Philip Jones, Peter Veth, Anne McConnell and Dick Kimber, 8 February 2013
PETER STANLEY: Let’s move into the second of our substantive sessions. We decided that the second session should be devoted to a stratigraphy of Mike Smith. As you can see, our knowledge of archaeology is rubbed off on us and now we can use the word ‘stratigraphy’ quite freely without really knowing exactly what it means, but we gather it means to understand the layers of Mike’s career. In order to investigate these careers, we invited our long-term colleague and a dear friend of the Museum Dr Philip Jones, the distinguished curator of the South Australian Museum, who will lead a panel which discusses a stratigraphy of an archaeologist, looking at the layers of Mike’s work. So thank you, Philip Jones and friends. Over to you, Philip.
PHILIP JONES: Yes, it really is a daunting list. I had a look at the download of participants here today. What a kaleidoscope of talent and history in the audience, as well as along here to my right, with the exception of Douglas Multa, who can’t be here today and who would have probably given us a dimension that I think we’re all very aware of in terms of Aboriginal involvement in all of Mike’s activities.
My own contact with Mike - I suppose we describe orbits in museums around each other’s collections, in a way, and those orbits take us interstate and overseas. In Mike’s case they take us deep underground. But in his case, his and mine did intersect at one point: mine at the level of history and his in the realm of history as an extension of the sort of archaeology that he practices in looking at red ochre and its circulation through Aboriginal Australia and particularly from a couple of sites in central Australia. Karrku has already been mentioned as the source of the Puritjarra ochre.
The word ‘Karrku’ was also used by the Flinders Ranges Aboriginal people, and the people visiting the mine in the Flinders Ranges called Pukardu where Mike focused some of his research. As he got deeper into this business of ochre provenancing, I found that the conversations I was having with Mike were of a nature that I think that he has with many people. He has very few wasted conversations. They’re all focused, whether they’re on the subject of history, desserts possibly, archaeology, or any of the arcane elements of archaeology that we’ve touched on today. I realised, as my conversations with Mike developed, that none of it was small talk – well, it might have been on my part, but it was being siphoned off into this well that he would then draw on for his publications.
Not only his publications, because the other orbit that intersected was the orbit of museology and museum ethnography. There are fewer of us speaking that language today. The field is in some degree of crisis, I think. Mike has been one of those who has recognised the importance of tethering archaeology to museums because, apart from the public or the TV archaeology that we’ve become familiar with in the last 15 or 20 years, it’s been the museums which have introduced archaeology into the popular imagination from the very first breakthroughs that [Norman] Tindale made in 1929 and John Mulvaney following with the actual evidence, the material and the artifacts that have been tangibly presented in museums. This is something that we’ll be exploring this afternoon through the museum segment.
Anyway those orbits are partly what we’re looking at. In this session we’re looking at the stratigraphy – just as we really did in the last session as well - of an archaeologist. If you turn to my recipe for a stratigraphic layered cake in the dessert book, you’ll see that I’ve tried to tackle that there. But I’m not an archaeologist so it’s a dodgy recipe. [laughter]
Anne [McConnell] has been in the deepest layers of Mike’s stratigraphy because she was a fellow student with him here at ANU in the early 1970s and came to know Manik soon after that as well. Her own orbits have coincided as well through the provenancing of stone material ochre as well. Even though Anne’s work has taken her out of that realm perhaps back into historical archaeology - with her work in Antarctica and other historical sites, both in Australia, New Zealand, Jordan, France and all over the place - in a way it mirrors the eclectic extraordinary range of Mike’s interests. So I’d like to pass over to Anne.
ANNE McCONNELL: Being a geoscientist as well as an archaeologist, I’ve decided I’d like to step back from the stratigraphic profile briefly before I start on the lowest layers and interpreting them and have a look at the stratigraphy as a whole. I guess this has sort of come out – when this Mike Fest was announced, I sat back and thought, ‘Mike’s a really great friend. I’d love to do this today. He’s a good archaeologist, but is he that good to have a whole day to himself?’ I sat back and reflected on it and I thought, ‘Yes, he is.’ [laughter] That’s why I’m still here. I sat back and thought about: What are the hallmarks of Mike’s approach to archaeology? What are the qualities that he’s put into his archaeology that makes him a good archaeologist and has allowed him to achieve so much?
