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Just another sand dune

Mike Smith at an ancient engraving of a Thylacine, vicinity of Canning Stock Route.

Since visiting Lake Gregory in 1980 as an undergraduate when the 'homelands' movement in the Great Sandy Desert was in swing and taking a natural and cultural transect with Kimberley Traditional Owners down the Sturt Creek - I have been taken by deserts. Seas of sand dunes and sheets punctuated by uplands and episodic playas and creeks presented a scale of human landscape and totemic geography near-unmatched in the world. As I began serious reading of the Australianist and international literature on desert societies and environments, legacy works by Jennings, Mountford, Gould, Hayden and others came to the fore. However it was Mike Smith working in central Australia on an arsenal of inter-related themes that stimulated my interest in desert boundaries; technological systems; mobility patterns and the very nature of the evolution of desert societies. It became clear to me - and then a driving motivation in my studies - that desert societies had one major cultural asset – and that was their innate social dynamism and resilience in the face of changing climatic, cultural and demographic parameters.

While a number of scholars developed a new narrative about desert groups being infinitely flexible yet adhering to a very complex and ‘conservative’ law – Mike was central to many of the fine-grained analyses based on long-term survey, mapping, excavation and analysis of desert sites – and most prominently Puritjarra – which allowed this new view to gain greater currency over the last 20 years. Of course it is easy to forget that Mike carried out pioneering with Rhys Jones and Bert Roberts in the Top End where a range of deeply stratified sites were dated by the OSL method to possibly greater than 50,000 years ago. These were obviously fertile areas which perhaps stood in stark ecological contrast to those of central Australia. And yet it was a working premise of Mike’s (and strongly supported by Rhys) that hunter-gatherers of the arid lands were essentially ‘infinitely adaptable’, capable of early use of both desert uplands and lowlands showing persistence through major fluctuations of the LGM, ENSO and so forth.

A dynamic exchange began in both field strategy and the literature between Mike, myself, Peter Hiscock and others from the 1990s which resulted in new syntheses for the evolution of desert societies in Australia and ultimately the deserts of the Southern Hemisphere and then globally. In 1996 as part of my ongoing surveys for the huge Martu native title claim, major claim boundary surveys were carried out with up to 10 vehicles and 50 claimants at a time – trips lasting for up to a month at a time. We accessed these areas usually by marginal tracks – such as the Canning Stock Route – then usually headed off for a week at a time with a GPS, minimally detailed maps but forensically skilled custodians who had been born on, and travelled extensively through, these remote lands before making contact.

In one memorable trip Mike and I (and some 25 Martu), visited mythological and archaeological sites along a 2,400 km transect; excavated a rockshelter with exceptionally rich art in the remote Calvert Ranges (Kaalpi); recorded a host of highly significant rock art sites and documented the significance of sites towards the claim which was determined with exclusive possession in 2002. Valorously Mike offered to drive the Landcruiser trayback – essentially the expedition support vessel - carrying some 1,000 litres of spare fuel, pumps, tyre casings, jacks, tools and so forth. Safely cresting 20m plus dunes for days on end with this significant load, in between intensive field recording, was challenging – however Mike accomplished this with vigour. Late in the trip when his eyes were somewhat bloodshot from staring up at the 200th dune he noted wryly that this landscape was somewhat different to those of central Australia.

The direct outcomes of this trip was quality data for the Martu native title claim which was successful; a peer-reviewed paper on the analysis and implications of the Kaalpi excavation; and a successful nomination for an Order of Australia for a leading custodian Kirriwirri (Mack) Gardener – a Manjilyjarra man - who participated on this trip and shown extraordinary stewardship in heritage, management, linguistic and allied cultural studies for several decades.

It is perhaps with a satisfying sense of closure that Mike has just been award the AOM for his services to the discipline of archaeology, museum-based research and specifically our deep-time understandings of the evolution and dynamism of Australia’s desert peoples.

By Peter Veth

Back to The Compleat Archaeologist


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