Profile of a desert archaeologist
Dr Mike Smith is Director of Research and Development at the National Museum of Australia. A distinguished field archaeologist, he pioneered research into late Pleistocene (Ice Age) settlement in the Australian desert.
For 25 years, Mike has worked across the Australian Desert, attempting to systematically piece together a picture of the human and environmental history of this fascinating region. Here, he is digging a 1000-year-old site, north of Lake Amadeus in Central Australia.
One of his most important discoveries was Puritjarra rock-shelter, a site which preserves a long detailed record of human occupation in the centre of the continent, covering more than 300 centuries.
An archaeological excavation, like surgery, involves careful dissection of hidden structure. After finding Puritjarra, the next problem was to plan its excavation. During the first season, Mike concentrated on recovering a good stratigraphic sequence and working out the chronology. Later, he probed different zones of the rock-shelter to get a better picture of how people had used different parts of the shelter.
Few sites are simple 'layer cake' accumulations of sediments. Even in a small rock-shelter, the warp and weft of the stratigraphy can be as complex as a Persian carpet. Archaeologists learn to follow the layers, picking out pits and other disturbances.
Australian archaeologists work in small teams, and are often out in the field, living in the open for weeks at a time, with little logistical support. Like most desert archaeologists, Mike developed a passion for desolate places and formed strong friendships with local Aboriginal people on whose land he worked.
'Whatever else it may be', says Mike, 'archaeology shows that a desert landscape is also a rich historical document, preserving a complex record of the interaction of past climates, environments, and cultural systems'.