What I’m going to do is run through some words. Some of these words I’m using here I want to refer back to or, if you remember them, you’ll pick them up in my descriptions of the lower layers of the stratigraphy. One of the hallmarks of Mike’s work is his thoroughness and methodical approach to things - a very traditional sort of approach, but on top of that he’s built a lot about the things.
He’s very, in a scientific sense, inclusive and multidisciplinary. So he has brought to his work, and I think over the accumulated years he’s gathered in more and more different approaches, he’s built a foundation and then added more to it, and woven them together to produce a rich story about sites and landscapes.
On a personal level, he is also very inclusive and collaborative. And at all different levels, he is egalitarian in that he will deal with colleagues, senior lecturers, important people and students all on very much the same level; he treats them equally; he’s interested in what they have to say. You don’t have to agree with him, but he’s interested to know your thoughts. And he is also reflective because he thinks about what people say. Where he feels it’s appropriate, he draws it into his work. I think this has also made his work much richer.
One of the other key hallmarks is his focused nature. He hasn’t done anything too tangential. He’s moved ‘forwards’, in the words of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, but in a very productive direction. He’s also very intelligent and reflective about his work, and I’m beginning to realise he has a prodigious memory.
The other key thing, which Philip has alluded to, is that he wastes nothing. I suspect that, despite his immigration from England, he may have strong Scottish genes. In terms of wasting nothing, I think what Mike has done is every opportunity that has presented itself he’s taken. He has not been daunted by challenges. And in his interactions with people he has also wasted, as Philip says, nothing. He learns from people. He doesn’t take from people. He absorbs what people are prepared to give. It engenders good friendships and good collaborative work. In talking about the layers, I’ll come back to that.
I think also, to paraphrase a quotation, at the side of most good men there is a very good woman. In this case Mike and Manik got together in 1974 at some stage. Manik has been a hugely supportive and interested part of his life and part of his research and obviously his personal life. Manik has gone on digs when she wanted to; she’s not gone on work when she didn’t want to. She’s a very strong woman in her own right, very intelligent, very creative, and has some very strong egalitarian views that I think has helped to keep Mike honest, balanced and enabled him to wear the same sized Akubra for most of his career. [laughter]
My other one comment as backgrounding is that, in putting all these things together and looking at Mike’s work over his lifetime, I think what Mike also is that he’s a builder. He started small with very well-developed foundations, and he’s built block by block. He started with work at Roonka as a volunteer. He went to ANU and studied to become an archaeologist. He did his honours at Devon Downs, which was an excavation, and then a survey at Plumbago Station, and he’s slowly been building. You can see these foundations, and then he’s pulled in the multidisciplinary stuff. He’s excavated Puritjarra, so really pulling all this stuff into one site. He has then looked outwards and he has attempted to put Puritjarra into its Central Australian chronological, human and landscape context.
Then at the Museum he’s branched out further, so you can see like the trunk of a tree with the early roots. This trunk that had been in Central Australia from the museum the branches have grown outwards to create a fantastic shade, and that’s sort of looking globally to see what are the archaeology of deserts around the world. I think this is an extraordinary, beautiful edifice that Mike has built. It enriches our lives, and I think it is also so well-built that it will stand for a long time. That’s the preparatory bit.
Now I’ll try and skip through the lower layers. I couldn’t find the sterile soil. When I was at Roonka with Mike on an excavation in 1973, and I believe at that time Mike said he had wanted to be an archaeologist from when he was, I thought three, but he wouldn’t have even known the word then, so I think it was like five, six, seven years old or what have you. But I was impressed at the time, because I’d never known anyone who knew what they wanted to be so young in life and actually did it. I guess this is part of the plan. I guess I’m calling that the basal layer, when he understood he wanted to be an archaeologist. It’s a thin layer, but important.
