is going to focus mainly on the archaeological context and also the social context in which we found ourselves, because it was pretty critical in the process of getting Mike set up to do the work that he’s done so successfully.

By the time Mike arrived in the Territory - I might tell this story about his undergraduate world in a sense - everything had gone pretty well to plan in Mike’s life, and this plan had been outlined in Isabel McBryde’s Alfa Romeo as it sped back from Lake Bathurst in 1975. That second year Mike would have been about 20 years old, and he gave a rather impressive outline as to how his life was going to work, including the year that he would marry and the year that he would have children. The other plan beyond that was that he would complete his MA and he would go and work in a museum. While working at the museum, he would start work on his PhD. Then he would come back to university, finish his PhD, and then go back and work for the museum. Now if you can see any variation in that plan [laughter] - let me know - but it’s pretty impressive coming out of a 19- or 20-year-old.

So far it’s all gone to plan and he’s in Darwin and he’s working for a museum. The only problem is all of us - Manik, myself and Mike - didn’t really factor in what the Northern Territory would be like. Now many of you know the Northern Territory, so I’ll talk a little bit about the archaeological context and then I’ll go out bagging Darwin out because it’s my favourite thing to do. It comes with the territory. As John has pointed out, people had worked in the desert - well, not in the desert, but they’d worked in Central Australia or in the Northern Territory going back to the 1930s. There was an extended phase of what you might call Phase I archaeology in the Northern Territory. In this phase people were digging for sequences. The question was: was there a single sequence in Australia or were there multiple sequences? People would find sites and dig them to see what the sequence would look like.

By the time we were up there, John had written his fantastic book Prehistory of Australia, which we had cut our teeth on, and it appeared there was a general overarching single sequence, but there many regional variations to it. Mike and I knew what we needed to do, and that was push into Phase II. Phase II, as we were taught at the ANU, consisted of putting these sites into a landscape context. A lot of that inspiration came from Wilfred Shawcross and his connection to what was really economic archaeology coming out of the work of Eric Higgs and Grahame Clark.

The question that we faced when we got to the Territory was how the hell we were going to do this. At that time, archaeology was divided into a sort of paradigm fight between the new archaeologists who were coming out of America and what you might call a more traditional approach coming out of England, which was what we call culture history.

The Americans basically believe that archaeology was an anthropological discipline and it was about adaptation. Adaptation took place at the level of system not at the level of site, so the problem archaeologists had was to try to discover the system that adaptation actually occurred at. The way the Americans claimed they liked to do this was to use very systematic surveying practices which were based on clever stuff like randomised stratigraphic surveying. Say they were in Teotihuacan Valley, they would pick up all the little peripheral sites and try to pin that back to Teotihuacan and see how the whole system worked. That was one approach. Mike tried it with his master’s thesis, and it sort of worked. But you had the problem that Kent Flannery pointed out, which is a Teotihuacan problem, that you could survey this valley and miss the main site.

The other way of doing it was to concentrate on trying to pepper the site with excavations and try and pull the excavations into some sort of pattern, and that’s the pattern that Mike ended up using. There were these sorts of complicated toing and froing as to which one would work at the time. That was the context and we basically knew what was needed but, as I say, we didn’t really count on what Darwin was going to throw at us.

For those of you who don’t know the history, Darwin had obviously been wiped out in the cyclone back in 1974, the old city had disappeared and in a nutshell the old society had disappeared. It was granted self-government in 1978 and, by the time we got up there, we were part of this new push by the new Territory government, which had this approach to tick box everything. If the south had a museum, it wanted a museum; if it had a university, it wanted a university. It needed lots of new folk from down south to run these institutions, and we were part of it.

What we didn’t really realise is that we would be running into what was, you might call, the ‘remainding’ parts of the old territory. This process, which I think was quite unique, was essentially a process of modernisation which the Territory had missed out on - it had happened in other parts of Australia about 100 years before. Here we are in the Territory crammed in and it basically steamrollered the old society and smashed up the new one as it came in. So we were faced with a society that was red raw.

