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Open mike session

Peter Stanley, Calogero Santoro, Alan Williams, Ingreth McFarlane, John Wilkinson, Jim Bowler, Ann Robb, Isabel McBryde, Marg Friedel, Sue Castrique, Manik Dataar and Dr Mike Smith, 8 February 2013

PETER STANLEY: Ladies and gentlemen, let me open the final session. You will have noticed that at afternoon tea custard tarts were served, and there’s a reason for this [applause]. The custard lobby is in the house. The reason is that, as you know, Mike was born in Blackpool, which is in Lancashire, and grew up apparently on a diet comprised exclusively of custard tarts. And custard tarts figure in the diet of the Centre for Historical Research and the Research Centre’s morning teas from time to time. So in a further very quiet tribute to Mike, we served custard tarts for afternoon tea. I hope they’ve got some leftover for this evening.

Now that I’ve got your attention with custard tarts, we were overwhelmed with the number of people who wanted to contribute to today’s session. As you can see, we’ve packed a few in in the substantive sessions but we also thought we would love to give people an opportunity to contribute in an informal way. So the final session of today’s conference is called ‘Open mike’ - ha-ha - in which those who aren’t on the formal program can have their say.

Through a process of essentially asking Mike who he’d like to have say something, I have half a dozen people whose names are here and I’d like to invite them to make brief contributions. But I’m hoping that will only take us 20 minutes or so, and thereafter we’re very happy to open it up to other people as well. Mike is here and can respond and have the microphone any time he likes.

Can I first of all, without further ado, call upon Professor Calogero Santoro, who’s come all the way from Chile. We’ve had people come from all the way across Australia. [applause]

CALOGERO SANTORO: I have a formal presentation but I handed it to Jo Bertini to do the editing just to be sure that everything was in good shape. First, I would like to say that I’m happy to be here and also to realise that this is a good way to celebrate people and to give honour to people, not when they are already not here or when they are so old that they are not realising what is going on with all this celebration, which is a custom that we have in our country. People die and then we have a huge celebration in the cemetery and so on, or he or she is sitting over there but he or she doesn’t know what is going on.

I first met Mike in 2002. When I have been listening to people today, I have been understanding some of his way to approach things. He would show up in the Azapa Valley with a thick volume with his project of the exhibition of the southern hemisphere desert, and he knew precisely what he wanted from our collection. That was his first time in our museum, but he perfectly knew that he wanted this shellfish hook and not the other one that we wanted to give to him. [laughs]

The other thing that impressed us was he was very formal and rigorous but in a sense that he was very respectful not only of the archaeology but also of the local population. I think when he presented Atacameño in the film, it’s a good example that he’s always concerned not just with well-educated people but also with the local people. So we did a lot of fieldwork working over what we call our driest place on the earth, the Atacama Desert, I would say, ‘Why can you talk about a desert, when you have all these green valleys with olive trees, tomatoes and everything growing nicely?’ By discussing this with Michael on the way, during the two or three days that he was there, I realised that the desert not only changed through time but even in our own time today the ideas or the vision that we have about the desert is totally different. What we see of our desert is totally different. What I saw about your desert when I went into South Australia to Alice Springs. In talking with Mike, he said, ‘You haven’t been doing anything bad, but you haven’t done any archaeology on the actual desert,’ and he was right. Most of our archaeology has been along the valleys or along the coast. Since his comment I have started to do real desert archaeology. [applause]

The other thing that happened to be there - he has this exhibition but then he has the idea to have this southern desert conference. The first one was taking place here, and now we’re having next year the fourth conference in Argentina, meaning that he created this network. It is impressive how he managed, without putting much effort, to create that, because the network that is now functioning because of the southern desert conference is impressive. We have learnt that the only way that you can understand the natural history and the cultural history of the desert is to have many different eyes and experience - photographers, poets and everything. That is my talk. Thank you, Jo Bertini, for your editing. Bye. [applause]

PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Calogero. There you have it. Mike has not only transformed the history of Australia’s deserts but also of South America’s. [laughter] Now, where’s Alan Williams? You have the floor for a few minutes, Alan.