And layer basal minus one is Roonka. My understanding from Mike is that he’d been trying to find ways to get involved in archaeology. He talked to Doug Seton at the University of Adelaide, who suggested he join the Anthropological Society, and at the Anthropological Society one time Graeme Pretty, who was then curator of archaeology at the South Australian Museum, gave a talk on his work at Roonka, and Mike asked if he could join. Graham was very inclusive and welcomed all the help he could get and invited Mike along.
For those of you who don’t know about Roonka, Roonka is a quite important site on the Murray River, which Graeme Pretty excavated from 1968 to 1974. Mike was involved in this excavation for two years of his life. Not having a lot of money, the South Australian Museum had to rely on a lot of volunteers. Those volunteers worked extremely hard. Graeme and others trained them. They worked every second weekend, I understand, and on Wednesday nights they sorted and catalogued material from the excavation. This was the foundation of Mike’s archaeology in a way. From my two weeks at Roonka, I found it to be a great training exercise. It was a tightly-run excavation. Graeme was very inclusive. He treated people equally. He taught well, and it was a fantastic learning experience. Some of the hallmarks of Mike that I have noted are in fact things that he may have learnt from Graeme.
I’m just going to read a short bit out of Keryn Walshe’s book on Roonka [Roonka: Fugitive Traces and Climatic Mischief, 2010], pulling all the work that was carried out there together, because it mentions Mike:
A notable new recruit was young Mike. Aged about 16, Mike was quietly determined to become an archaeologist. He had read everything he could lay his hands on dealing with the subject, and was most disappointed to find that ignorance of our existence had made him miss three years of practical experience. Making the most of his opportunities now, however, he was to be found on the edge of every interesting conversation, soaking up information like a sponge; on the site he was a patient and diligent worker who did whatever job he was given without complaint. A certain dry humour and a propensity for evil suggestions made him a welcome member of the team. For those like Mike with a real taste for archaeology, we had a number of things on the site to interest them.
The site was actually an extremely rich site. They excavated nearly 200 burials with grave goods and things like that, and I would just like to say that this excavation of burials was in fact a salvage excavation rather than a purely research excavation, which was quite interesting in itself for the time.
My experience at Roonka was I found Mike very welcoming. He showed me around the site, taught me what I needed to know, and was just generally very friendly - so much so that by the end of the dig I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist too. I went back to Western Australia and did what I had to do but, because I couldn’t do a degree there, I had to go to ANU to become a proper archaeologist. I met Mike there in 1975 when he had one year there.
But before I go on to the next upper layer, I just want to mention that, in terms of Mike trying to make the most of the opportunities that he was offered, or even seeking out opportunities, he had also done a lot of other excavations before he went to ANU. These are some of the key ones. He dug at Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor in two seasons with Dr Gallus in 1971 and 1973. I should say that I dug in 1973, so when he started in 1971, he was 15 years of age, pursuing his career at an early age. He dug at Wyrie Bog in South Australia with Roger Luebbers, and he also got involved in caving and did some excavations of faunal material and cave surveys. So you can see how all this background is slowly building into perhaps Puritjarra and desert archaeology - not in the desert but on the fringes.
Basal layer minus 3, a student at ANU. Being a student at ANU at that time was an important period to be there, and I think it also moulded who we were going to be as archaeologists, and it moulded Mike in particular. As John Mulvaney has said, it was a new department and there were a lot of fantastic new, enthusiastic teachers. There was the Research School of Pacific Studies with a lot of other well-known archaeologists. As Mike as also said, he was among giants and there was a lot to learn and they were doing a lot of interesting research. Mike was one of the few who regularly attended the seminars down at the research school - in his bare feet and duffle coat he was noticed.
In terms of wasting nothing, he’s also not ostentatious and not given to lots of surplus stuff. When I first met him he was living in Corin Huts at ANU, which were the huts moved down from the mountain after building Corin Dam, which was fairly spartan and people who lived there had quite a reputation for toughness. Mike probably could have been a good archaeologist anywhere, including in Antarctica, after that experience.