The tragedy for the old brigade, if you like - the people who’d been there pre-cyclone - is that it turned much of what they were doing into some sort of parody of itself. The emphasis became very much one of performance. Sometimes it felt like being in Darwin that you were in some sort of strange pantomime where larger-than-life characters were playing out roles that you didn’t understand and you had no script for. This sounds a bit exaggerated, but I’ll give you an example of how people would act up this stuff.

One of the members of the staff that had been there for quite some time, I must have been talking to him saying, ‘I’m having difficulty talking to Aborigines,’ and he said, ‘Look, don’t worry about that. The way to talk to Aborigines is dress up like a policeman,’ which he did, ‘because you can intimidate Aborigines into telling you things then. It’s fine.’

The funniest parody of them all and a paradox in a way was the director of the museum, a man by the name of Colin Jack-Hinton. I don’t think Colin will spin in his grave too much if I describe him as a very dedicated dipsomaniac who ran the museum for two hours a day between 10 o’clock and 12 o’clock, and then he disappeared. Colin was a deeply eccentric character - a brilliant man but deeply eccentric. He wore a monocle, long hair, beard, safari suit unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, and spoke in an amazing English accent – ‘pukka sahib’ English accent - which even amazed English people. [laughter] Yet another Englishman, here we go.

I’ll give you an example how things would work on a day-to-day basis. When I walked in to Colin’s office to tender my resignation, modern management practice would say, ‘Well done, Barry, you’ve done a great job. Good luck in the future.’ No, Colin was having none of that. He turned to me and he said, ‘You know, ANU PhD, all that sort of stuff, it’s all very fine, but you’re in deep danger.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, Colin, I’m in deep danger of what?’ He said, ‘You’re in deep danger, my dear fellow, of becoming the most boring man in the world.’ [laughter]

It’s funny, but there’s a profound issue here, and that is that we didn’t actually fit. Mike and I didn’t fit. We were working-class kids, in a sense, who’d come to do a professional job, and the museum just wanted us to be entertaining. The downside of that is it was a terrible place to work really. [laughter] Just at the human level, and this is a sad bit, people died at the museum. I mean, they would kill themselves out of sheer sadness at working in Darwin, and being there, and they would die horrible and miserable deaths at their own hands. It was not a very pleasant place to work.

The other issue we had, and I’ll wind up pretty quickly, is that we didn’t realise Darwin was really remote. Archaeologically it’s miles away from anywhere. It takes three hours to get off the black soil plain that Darwin sits on. Now there’s archaeology on that plain, but it’s not the sort of archaeology that gets you Festschrifts like this.

Another issue was the museum was deeply curatorially oriented, but there was no coordination between the curators and they could trip over each other all the time. Although it had us there as professionals, it basically wanted us to do other things as well. You’d get a missed message from Colin telling us that he would expect us out at Mataranka airport base to survey the remains of a World War II airfield or something like that. At one point Mike was sent out to survey Port Essington remains. Most of it was historical archaeology. In a sense, I didn’t mind it so much. I just took it as part of the job.

But I think that, with Mike’s deep sense of commitment to this process of Phase II archaeology, it offended him quite a bit that he would be asked to go out and do stuff that he didn’t think was entirely relevant to what his plan was. Other than that the museum was great - unfocused, freewheeling. We did amazing things. We built the whole new museum in six months basically, because you literally had to build the displays by hand to get it all to work. That will do for the museum, I think. The other issue we had was the field. The political economy of the Northern Territory at the time was difficult and, by today’s standard standards, I wouldn’t actually send people out there to do work in the way that we were sent out to do it. Land rights had been granted in 1976. Station managers were toey about you getting on the land. They didn’t know what the museum was on about. You could either get onto the land to do surveying by yourself and you could bring in Aboriginal people later, with the landowner’s permission, or you could end up trying to get onto the land with Aboriginal people without the landowner’s permission. It was intensely difficult to try to balance the desires of both parties. The other problem was that Aboriginal people were actually being thrown off the land with the equal wages decision, and they were very hard to find, in a sense. They weren’t on the reserves and it was hard to pick up on them. The idea of these great cultural brokers like Big Bill and Bill Harney was in the air, but they were hard to pick up on.