ALAN WILLIAMS: This was sprung on me this morning, so I don’t have any pictures or anything. Just coming from a student, and many others in the room in the last 30 years or so, we found Mike has an amazing knowledge of the desert. The architecture of the desert, as I think somebody called it in pre-history, is wonderful now compared to what it was 30 years ago. For me personally, Mike, Phil Jones said it very well, whatever Mike says is worth listening to. It’s always good, whether it’s a morphology of grindstones or Rhys Jones landing on him in Malakunanja while he’s digging the site - some wonderful stories humanising the archaeology. He always has time to educate and explain things. I have often sent a one-line email on a question, and three hours later there’s a whole thesis sent back to me. It’s not uncommon.

For me, it has been and still is a wonderful experience to work with Mike and be a student of Mike. Hopefully the PhD will get finished this year one way or another - if he ever lets me. I guess as a young researcher looking for the next 10 or 15 years of a career, I would keen to see: Where do you think research needs to go? We know an immense amount about the deserts now. What is left? Name a site you haven’t been to or dug would be a good start. I’ll put it to you, Mike. What do you think the next ten years should look like?

MIKE SMITH: There’s quite a few avenues. The desert is still open slather for research, I think. At a general level we’re still to crack the whole problem of dating rock art. The moment you date rock art and can integrate that properly with the rest of archaeology, all of a sudden another dimension opens up about these social and cultural landscapes. We’re not doing too badly at the moment, but without dates a lot of its conjectural. That’s one thing.

Another area is that, as research has become more industrialised and more competitive, big grants, churning through the money and chasing the money rather than the ideas, we’ve sort of forgotten that the building blocks of our discipline are really well-machined site reports. It’s no criticism of anyone. For instance, we don’t have any good published survey plans of the Innamincka quarry complexes or studies of their production, their history or the order in which those quarry pits were opened up. You name it: whether you’re looking at a silcrete knife quarry, the Mount Isa axe quarries, the big red ochre quarries - often we lack basic good site reports. That goes for excavations too. In my dream I would have a shelf full of really good, thorough site reports, and they would become the basis of the pre-histories that we write.

The third level is our general approach. We have become quite abstract, quite problem-oriented, quite theoretical - and all that’s good - but along the way we’ve forgotten a basic historical framework. If you look at the archaeological record as a form of history, it opens up a whole range of new questions. For instance, if you look at the desert between 45,000 years ago and 35,000 years ago, that’s that first interesting phase of the establishment and consolidation of desert settlements. We know very little about that. We’ve got a few dates; we’ve got a few interesting finds; but we don’t have a feel for that in detail. Whatever that world was, it was shredded by the last glacial maximum, and so forth. There’s a whole range of questions we can ask. I hope my book will - in a way it’s a small book in terms of it’s a work of history - trigger a lot more comparative work where we compare our deserts with those in South America and southern Africa, a lot more historical work, and so forth.

INGRETH McFARLANE: I worked with Mike at an excavation at Lake Woods in the 1980s. That was another fluffy clay that needed to be dug through with jackhammers on a large scale, so it was a labour where there was a lot of time to reflect, a lot of stories told and a lot of dampers cooked - all those formative things in the stories around the campfire as you try and work out what’s going on in a complex landscape. All of that is part of the influence that Mike has continued to have spreading his vision, always pushing ahead of where you are, connecting things together and synthesising but also bringing in all his lovely, leavening literary knowledge and reflections from all sorts of sources. He has influenced a huge number of people and he very generously gave me a whole edition of the Horn Expedition notes, which I have used extensively - a great and very treasured hand me down when he got the proper facsimile version. Thanks, Mike, for doing what you do all over the place in large and small ways. [applause]

PETER STANLEY: I have a list of names but I am also conscious there are people who haven’t been fingered. Is there anyone who would like to say something?