It was a really amazing time to be there. Staff were John Mulvaney, Isabel McBryde, Andrée Rosenfeld and Wilfred Shawcross. In a recent conversation with Mike, he said to me that Wilfred Shawcross was particularly important to him as an undergraduate because Wilfred, with his inquiring mind, encouraged Mike to understand that you just didn’t have to have to accept what you were told; there was not only one way of looking at stuff; you could question the sites; you could question the data; you could re-investigate and re-explore material and look at things in different ways. This is very much what he did with his honours thesis at Devon Downs which, interestingly enough, brought him back very close to Roonka.
That’s pretty much what I was going to say. I just had one anecdote, which just shows how focused and committed Mike was to archaeology. At some stage in the three or four years that Mike, Manik and I all lived on the same street in Canberra, we were invited to a dinner party with just archaeological students and we were served Murray cod - this could have been the Devon Down years actually. We were given empty jam jars, and we were told we had to put all the bones, including the otoliths, in the jam jars, and we would be in deep trouble if any went missing, because he was very keen to know how bone weights related to meat weights of fish. Another example of Mike not letting an opportunity go wasted. I think I’ll leave it there, thank you. [applause]
PHILIP JONES: Thank you very much, Anne, fantastic. We’re building up this stratigraphy now. With that listing - we’ve had a couple of analogies with the surgery analogy and the cricket analogy, but the listing of all of the key and major archeological digs that Mike has participated in during the last 30 years reminds me also of the military analogy - not through necessarily his organisation but a mental image flashed into my mind of a general with all that fruit salad on the lapel - Devil’s Lair, Roonka, Wyrie Swamp. It’s impressive. I can see maybe another picture at some stage.
ANNE McCONNELL: I did have a list of the excavations he went on as a volunteer at ANU which reads: Lake Mungo twice with John Mulvaney and Wilfred Shawcross; Cave Bay Cave with Sandra Bowdler in Tasmania; Early Man Rock Shelter with Andrée Rosenfeld; Native Well with Mike Morwood; Cathedral Cave with John Beaton; and I went on a survey with him at Prungle. I did want to actually mention the Cathedral Cave excavation because Mike is also, but it’s very secret knowledge, slightly romantic, and it was in Cathedral Cave that he proposed to Manik. [laughter]
PHILIP JONES: Right. Someone who’s had a parallel career in some ways is the current Winthrop Professor of Archaeology at the University of Western Australia, Peter Veth, who will, I think, throw some very interesting light on Mike’s modelling and way of thinking about the desert and how those paradigms have shifted over time.
PETER VETH: Thank you. It’s very exciting to be here. I feel like I’ve been living a Mike fest for the last 30 years. Indeed, my first transect through the cultures of the Walmajarri and Jaru people, and biogeographically down the Sturt Creek was to Lake Gregory in 1980. That was with one of Binford’s students as an undergraduate. I couldn’t believe the dunes, the salt lakes, the strata that was horizontally splayed in front. Jump ahead almost 30 years, and there we are on the invitation of Jim Bowler, Kim Mahood and others, and the traditional owners, looking at this extraordinary site at Paruku, at Lake Gregory Pungapirti, and we are looking for an earlier faces of occupation at 30,000, 40,000 possibly 50,000 years. What was it? Ten days, two weeks, of meticulous work of what were promising to be fluffy lunettes, soft, cake-like. After numerous kanga hammers, running generators, sharpening devices, backhoes spads for about a week or so, and finally getting in the Lake Gregory Mulan backhoe with the chairman actually running it, a huge trench exposed one of these earlier gravels and we found artefacts and other cell dating that was carried out by Captain Simmons and others.
On the last half hour on the very last day, with failing light, Mike was down the major trench - we’ll call it Super Trench - he just appeared and said, ‘I have an artefact.’ That turned out to be bracketed by dates conservatively coming in at 37,000 to 50,000 BP, but most likely between 45,000 to 50,000. That’s the icing and basal chronology and strata you get in the cake that is the package with Mike. It’s quite extraordinary.