The way it appeared was that, in order to get anything done, we had to dig into a landscape like a tick and just stay on it for about 20 or 30 years. That was the only way we were going to get anything done in the Territory. The crisis we faced was: you couldn’t do it from Darwin; you couldn’t do it from the museum. The other crisis that Mike faced was that Manik hated Darwin. Who can blame her? So what was the solution to this? Mike took a survey down to the centre and he found a small little museum outpost, and he thought that this might be a goer. So he went to Colin Jack-Hinton and put the line that basically he needed to do work in Central Australia. It would have helped his marriage to a degree, and Colin, not a great respecter of the married state, basically said, ‘Yeah, this will be all right,’ and sent him down there to do his work.

So Mike started work in Central Australia on that basis. It was great for Mike; it wasn’t so great for me, because the museum then decided that it had two archaeologists, one in the north and one in the south, so I got to deal with the museum and the fun of the fieldwork in north Australia. But as to what fieldwork with Mike is like, I might leave it up to Giles to tell you what excavating with Mike was like. Thank you. [applause]

JUNE ROSS: The next speaker on our panel is Giles Hamm. Giles actually spent a lot of time down the holes at Puritjarra, so he worked with Mike over that period of time. I think that Mike had done numerous excavations and managed to find dates going back to about mid-Holocene, and Puritjarra was the last of the sites that he excavated during his PhD - and we all know that has changed the history of Australian deserts. Thank you, Giles.

GILES HAMM: Thanks, June. I just wanted to give you a sense of what it was like being a young, fresh, naive student coming to a place like Puritjarra, and get a sense of what the dig was like, what Mike was like and what significant things happened in this short period of time. Now I’m not of English birth. [laughter] I have applied for English citizenship, but I’m still waiting for confirmation.

Be that as it may, when I came out to Puritjarra I was 24, I was very young and inexperienced and very excited. This was the first time I’d been into the arid zone and I had no real perception about what to expect, just that this was the most amazing landscape and the most amazing arid environment. My first worry was that I’d heard these horror stories about Mike’s catering. One of the things that I’d heard, and I won’t say who from, is that basically Mike’s catering regime was Vegemite sandwiches and sardines. But of course, as everyone knows, when you’re out on a dig, food is all you tend to think about, apart from what you’re actually uncovering. When I got to Alice Springs I was very worried. Fortunately, I managed to go to Coles with other people [on the trip], and we bought a whole lot of meat, veggies and all sorts of things. So that was a weight off my mind.

But anyway, Puritjarra was an amazing landscape. In terms of Mike selecting the site, he had worked through the Central Ranges, he’d worked through the MacDonnell Ranges. He’d had indications about how important that part of the Central Australian ranges were. In terms of this permanent rock hole called Muranjti rock hole, it was a permanent water source that was only 30 minutes walk from Puritjarra. Puritjarra was an amazing site. It’s a really big shelter, 400 square metres in area. Mike knew this was the last site he’d had which could open up this whole debate and change the debate about coastal colonisation versus people had visited and moved into the arid interior. He realised that this was a highly significant site.

In 1986, he’d first got a glimpse of how important it was by getting some radiocarbon dates. Then, by the time I went out there, our task was to open up the main trench and start revealing the lower layers, particularly the period between the Holocene, up to about 10,000, and through to Late Pleistocene, so past 22,000. In terms of how we worked, we were assigned different tasks digging in the squares. Mike’s approach was essentially - he told me a site is like going into an operation. I’ve heard this theme a couple of times with people saying, ‘Mike approaches things like a surgeon.’ It’s very true. Mike had had a huge amount of experience analysing rock shelters and other archaeological deposits and saying, ‘This is how people would have used this rock shelter. This is how they compartmentalised activities.’ Obviously that changes over time, but Mike’s approach was you’ve got to get the sense of what people were doing in this rock shelter. You’ve got to see the different human activities over thousands of years and, to do that, you’ve got to approach it in a very careful way.

You’ve got to respect the site and look at it in a detailed way. First of all, open up the site. A site is like a really delicate book, you have to start turning the pages and revealing things, and our task was to use every archaeological method we could to reveal that story.