JOHN WILKINSON: The camel people call me Wilko, and I’ve been a stockman all my working days for the last 22 years, spending quite a lot of time with camels, and naturally I’ve looked at country from the point of view of a stockman - how much feed there is to feed the animals? I now owe a great debt to Mike because I look at deserts in a different way now - not just the herbage on top but looking for all of the little things that you taught me to look for. I have spent a lot of time with Aborigines too and I learnt a lot from them, but they weren’t very explicit about all those things that interest Mike and now interest me. So thank you, Mike. [applause]

MIKE SMITH: I think what today has shown as much as anything is that, if you love your craft, it’s worth talking about it. I’ll talk about it to anyone who will stand still really. [laughter] I’m not advocating talking about yourself but talk about the work and the land. I think this can only be good if it brings new understandings of the landscape. A public understanding of archaeology and its potential has ramifications right through public debate. Sometimes we say: is archaeology worth doing? It has very little practical value. But can you imagine Australia today if we hadn’t had 30 years of archaeology? What would our public debates about Aboriginal land rights be? If we saw people as just very recent arrivals by canoe from the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, what weight would we give to the Dreaming? What weight would we give to the first people? It would fundamentally change our debates about those sorts of things.

Now I’m not a political crusader, I just want to get on with my archaeology. It’s a love of the chase and discovery. But it is an important line of work. It’s important to talk about it and share your interest. It’s a two-way thing, of course. Wilko has learnt a bit from me about archaeology, but I’ve learnt a huge amount about camels and country. Camels are a really fantastic discovery on my part. [laughter]

JIM BOWLER: I’ve observed Mike from a distance until a few years ago when, with Peter Veth, we collaborated in the excavation of that core in the Mulan Lakes. Mike, in opening up the story that in a sense began earlier when I was privileged to be associated with or start off the Mungo exercise, to know that that has spun off into something bigger, something opening up the central dry land of Australia - Mungo was just the beginning. And in that context we could not have done better than to have the footsteps of Mike Smith taking up where Mungo has not left off - Mungo is still going and has many agendas still to address - but to find that Mike has taken that to advantage, seen that as a great opportunity, something that needs to be done, and has wakened Australians generally. I think there’s a sense here that it’s time when we think of the nationality of who we are - we seek an Anzac Day and Australia Day, we continue to revisit our search for our national identity - our national identity is beneath our feet, and Mike has helped establish that in his work.

MIKE SMITH: I should respond. Thanks, Jim. There was a cohort of students that were following you to Lake Mungo, and one of the great opportunities I had was to be able to rub shoulders with people in the old department of biogeography and geomorphology. Gurdip Singh with his pollen work to follow your work at Lake Mungo, to work with John Magee, and to learn something of the craft of the quaternarists. In a way, I found myself a bit of a bridge between the quaternarists and the archaeologists. I sit on the National Committee for Quaternary Research. I think those skills that the quaternarists bring to reading landscapes have been very important for archaeology. We don’t work in partnership as much as we should or as much as we used to in the 1970s.

ANN ROBB: I was privileged to go to two of the early Puritjarra excavations and work with Mike on those. I came away with being really inspired not only by the archaeology in the country but by Mike’s passion and by the way he shared everything - information, everything about the learning, whatever, it was a very sharing experience. I’d been on many other excavations before then, and this stood out as absolutely unique. And he’s continuing to share. Even though I hadn’t been on excavations with him since then, every now and then in the mail or through some other method, as he produced other information or as something else had come to light, he’d send it on. It was always greatly appreciated, and I just wanted a chance to say that.

The other part that I wanted to say was - it’s come up a few times today; it might sound frivolous, but it isn’t when you’re on a dig - about the food. I was very impressed with Mike’s care for his workers. Although we worked hard - it could be a long day, 7.30 until 6 or something like that - I was surprised after previous experiences on how well he had planned menus, how to get the most out of the time to prepare meals and what he could provide for those meals. It was the first time I’d come across vacuum packed meat like that, because there is no refrigeration. He’d put on a roast in the camp oven early in the morning, and it would be ready when we’d come back at the end of the day. I learnt all sorts of tricks about preserving foot without refrigeration - wrapping cheese in chux and in plastic bags, and taking brie, when that would no longer suffice because you’re into your third or fourth week, that comes in a tin you can just open, and all that sort of thing. It was the quality of it that always surprised me.

Along with those wonderful discussions around the camp fire there would always be a small luxury - nothing extensive or over the top - but always that little bit extra so you could finish off the evening in a really nice way, whether it was a tot from a bottle passed around or something just pulled out of a pocket. I personally have also taught my kids how to cook the pan dampers that he used to do for breakfast every day. They were so delicious. Anyway, thanks.