When I came back from that 1980 trip and started to read the Australianist literature seriously and read Jennings from the US, Mountford, Gould, Hayden, Mulvaney and others in Australia, it was Mike’s work coming out in the early 1980s that actually had an incredibly fine-grained forensic approach to looking at the way the archaeology sat spatially, behaviourally, in a way which was almost an interesting combination of processional and post-processional approaches that actually spoke to deep history. It was that that inspired me, and Mike was actually writing explicitly about this, to think about desert mobility patterns that were extraordinary in a global level. There were of a scale that we hadn’t thought about, I suspect, as Australian archaeologists - certainly not for the arid zone. People covering hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres in an annual round to think about the nature of, the essence of the desert adaptation. Where people may have had, and do have, a very strong cultural law but where their resilience allows enormous flexibility in not just social relations but in their economies through time, and this is very much the desert narrative.
People go into possibly more benign environments at 40,000 to 50,000 years ago - in some sense the desert climatically comes to them - and there are these desert transformations. These transformations are seen obviously in changing records from Lake Mungo and Willandra, from many projects including most seminally Puritjarra from Mike, and increasingly from all these other excavations that he either worked directly or indirectly throughout the arid zone. It’s about transformation; it’s about resilience; it’s about flexibility; but with this strong cultural law that has deep time.
I think Mike actually took one of Reece’s core tenets about people being infinitely adaptable, able to move into any kind of environment, able to withstand most climatic extremes, pushed this agenda of 40,000 years of desert penetration, gave that flesh with the Puritjarra archaeological record. And then argued quite strongly in many different ways that there was evidence for repeated occupation through the last glacial maximum, albeit in different ways by desert peoples in different parts of the arid zone. That was very much the dynamic, the discourse between his work, Peter Hiscock’s from Lawn Hill, and other parts of south-east Australia, and my own predominantly in the Western Desert. This has been borne out now in many exciting ways.
Just think about it. It is a major climatic change, there’s a temperature drop of up to nine degrees, dune fields are active, they’re on the edge of Duntroon in Canberra. It’s different to the Ice Age of the northern hemisphere but human groups obviously did change the economic, social, and probably spiritual and belief systems very significantly. Mike actually laid the architecture of understanding and engagement to deal with that very complex issue for arid zones, which then, in a sense, migrated from Australia to comparative understandings of the deserts of South Africa, of South America, and then, in a sense, go back into thinking about Eurasian glacial landscapes of the northern hemisphere.
In fact, Clive Gamble has taken up many of these themes and said, ‘Well, we have these kinds of aggregation nodes, we have these LGM signals from the northern hemisphere, deserts play it out differently. What are the comparisons? What can they tell us about the way people make art? What can they tell us about the way they exchange information? We have Venus figurines in the north. What do people do in the south? Maybe archaic faces, maybe not - really important hot tubs of innovative thinking.
This came from work that was indeed surgical and forensic-like. That definitely is the trademark of Mike’s approach. But it works hand in hand with extraordinary creativity, which is why his work is a hub for all of these creative artists in allied fields. You can’t help but think about the way people moved between different water sources, how they signalled with art, where the ochres came from over vast distances, when you look at the detailed record that is the Puritjarra story.
In 1996, we were doing about the sixth survey for the Martu native title claim. These were technically the last people on the planet to make contact with Europeans. A large group of people from 1963 to 1964, their art is outside here for an exhibition. People like John Carty and others are here who have worked on that intensively. Extraordinarily, the Western Australian system required proof beyond reasonable doubt that the last people on the planet actually had some interest in native title. So we’re on about our fourth major trip around the boundary of a 130,000-square kilometre potentially determination area, and Mike volunteered to come along. That’s probably too soft a word. I think I cajoled him. I said, ‘Would you like to come on a nice little trip?’ So he arrived, and there were probably about 40 Martu traditional owners, inter-generational participation, women, men; we had about eight vehicles and we had to do a very large circumnavigation of the claim to look at the intersection between archaeology, occupation patterns, particularly contact sites, and art and Dreamings or ‘dukur’, and then see how that might feed into the larger anthropological and claimant oral testimony.