The excavation itself, we worked quite hard. We worked from 7.30 [am] until about 6 o’clock at night. Mike’s comments about my worry about the food - I’ve read through some of his field notes, and he is very perceptive because one of his statements was, ‘Giles lives for the evening meal.’ I probably kept on saying, ‘Oh Mike, what’s for dinner tonight?’

Ultimately the amazing thing is that this site produced over 17,000 artefacts, Mike got 32 radiocarbon dates and nine thermal luminescence dates. It was one of the most detailed pictures of an arid zone occupation site that we’d ever seen in Australia. It was truly remarkable to be there at the time seeing this evidence uncovered. We’d find stuff that were in the rubble layers so right down the bottom of layer three, because this deposit is about two metres in depth. You would suddenly find an artefact which wasn’t supposed to be there and you’d say, ‘Oh my God. Mike, look at this,’ and Mike would say, ‘Oh come on, Giles, is it really an artefact? How do you know? What do you mean?’ We’d have this debate to and fro, and all those things just stick in your head. We learned about the ochre from Karrku being transported into the site in the Pleistocene - those sorts of things were just truly remarkable. My reflection is that I realised that Mike’s perception of what was going on was far more intense and far more remarkable then I had realised.

When we had these debates or discussions at night by the fire, he would give me intellectual insights that were just incredible. I wouldn’t have got that experienceat that time. I think Mike’s sense of humour, his easygoing nature, even though he had a reputation for being a bit of a taskmaster - he really was a person who gave of himself to someone like myself. And along with people like Peter Veth, I’ve learned so much about arid zone prehistory in terms of how people see the landscape and how they detect early human occupation and change over time.

Puritjarra was very crucial for me deciding once and for all that the arid zone was my area of expertise I wanted to be in. I loved it. I just thought it was just remarkable. We had amazing people visit us. We had Dick Kimber, and Dick’s incredible view of Aboriginal history and of ethnography was truly inspiring. We would have numerous conversations. We had a remarkable botanist who’d come out, a guy called Peter Latz, who was a brilliant ethnobotanist. He would give me insights into how Aboriginal people used that particular landscape, why that was important, why certain plants were treated the way they were, and what sort of burning and fire regimes went on. There were also people like Doreen Bowdery, who was out on the dig with me doing her remarkable phytolith work where she was uncovering the history of grasses back in the Pleistocene in terms of how the climate had changed over 15,000 years.

It was just like a living laboratory. You couldn’t have got anything better as far as I was concerned. Now it’s a legacy. That site is so well known. It’s so well researched and it’s got so much information in it that it will stand in terms of brilliant comparison to everything else we know. Those are the sorts of things we need to do more of in Australia. We need to spend more time doing that sort of thing. [applause]

JUNE ROSS: Thank you, Giles. One of the things that really shines out about Puritjarra is just how much information Mike squeezed out of one excavation. We’re all inclined to do an excavation and find a little bit of information out, but I think that Mike has squeezed every bit of environmental information, rock art information, geochronology and has worked on the pollens, the phytoliths - absolutely everything. It really sets a standard for us all. We can’t just keep going around digging holes and finding out something about it. I think we have an obligation to extend what we do with each of our excavations.

The last speaker on our panel is Chris Turney, and Chris is going to talk about geochronology. We haven’t had an opportunity to incorporate all the different sorts of people that Mike has incorporated into his research, but I think that Chris will cover one aspect. Perhaps we could have had just as easily some of the palaeo-ecologists or some of the people who are working on palaeo-fauna - all the different aspects that Mike has drawn in trying to learn about past vegetation, past climates and past events that happened around the megafauna and their demise. All these aspects Mike has woven together into building a history of the desert. I’ll ask Chris Turney to tell you about geochronology. Thank you, Chris.

CHRIS TURNEY: Thanks very much. I am not being rude; I have not got my mobile phone to take messages on; I am just acutely aware of the time so I have put a little timer on so that I don’t go over massively. I’ve already learnt a huge amount already. I think I’ll be eternally grateful that I’ve never worked in Darwin. [laughter] That’s been a revelation to me.