MIKE SMITH: Pan damper in a way is starvation food, but it tastes really good towards the end of a dig. There are lots of tricks to living out bush. You don’t want food that you have to handle a lot as you prepare it to cook, because you’re dirty, you can never stay clean. I’ve always been very proud of the dedication and discipline of my field teams. You have to lead by example a little bit. It doesn’t happen automatically. Norman Tindale at the South Australian Museum was reputed to have made a cup of tea for his crew in bed every morning. I didn’t quite stretch to that. [laughter] But we did all right.

PETER STANLEY: Thanks. It occurs to me - I’m a humble historian, and historians tend to work on their own - one of the differences between the disciplines is that you guys do things together, and you don’t just work together, you live together for long periods in isolated places. I can see the camaraderie that that generates coming through, so there are insights even for historians here. Can I ask is Isabel McBryde in the house.

ISABEL McBRYDE: It’s been a great pleasure and indeed an honour to be here today. I’d just like to express that and express my admiration for the work that Mike has done over the years to promote an archaeological concern for the very special questions that need to be asked if you’re looking at desert environments and at the sort of social life that will be developed by societies in desert environments. I think that has been a great contribution from you, to move beyond the analysis of assemblages and putting them all in order in time and space and to move to considering the people behind the artefacts. I think that has been a great contribution to the life of all Australians. The other great contribution which I’d like to mention, which has come out from a lot of discussions today, is the way in which you have thought of comparing Australian desert life with the way in which societies develop life in deserts in other parts of the world. We’ve already had contributions from people who’ve been involved in that, and that again has been a very exciting contribution for which we are all very grateful to you. It makes distinct the environments and the economic and social opportunities and difficulties that face societies in desert environments, and also to put them in the context of changes over long periods of time. You just raised that in the advance comments on one of the questions that came up earlier. I’d just like to say we’re all very much indebted to you for raising those questions and giving us new perspectives on the lives of societies in desert environments not only in Australia but in other parts of 23 degrees south. So thank you, Mike. [applause]

MARG FRIEDEL: My name is Marg Friedel from Alice Springs, Dick Kimber’s wife. Mike, you might not remember, but I do recall 1980 very clearly when I was six months pregnant with Steve, there was this knock on the door and outside was Mike. Here he was, very cheerful, blue-eyed bands, slight turn in one eye and one of the only things I remember you saying, Mike, was, ‘How’s your pregnancy?’ I remember thinking, ‘What? Who is this man?’ [laughter] But it was the start of a terrific friendship. Our son Steve was just a little younger than Ben, who’s in the photo there. I must say you were a bit cleaner then too, but the family all become very good friends of ours.

My other thought is that in the work that I’ve done, being involved in an arid zone ecology, it’s enriched things greatly for me, because having first of all come in as a fairly detailed ecologist in the arid lands to then have the benefit of people who worked with satellite imagery so you get that breadth in space, but then also to keep learning from the sorts of things that you were doing about the breadth in time as well - I think it culminated in my having been one of the many people who have had the privilege of being able to read your manuscript of your book before it actually gets printed. It’s been a terrific privilege and a real pleasure the whole time, so thanks, Mike. [applause]

MIKE SMITH: Thanks, Marg. As I’ve become better socialised, I have tried to school myself to ask about people’s day and ask how they are before I start talking to them about archaeology. [laughter]

[Transcript not included at speaker’s request]

PETER STANLEY: Thank you. It all comes out now, Mike. [laughter]

MIKE SMITH: Just a word of explanation [laughter]. You had to build your own reference collections in those days so if you wanted to identify animals from skeletal remains, you had to have an interest in road-kill. [laughter]

MANIK DATAAR: It is just wonderful to hear all this great stuff about Mike, and all I want to say was that is all true. It’s been amazing. To have him go away a lot in those days when there was no communication of any sort - no mobile phone or even the radio phones, as you heard, didn’t work and so on - so there have been some interesting times. But the one great thing about Mike is that he is a very decent bloke. Apart from everything else you’ve said, it’s all true, but that’s something that I just wanted to say.

