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Mike Smith


Name: Dr Mike Smith AM

Title: Honorary Senior Research Fellow – Archaeology, Research Centre

Qualifications: Bachelor of Arts (Honours, First Class) (ANU, 1977); Master of Arts (ANU, 1980); Doctor of Philosophy (UNE, 1988)


  • Prehistoric archaeology and Aboriginal history
  • Quaternary environments, geochronology and past climate change
  • Human-environment interactions in Australian drylands
  • History of ideas and the history of science in Australian drylands
  • Environmental history
Quick links:

Mike Smith staff: presentations and papers

Mike Smith: Stratigraphy lecture videos

Into the desert: audio blog

AM in Australia Day Honours list media release

The Compleat Archaeologist – February 2013 tribute to Mike Smith

Mike Smith
Mike Smith

Dr Mike Smith is a pioneering desert archaeologist and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Research Centre.

For more than 30 years he has worked extensively across the Australian arid zone attempting to piece together a picture of the human and environmental histories of this diverse and fascinating region.

Follow Mike's expedition into the remote Simpson Desert by listening to him tell his fascinating story of discovery, comrades and camels – Into the desert: audio blog.

Current activities

Mike’s research focuses on the prehistory, cultural history and human ecology of Australia’s deserts, the history of ideas about Australian drylands, the timing, nature and impact of early human colonisation of the Australian continent, and the presentation of environmental history in museums.

His major projects during 2011–2015 include:

The Archaeology of Australia's Deserts book cover
  • The Archaeology of Australia's Deserts – a major book reviewing the archaeology of Australia’s deserts is now published by Cambridge University Press.
  • Songlines of the Western Desert – Mike’s role in this wide-ranging cultural mapping project is to undertake regional archaeological work in the Mann-Musgrave Ranges in northern South Australia, leading into a structured investigation of the age and evolution of the ‘Dreaming’ as a religious system. Australian Research Council LP110200742.
  • Modern human origins and early behavioural complexity in Australia and Southeast Asia – Mike’s role in this collaborative project involves re-excavation of Malakunanja II in the Jabiluka area, western Arnhem Land. This archaeological site has the very earliest evidence for Aboriginal occupation of Australia. It was first excavated in the 1970s but a range of factors now mean it is timely to look in more detail at the character of the earliest occupation. Australian Research Council DP110102864.

Mike is also a member of the National Committee for Quaternary Research, Australian Academy of Science.

Mike was awarded an AM in the Australia Day Honours list in 2013 for significant service to archaeological scholarship.

Mike was awarded the inaugural Director’s Award for Excellence in January 2014.

Mike Smith at work in the Simpson Desert.
Mike Smith at work in the Simpson Desert. Photo: Stuart Grant.


Mike's previous appointments include the post of field archaeologist with the Northern Territory Museum in Darwin and Alice Springs, research fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University, and lecturer in archaeology in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University.

Mike joined the National Museum of Australia in 1996, initially as head of the People and Environment section and later as Director of Research and Development.

Along with his current role as a Senior Research Fellow at the National Museum's Centre for Historical Research, Mike is also Adjunct Professor in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University

Mike Smith's publication covers


Mike is author, co-author or editor of five books and his work is represented in major scientific journals such as Nature, Science, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, Antiquity, Archaeology in Oceania and Quaternary Science Reviews. He has also written for leading literary journals and the print news media and is an editor of the National Museum's scholarly journal, reCollections. 

Mike is an elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and of the London in Antiquaries of Society.

In 2006 ,the Australian Archaeological Association awarded him the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology.

In 2010, the Royal Society (South Australia) awarded Mike the Verco Medal for research in science.

Mike Smith in the desert with a camel.
Travelling the Simpson Desert.

Lecture: The Lost Art of Stratigraphy

Understanding the biography of an archaeological site generally requires an understanding of its sedimentary history. In this audiovisual presentation, museum archaeologist Mike Smith talks about the importance of understanding site stratigraphy as one of the basic skills of any good field archaeologist.

Sophisticated instruments are not crucial to this. You don’t need portable XRF, magnetic susceptibility geophysical techniques such as GPR, or high-end laboratory analyses. Any good field archaeologist can make a competent assessment of a site’s stratigraphy. Much can be done with a basic field assessment – provided the right questions are asked.

The aim of this lecture is to get you thinking stratigraphically – beginning with sediments, then moving on to look at layers, interfaces and features, and finishing with the processes that overprint or reorganise the original stratigraphy of a site.

The Lost Art of Stratigraphy lecture comprises seven videos:

  • Introduction (11 mins)
  • Sediments (18 mins)
  • Layers and Strata (23 mins)
  • Interfaces, Palaeosurfaces and Unconformities (12 mins)
  • Features (15 mins)
  • Post Depositional Processes (3 mins)
  • Recording a Sequence (14 mins)

Or you can access the series through YouTube.