What I’d like to do is cover a few aspects of some of the work I’ve been privileged to work on with Mike over the years. To take an analogy from Mark’s lovely poem earlier with the test match, I feel very much that the team has been slogging for several days and I’ve been very privileged just to join at the last moment. This is very much a more recent view of some of the aspects of work that we’ve been inspired to do under Mike’s tutelage.

Many of you know the history of discovery and debate on human occupation and arrival in Australia. It’s been argued over for more than a century. If you went back to the 1960s, as John alluded to earlier, you had arguments around 10,000 years’ worth of occupation. Over the 1970s and into the 1980s and 1990s, a sort of number converged on about 40,000 years, and it was very much driven by radiocarbon dating, which had been developed since the Second World War. It was really, and still is, a workhorse of our work.

The essential principle is the fact that you have radioactive carbon formed in the upper atmosphere. It enters into the biosphere through plants’ photosynthesis and then including animals. Over time you can measure how much radiocarbon is left in your sample, be it shell, bone or whatever, you know approximately how much there should have been at the beginning, and you can back-calculate to an age. That’s the principle. It sounds fabulously easy. It is compared to many dating techniques. But the practical upshot of which is that you can go back to about 40,000 to 60,000 years, depending on the sort of method you use.

Mike was one of the first in my mind who, with the great Rhys Jones, argued that 40,000 years was suspiciously close to the limit of radiocarbon dating. When I first met Mike, one of my first post-doctorates was here at the ANU in Canberra when the Museum was in Northbourne Avenue, we were in a shady old office and Mike was pulling all this stuff out of cupboards, we were chatting about potentials sites. My background is in carbondating. Mike was pointing out the fact that you could get a minute amount of modern carbonate in a 40,000 year old dated sample, and it would skew the age massively.

Some years before Mike had been instrumental with Rhys and Bert Roberts - Bert had been doing some fantastic work with a technique called luminescence dating, which was the new kid on the block on dating methods – and they had gone to a site up in Northern Territory called Malakunanja. In 1990 they published this amazing record using a technique called thermoluminescence, which effectively wasn’t dependent on carbon at all, which as carbondaters is outrageous. But what it did have the advantage of was that in arid environments you could still get an age. Effectively it depends on defects in the crystals. Over time those defects collect electrons, which are trapped or generated from radioactive decay in the sediments in which they’re encased. So over time, as you have radioactive decay, the traps fill up. If you know how much radioactivity there is, you measure how many electrons there are in the trap, you can get an age. In 1990, they published this fabulous paper in Nature arguing an age of occupation of 50,000 to 60,000 years.

And then, just a few years later, they followed it up with a slightly different technique, again with Bert, Rhys and a group of others, for a site called Nawalabila, which many of us are familiar with. Again, they showed 50,000 to 60,000 years of occupation but with tantalising hints that there were stone tools even deeper down buried in the rubble. Of course, as many of our fields, you could have heard a pin drop when these results came out. I think it’s fair to say from the carbon community that we had to have a serious look at what we were dating, why we were dating it and what it actually meant in practice.

I was very fortunate. I came to ANU where Michael Bird who was here with Keith Feifer and others were developing a new method for carbondating which was stripping out any contamination we could find from charcoal and pushing back the limits of the dating method back to 60,000. Mike was instrumental in supporting our application as a collaborator. I didn’t know Mike at the time, and then we met in Northbourne Avenue, and suddenly all these sites came out of cupboards and bags buried in the ANU. We started looking at potential sites.

One of the first ones we went to was a site called Devil’s Lair, which I liked because it was actually near a winery which was very pleasant. One of the wonderful things I found inspirational was the fact that a whole range of different methods were being used – with the latest techniques but also including the more traditional ones. Mike had got this team together where we were using traditional radiocarbon dating, we were using modern, Bert was doing luminescence, we had other people doing electron spin resonance – Rainer Grun and others – and it was the whole works.

I remember we were on tenterhooks when we’re running the samples and I remember calling up Mike when we got the numbers through. The traditional carbondating method hit 40,000 and just dropped away; we punched right through and got to 48,000; and the luminescence supported it. It really was an incredible adrenaline buzz. Getting it published was a whole other matter, but we’ve all been there.