PETER STANLEY: Hear, hear. [applause] You get your chance to reply now, Mike, because I think Manik’s comment is the perfect opportunity to turn from ‘open mike’ to, as the program says, ‘a word from Mike’. Mike, if you’d like to take the podium, we’d be very keen to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

MIKE SMITH: Obviously, I’m tremendously thrilled with this tribute today. It’s a very interesting new way to do a festschrift. I’m thrilled that I’ve got so many friends. I’d certainly like to thank all of you for coming along today: my friends, my family, all our speakers, my colleagues, and of course I’d like to thank the National Museum of Australia for its generosity in honouring me in this way.

When I was first approached with the idea of a festschrift, that scholarly tradition of offering a book of essays to honour a colleague, I admit I wasn’t enthusiastic. Some have worked quite nicely, but these sorts of publications are too often dull and dusty works, full of the leavings of one’s bottom drawer, that manuscript that was unpublishable elsewhere and that has only the most tenuous connection with the person you’re honouring. It’s really about you rather than them.

So I suggested something more lively, something perhaps that looked at the intersection of desert archaeology with arts, poetry and film, something with the movement and colour that we’ve come to expect from the National Museum. One of the special things about working at the National Museum is its skill and experience in putting together a bit of theatre. You only need a whiff of a good idea and those marvellous folk in public programs swing into action. I really do owe a debt of gratitude to Heidi Pritchard, Alex Kidd and their team, and to Peter Stanley, Anne Farris and Cameron Muir for putting together such an engaging program of work today.

I’ve always felt that any mature discipline needs a literature in a very broad sense, especially a discipline as important and as interesting as archaeology. We need to leave some traces in public life other than just in the research record. There’s a personal interest here. Mandy Martin’s paintings about Puritjarra may well be discovered by art historians long after my own work at Puritjarra has been forgotten, so in a sense I’ll leave a fossil trace to be discovered.

Over the years I’ve been keen to embed archaeology in fine art, poetry and literary works. Today, I especially thank our poet, our artists and our filmmakers for plying their skill and their craft to the task and reflecting the beauty of Australia’s deserts. I’ve long wanted a poem that captured the essence of Australian archaeology. And now thanks to Mark we have one. So my next ambition now is for someone to write a novel that really captures the whole thrill and practice, and the grit and reality of archeological work.

I’d like to take a few moments to say something about the Malu. At one stage I imagined the day might be more about the Malu than the man. It’s been a very interesting period in Australian archaeology, but inevitably it’s a tribute; it’s about the man. Just to sketch out how I see the last few decades. Firstly I feel I’ve been privileged to be a member of quite a talented generation of Australian trained archaeologists, a generation that in some respects occupies a key transition point in the discipline. On the one hand, it was the last generation to be involved in the primary exploration of a continent’s pre-history - what Max Mallowan once called the Elizabethan phase of archaeology. He used it in a different context, but it’s a very nice phrase. We’re also amongst the last to work with Aboriginal people who grew up in the bush without contact with whites. I’m not saying that necessarily all this applies to me, but as a generation it’s a very interesting generation.

On the other hand, it was also the first to have access to such a dazzling array of archaeometric forensic science and dating techniques and such ready access to digital media, databases and analytical software. We’ve been really privileged in this. It’s hard to imagine now being able to work without the Internet, without PDFs and without sat[ellite] phones.

We’ve become very used to the great battery of scientific techniques we can bring to the samples we bring back from the field. We really can see a world in a grain of sand. It’s a pity though if that overwhelms the art and craft of the actual fieldwork. We must not ignore the world when we collect our grain of sand otherwise, as Max Mallowan said again, ‘We tend to miss nothing but we find nothing either.’

It was my cohort that picked up the baton from John Mulvaney, Rhys Jones and Jim Bowler. In a sense I represent this next wave of Australian archaeologists, and I was one of the first students in that undergraduate department that John set up, arriving in 1974. The department was going in 1972. It looked like it had existed forever but really it was just in its second or third year.