Mike very generously, valorously, agreed to drive the support vehicle. This was a tray-back that probably had too much on it. I think it had roughly 800 litres of fuel, about 10 tyre casings and huge numbers of spares. He did have two or three Martu people accompany him on this trip, but it was about two and a half weeks of very serious driving over literally hundreds of sand dunes per day or two days. During that time we excavated the Kaalpi Rock Shelter, which was a significant part of the determination. We recorded 60 or 70 major sites around the edge of the determination, and ultimately that report was handballed into the final 2002 decision which gave people exclusive possession.
That wasn’t a trip where Mike just contributed substantively in the field. At the end of it we produced a major peer-reviewed report which was fantastic. It brought art models for changing seed-grinding use and so forth, and indeed more evidence for the way groups might have responded to peak aridity during the last glacial period together, and so forth. But interestingly, Mike actually worked closely with one of the senior men who had been part of the Martu movement for at least 15 years, a man called - and I can use his name now because of the period of time that has elapsed – Kirriwirri or Mack Gardener.
Kirriwirri had worked intensively with anthropologists, with historians, with mining folk and indeed with archaeologists for some time in ways that presented unique cross-cultural understandings of how the Martu experience immediately pre and post contact could inform archaeology to create envelopes of imagination about where people may have actually gone during the initiatory cycle, where women may have gone through the Wimpa cycle, and so forth, in the Percival Lakes. This was not just interesting information but almost globally unique. Mike started the process for Mack Gardiner to get an Order of Australia, which he did a couple of years later, and that was incredibly exciting. About 1,000 Martu people came to Newman to actually see Kirriwirri receive his medal from Governor-General [Michael] Jeffery. In fact, he got it twice, because someone lost it a year later. It was burnt in a campfire, and so they awarded him another one and another 1,000 people came back to Newman. Probably not many people get to nominate someone for an Order of Australia twice.
Of course, we’ve already acknowledged the fact that Mike has received his own award very recently, and that’s a lovely sense of not closure, but the circle is closed, in a sense, with that incredibly generous action and what’s just been recognised now is an extraordinary lifetime and dedication to desert archaeology.
I have to say that at the end of that trip Mike’s eyes were pretty bloodshot. He was tired. We had worked the usual 12- to 14-hour days, excavated and worked late into the night. I remember on the second last night he turned to me and said, ‘Yeah, it’s not quite the same as Central Australia,’ because it was hot. It was up around the 48-, 50-degree mark, and we didn’t have many permanent waters that we were actually coming to see in the Centralian sense of the word.
Deserts have been portrayed as hard landscapes. They’re portrayed as extreme, and at one level if you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s correct. I guess one of the things that we might share, and another arid zone archaeologists or people who have worked in the arid zone like Peter Hiscock, Sue Botha (?) and others, is that they’re soft places. If you work with the desert resources, with the desert cycles and you’re infinitely ‘adaptable’, for want of a better word, they are infinitely resource-rich areas.
But they are hard tasks and, for those hard tasks, Mike was always there. Whether it was writing of Desert Peoples, which was the first archaeological synthesis of desert archaeologies in the southern hemisphere and including northern hemisphere examples, Mike was there. He had the direct contacts into Chile, Argentina and so forth, and he got people to contribute fantastic papers in a way which probably no one else could.
I’ve already mentioned the fluffy lunettes of Lake Gregory when the hard work was there, and we all worked hard, getting many, many blisters. In fact, I have one picture of bandages on top of gloves, and then with gaffer tape wrapped around them, because there was nothing that could buffer us from the impact of digging through this concrete. Mike was there.