Since then we have done a whole range of sites, and Puritjarra was another one. We applied the method to Puritjarra and found occupation going back 31,000 with carbondating. What’s lovely about it is that by applying all these different modern methods, getting teams together - people that I would never have normally met - and bouncing those ideas around, we were extremely fortunate to play intellectually with something that I would never have done before. What’s really lovely is it has set the trend of where things are going now: we’re using different methods of dating, different tools of pre-treatments; different types of luminescence being applied, and the methods are becoming more and more refined. Now we’re really honing down on the precision as well and pushing those limits for where people were, when and what impact they had on the landscape. I think given the time, I had probably better stop. Thank you. [applause]

JUNE ROSS: I would just like to thank my panel, and perhaps finish off just by saying something about rock art, which is dear to my heart, and fortunately very dear to Mike’s as well. Mike originally worked with Andrée Rosenfeld, which set a very high standard working in desert archaeology, desert rock art. Andrée recorded the rock art at Puritjarra, and she and Mike published that. She also worked at Watarrka, and I had been working doing my PhD up in that area. I was lucky enough to meet up with Mike, and for the last ten years we’ve done a whole series of projects, one of which was a project on trying to establish what does rock art of great antiquity actually mean?

Because of the excavations that Mike had done at Puritjarra and another one in the George Gill Range, we were able to establish that perhaps ‘great antiquity’ means about mid-Holocene or perhaps late Pleistocene. We got some dates that were sandwiched between an excavated deposit with an oxalate crust on the top so we were able to begin to situate this great body of rock art that spreads across the desert somewhere in a chronological framework, which I think will become a very useful thing as we build up more dates through time. It will enable us to tease out what is a vast assemblage of rock art and work out some sort of chronological definition to this art.

I hope that in the sessions to come you learn something about the various other disciplines that Mike has used to set his understanding of desert archaeology into a much broader context. Thank you, everybody. [applause]

MIKE SMITH: Just one little comment: I just thought I would point out that you can see Giles on the spoil heap at Puritjarra in this slide – he is in the blue on the sieves. [image shown]

Peter’s encouraging me to say more. When I look back, it’s hard to imagine now how little we knew about the desert as undergraduates. If you think back to 1974, 1975, 1976, the work was coming out of those fantastic sites at Lake Mungo where you had Pleistocene lake systems; you had very rich Aboriginal occupation in the lakeshore dunes; you had a rich environmental record beautifully worked up by Jim Bowler; and we had this impression of a Pleistocene Ice Age Aboriginal system that had collapsed as these lakes had dried. A whole picture of what was perhaps happening in the arid zone was driven by this view from the edge, from the Willandra Lakes. People perhaps hadn’t moved into the arid zone proper until they’d been forced to adapt to aridity as these lakes had dried up.

The only other work we had was Richard Gould’s work at Puntutjarpa, which gave us a 10,000-year sequence, and this seemed to fit quite nicely. When the lakes dried up at Lake Mungo, people moved into the desert and they started to occupy the desert proper 10,000 years ago. This is really all we had, but it was very much a view from the Willandra. It was a range of PhD projects - both my work, Peter Veth’s work and Peter Hiscock’s work that gradually began to build a desert prehistory. It was a great challenge but it was a great thrill also to work with a whole range of people.

A successful dig relies very much on the skill and dedication of its crew, and I was very fortunate to have people like Giles, Barry and June on many of my teams. We’re very fortunate to be in an age when a dazzling array of new dating techniques were becoming available, so I was very fortunate to be able to work with John Prescott and the radiocarbon fraternity, John Head with Chris Turney. It was a very privileged, expansive time. I think now that we’ve really built a framework for desert prehistory we can now start to get into the third generation of archaeological research.

The only other thing I should mention is I never, ever had Vegemite sandwiches on my digs. I never, ever considered Vegemite. And I never had sardines. Tinned mackerel was my forte.

PETER STANLEY: Thank you very much, Mike and the panel. Can I ask you to thank the panel. [applause]

Date published: 10 April 2013