Going back a little earlier, I was very fortunate that my schoolboy and undergraduate years corresponded with a surge of archaeological excavation in Australia, so I was able to work at all these fascinating sites: at Roonka burial ground, Cathedral Cave, and so forth. I consciously began my apprenticeship - I always regarded archaeology as something that needed a field apprenticeship - early because I felt I was a bit of a klutz. I didn’t come from a well-heeled or terribly literate background and I felt it would take me a few extra years to get up to speed. I felt that, if I trained on all the digs before I came to ANU, I’d be up there with everyone else. But it turned out I was quite an unusually seasoned field hand by the time I came to ANU. I found enthusiasm opened all the doors as well.

It’s really hard to appreciate now how little we knew of the deserts when my eyes turned to research in the region, and of course as an Adelaide boy I always looked north to the Red Centre. So I was very fortunate that my first professional job was as a government field archaeologist in the Northern Territory with the Northern Territory Museum and I was able to work across central Australia. You also need to remember that this was the land rights era. It was a hothouse for community politics where the heroes of the day were travel-weary anthros [anthropologists] in dusty leather jackets, lined with kangaroo blood and red sand and with a savoir faire that suggested access to secret knowledge. I used to admire those guys. I was an outsider. I was an archaeologist. I was a dirt archaeologist.

I say ‘lucky’ because, apart from the opportunity to work across central Australia, I found, like many of my generation working in remote Australia, that remote Australia avoided much of the collision between archaeologists and Aboriginal people that took place in southern Australia where the growth and reinvention of Aboriginal identity and tradition made archaeology a battleground, shifting the equation from affirmation of a proud past to an apparent appropriation of that past by white fellows. None of us saw it this way, but that’s the sort of tone of the debate. Remote Australia escaped much of this. We worked on what was already Aboriginal land largely within a functioning clan and totemic system. The remnants of a polity no doubt but still a political system we operated within. It all seemed rather straightforward.

We had a personal obligation to do the right thing, to follow the right protocols - personal because we would personally be liable for the consequences. Dick Gould, who missed this step in this regard, very nearly became the first archaeologist to be speared. I didn’t quite stumble in this way but occasionally I did put a foot wrong. I remember working with the land council with a big bush party of Alyawarra Aboriginal men and women and being asked how old a certain panel of rock paintings were. They were of yellow ochre, which is notoriously friable. They couldn’t have been very old. I hazarded a guess that they were done by some men of their grandfather’s generation, and I was working for them on their native title claim, and people got very angry in the camp all through the night. The next morning I was brought to account and I was given a lecture, ‘We don’t change our law like white fellows change your clothes. This is the Dreaming. They’ve always been here.’ I’d forgotten that I was being asked a trick question. Archaeology was being asked to validate a religious system, not to analyse these paintings. It’s a system I respect, but this is what we worked with.

I’ve enjoyed the open desert where I can see the structure of the landscape, and I think we’ve seen the beauty of our deserts over today. But I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to see the desert from a range of perspectives. I’ve walked over large sections on archaeological surveys. I’ve driven across country with my four-wheel drive mates. I’ve travelled and talked the land with Aboriginal men, often with a senior man talking me through the mythology while I drove, explaining details that I didn’t really appreciate the significance of at first.

Like many archaeologists of my generation, I’ve gradually, almost imperceptibly, been drawn into the expansive and expanding world of the Dreaming, seeing the land as a storied landscape, rich in mythology. I love the sense that you can take all these different perspectives and you can hold the land up like a jewel to the light and turn it around and watch its different pattern and personality refracted in the light, as you turn that gem around. That’s the Malu. I’ve shared that with many archaeologists: Peter Veth, Giles Hamm and so forth.

But let’s ask the question: What would make a compleat archaeologist? We’ve played with that title. Originally it had a question mark and my colleagues generously deleted that. [laughter] It’s such a broad field that I think everyone would have a different take on this, and perhaps a compleat archaeologist would have to be a composite of many individuals.

I’d just like to say that over the years I’ve had some marvellous mentors, co-researchers and departmental colleagues. The best of these were intellectually and personally generous, with a sense of the history of archaeology, the gravitas and drama of research. They wrote good, clean prose, perhaps even elegant prose, and they had a nose for the main chance of research. The best were good in the field. They were field archaeologists with a strong feel for the nuances of stratigraphy and stratigraphic excavation. They were polymaths with an ability to turn ideas into research projects and an ability to make the most of the really rather austere archaeological evidence that Aboriginal archaeology presents. It’s a very lean, austere record we have to work with. Turning it into a history is not easy.

