You are in site section: History & ideas

Eyes of the Earth

Recently, in a conversation over coffee, Mike described his archaeological scoping trips across the desert as seeking the 'eyes of the earth'; he was referring to the waterholes (pers. comm.2013). His poetic phrase conjured for me an image of a sentient earth looking up at the sky, the trees, the rocks, the birds, the goannas and humans that come to drink from its precious water. Waterholes in the desert are glistening blue dots in a brown dry land, metaphorically they appear to be eyes looking outward and lenses through which to look into the earth.

My imagination played with the image of the scientist Mike peering through the lens of a waterhole and the spirit of wanampi the water snake looking back at him, both assessing the other. Mike is one of those rare scientists who might enter into a conversation with the wanampi, the mythic guardian of desert waterholes. Mike is prepared to climb out of his excavation pit, both literally and metaphorically, to engage with other ways of knowing country. To peel back the layers of the desert skin Mike has fostered many ongoing conversations with history, ecology, geomorphology, Indigenous knowledge and art. With a poetic eye and a wry sense of humor Mike continually challenges himself to look outside the trench.

Can a recidivist archaeologist learn to see the central Australian landscape through an artist’s eye….?’ (Strata,p24) This is the question Mike posed to himself when travelling with artist Mandy Martin and environmental historian Libby Robin to Puritjarra in western central Australia in 2004. Their collaborative purpose was to explore artistic and scientific readings of that archaeological landscape. It was a journey with friends to the heartland of Mike's long involvement in deserts. His previous excavations in the Puritjarra rock shelter during the 1980s and 1990s had unearthed human artefacts dating back 35,000 years, into the last Ice Age. This discovery dramatically extended the known archaeological time-line of human history in Australian deserts. The 2004 expedition was for Mike an opportunity to share the desert landscape as he sees it, 'as a historical document to be understood, interpreted, decoded' ( strata:19).

Having dug deep into the ancient strata of time at Puritjara he now wanted to expand his appreciation of the intangible cultural strata of this place; its beauty and power expressed in the art of the present. The resulting book of this journey Strata: Deserts past, present and future, weaves the stratigraphy of place from the warp and weft of human and environmental strands in the archaeological record and seamlessly incorporates the strong visual threads of Indigenous and non-indigenous artists' responses to Puritjarra country.

Reading Strata, inspired me to ask Mike if he would like to be involved in another interdisciplinary research project in the western desert, one that would involve journeys lead by traditional custodians along two of their Songlines. Although Mike and I have both worked in the deserts of central and western Australia since the 1980s our paths had not crossed until 2010 when conversations about the Songlines project began. I was keen for Mike to lead the archaeological research component of the project because of his obvious expertise and his passion for understanding all aspects of deserts. I thought his ears might be open to the songs of the desert and the complexity of Indigenous knowledge conveyed in these mnemonic records of place.

If waterholes are the 'eyes of the earth' what are the ears of the earth? Does the earth listen to the songs of the first peoples of these vast deserts and respond by bringing rain to parched ground, replenishing green foods and increasing the animal herds? Do these songs record a history of climate change, migration of peoples and the introduction of new foods and technologies that correlate to the archaeological record? Mike is prepared to listen to Indigenous song cycles and consider how these may expand his interpretation of the archaeological landscape. I look forward to journeying in the desert with Mike, an exceptional scientist whose eyes look into the earth while his ears are open to the many voices of the desert.

Diana James


Back to The Compleat Archaeologist