When it was decoding the megafaunal remains we found at the edge of Lake Gregory, Mike was there. It turned out to be a horse, but we didn’t know that in the beginning. It was terribly exciting at the time. Our reference collection was a bit small. [laughs] So in the way that Kirriwirri or Mack Gardener clearly bridged the Dreamtime, the ‘dukur’, and the present, Mike’s myth has given voice to that same transition through archaeological narratives and of course many other disciplines. That’s an incredible enduring legacy for the deserts, for desert peoples, and for the wider community, for us. So for all of those reasons I say, ‘Thank you very much, Mike.’ [applause]
PHILIP JONES: Thank you very much, Peter. I think on all of the returns, the rebounds and the forays that Mike has made to Central Australia - most of them, anyway - there’s been one constant referent: a sounding board, a friend, somebody there in Alice Springs who can maybe in the meekest and mildest way that we’ve all come to appreciate make the most confronting tasks seem achievable and possible through opening doors and gentle hints. I’m talking of course of Dick Kimber, who - Dick and Marg are here today - have been constant friends for Mike and Manik, and supporters really for his archaeology facilitating it in a unique way. Dick, maybe you can give us a sense of that and maybe also a sense of the way in which Mike has conducted work with desert people.
DICK KIMBER: I hope it’s understandable here, but also I was told that I wasn’t to prepare anything initially, so this is a bit tricky. I thought I was going to get asked some questions. We’ll leave that for a while.
I’d like to say Mike, Manik, Ben, and Moshe – it’s been fabulous to know and it’s really a family, so not just Mike. Manik has the ability to pinprick him a bit and it’s nice to have a good laugh with everyone. So thanks to the family. I’d like to say thanks to whoever has invited me here. It’s really nice to be down here. I know I’m going to forget a bit, but I’ll give it a go though.
I was thinking about the lovely poem that Mark delivered first - fabulous poem - but I was thinking of another one. I can’t remember it exactly, but it’s something like, a very brief one: ‘The loss was found and taken from the place / while the dingoes were howling and the crows were saying grace.’ It reminded me a little bit of Mike when he was out with Ben in the time out in the Strzelecki Deser,t and Ben got whooshed a bit but he kept his calm, and Mike had to panic a bit that day. I suppose it has also happened to various other people who have been with me. They’ve been lucky to get through.
Philip mentioned about the army and the salad. When I was in national service I remember to join the army we have (inaudible) by experts. So there’s a slight difference that you can get in all these layers, as we were saying.
I have prepared a little bit here. I checked with Manik that it was OK. I think she has a bit of a doubt about it, but I’ll just read a little bit. Mike and Manik and Ben have been good mates for over 30 years. The celebration of Mike’s life is also a celebration of theirs. I hope the following cameos derived from Mike’s correspondence from the 1990s give you some pleasure.
This one: ‘Greetings from Tasmania. Finally a non-archaeological holiday. Manik and I have just finished 10 days of bushwalking in Tassie from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair. I’m now so trim that my jeans won’t stay up, but we’ll binge on fish and chips in Hobart to avoid needing to buy another pair.” [laughter] That was early 1991.
Then speaking of a friend, Mike commented ‘There was still a sense of the warm inner glow while herding the bullocks into the china shop. On a more cheerful note, I decided to confront another phobia, one that often gets me into strife with Monique, on taking dancing lessons. It seems that I’m a hopeless case. On the home front all well here. [inaudible] says she has a boyfriend and they kiss at recess time. I tell you, Dick, I’m not ready for all this stuff. [laughter]
Ben has also settled into high school. You wouldn’t believe how busy it has been since I got back from the centre. I’m going to learn how to read under the shower shout to get through the paperwork.’
This is in 1992: ‘We’ve been trying to extract and identify any fats or other organic substances in the oven stones. The aim is to see if we can identify what was cooked in the oven. Its engines are so sensitive, we’ve had a few surprises. In one of the oven stones block-out sunscreen was identified.[laughter] I am having a small operation to correct orientation in my left eye, sort of a wheel alignment.’
February 15, 1993: ‘We’ve got no puppy snaps. Manik discovered all the photos that she took in January and February came to naught. She had no film in the camera. All that badgering of assorted guests to line them in front of miscellaneous camera monuments, but no film. Suppose it’s better to travel than arrive, et cetera. Benny’s about to get braces, virtually a teenage fashion accessory in Canberra.’