The best were also humanist scholars - not just good scientists but also humanist scholars - reaching out to immerse themselves in the scholarship of another world, an Aboriginal world, to understand traditional Aboriginal society in its own terms and through its own eyes. In a sense we have to be a cultural historian. We don’t necessarily have to adapt that approach in our work but we have to understand enough about these societies to respect them and operate within them. All of these are qualities I’ve aspired to in my own work, with various degrees of success.

And of course I’ve just been grateful for the journey. I see myself as a tradesman archaeologist. I didn’t set out to be God’s gift to archaeology and I don’t think I’m there. I’ve liked archaeology because it combines intellectual passion with the hard practical realities of fieldwork. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to travel the desert with Aboriginal men and women with the long red dirt roads, the impromptu mechanical repairs, the hauling of drums of fuel, the forensic work of archaeological science, the craft of digging a site, struggling to dissect an often cryptic stratigraphy, and the rush of interdisciplinary work with historians and quaternarists. All of this I’ve enjoyed. All of this goes into the mix to make a complete archaeologist.

But remote area work also brought its own special demands. We send young field archaeologists out into quite remote areas and just see if they survive. When I joined the Northern Territory Museum in 1980 I was given a roneoed manual outlining bush repairs to a four-wheel drive. The museum’s field officer, Karl Roth at that time, had put it together and alarmingly he had lost a couple of fingers, cut off when they were trapped in a collapsing wallaby jack. He had to cut his fingers off because he was in a remote area and couldn’t get his hand out of the jack. I was also alarmed to see there was a section explaining how to replace a damaged rear wheel by lashing a piece of timber to the undercarriage of a vehicle as a skid. I wasn’t quite sure I could do all of this but it seemed to be expected.

Fortunately, I never had to do all of this, but I did have one notorious trip in the Strzelecki Desert when other aspects of hazards of remote area work came into play. My then 10-year-old son went missing. He went to track his rabbit snares and missed his way back to camp. We had to track him through the night for eight kilometres, eventually finding him safe and sound. Any parent will appreciate the cold chill when you realise you have one chance to retrieve the situation or the heat will kill him tomorrow. He’s here today with no ill effect from his misadventure, fortunately.

It’s all such a long way from those comments of one British archaeologist writing in about 1915 that an essential skill of a field archaeologist was the capacity to withstand the rigours of a British hotel at all seasons of the year. [laughter]

I think another attribute of a complete archaeologist is an interest in communicating your discipline at various levels. You need to be a good communicator. I just love to read a well-researched, well-machined research paper. It’s a pleasure to come across an engaging blog, a newspaper interview with a clear account of a research project and its context, or a museum exhibition with a bit of theatre drama and impact. As a museum curator, I’ve tried my hand at all of these just as part and parcel of a job. Any attempt to stimulate public interest in archaeology is really to be encouraged. I’m struck by when I started out and was interested in archaeology, there was almost nothing to read on Australian archaeology. There was John Mulvaney’s 1969 book The Prehistory of Australia, but now there’s a whole shelf - Josephine Flood, Peter Hiscock and Bruno David’s wonderful book. It just goes on and on, a really rich resource for an inquiring mind.

If you love your field, you also realise that the field is not a fixed edifice. Archaeology is a field created and re-created every day through our own actions and conduct as archaeologists. Archaeology is what we make it. It’s important that we do the best work we can, the most thorough research projects we can, that we build assets for the field, that we mentor or at least encourage colleagues and younger students - all of that stuff. I’ve tried to do that even when I felt that people were perhaps moving in on my territory.

It’s all a tall order. Not everyone can be good at everything, but my generation of archaeologists have, on the whole, I think made a really good fist of it. While I personally relish all the attention today, I like to think this day also celebrates a fairly talented generation of Australian trained archaeologists - and many of them are here today, so thank you. [applause]

Date published: 10 April 2013