29 June 1994: ‘I think I mentioned I’ve been invited to work on material from a Bronze Age site in Central Cyprus. Finally I’m here. Thanks to Gulf Air, the trip from Sydney took an incredible two and a half days. Fineas Fogg and his balloon could have done better.’ [laughter]
28 May 1996. ‘As you know, I’ve resigned from the ANU, but hopefully not from archaeology or from academic life elsewhere. Having recklessly bowed out, I’m still wondering when my parachute is going to open.’
We’re all glad the parachute did arrive. That concludes a little cameo from the 1990s. You may not be aware that today, the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Ms Julia Gillard announced a sensational new discovery by Mike. She had to elbow opposition leader Tony Abbott aside to make the announcement, but so significant was Mike’s find that he could not resist also making a comment. Mike’s notes for the Prime Minister’s speech, already being hailed as equivalent to the Gettysburg address, read as follows - I think Mike was very clever in writing these.
‘We should all be proud of this. After having dug to a depth of 10 metres last year, British scientists found trace of a copper wire dating back 200 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 150 years ago. Not to be outdone by the Brits, in the weeks that followed an American archaeologist dug to a depth of 20 metres, and shortly after a story was published in The New York Times: “American archaeologists finding trace of 250- year-old copper wire, have concluded their ancestors already had an advanced, high-tech communication equipment 50 years earlier than the British.”’
Today, after a week’s solid work by Dr Mike Smith and assistants, I’m pleased to be able to report the following: after digging as deep as 30 metres beneath Old Parliament House where an unusual constant stream of hot air was a significant problem for the archaeological team, Dr Smith reported that he had found absolutely sweet f-all. It was therefore concluded that 250 years ago Australia had already gone wireless. [laughter]
After a comment, Opposition Leader Tony Abbot added, ‘It just makes you proud to be an Australian, doesn’t it.’ [applause]
I’m not sure how I’m going for time, but just one comment I remember. Giles mentioned about the meals out bush, and when we started off with Mike, we had nice meals at his home with Manik. I remember once saying something about the Aussie rules footie, and somebody had given him curry and she raised an eyebrow at that. Nonetheless, we had good meals in town everywhere, and then out bush, and when I first started with Mike we did little short trips out – I will go back a little bit.
When I was 10 I tried to become an archaeologist. I went down and met Herbert Hale at the South Australian Museum. He very kindly, it was like going into a dark cave, the blinds were all pulled down. My old Mum had got dressed up in her best outfit and I went along, a little haircut and short trousers. He said, ‘Of course you realise you’ll have to go to Oxford or Cambridge,’ and I understood that was the other side of the moon so that was the last chance I had to be an archaeologist. I’m probably very grateful to the archaeological fraternity that I’m not.
Anyway, Mike and I went out to a place called Kuyunpe and then various other sites around the Alice. Mike was looking for this Pleistocene potential, which a bloke called Ron Lampert had got down in the Flinders Ranges there. We were trying to find something like that, so Mike kept suggesting where we might find it.
There been Rhys Jones, Graham Griffin, Peter Latz and myself in a car. I think it was driven by Paul Wilbrick, the missionary, when we were coming in from a conference out at the CSIRO lab in Alice Springs. We all said, ‘It’s got to be the Valley of the Finke.’ Everyone agreed it had to be there. Mike tried the Valley of the Fink, and he didn’t get these Pleistocene dates, so we said, ‘We will try Illara Waters. It’s a lovely place out on the Palmer.’ Again, even though the dates were good, the evidence was good, you’re still not getting anywhere this date. As a last throw of the dice, or a couple of last ones, I said, ‘Look, it’s a hell of way out and it’s hard to get to, try the Tanawalba (?).’ Mike went out there, and he had a go there, and still only got about 1800 years, I think.
It was looking a bit desperate at this time. Bob Edwards was a good old mate, and he had written an article about the Cleland Hills when he going out to a place called Aluea (?) to look at some rock engravings, and the car had got a puncture, so he and Timmy Jugadi Tjungarraye, a local Aboriginal bloke from Haast’s Bluff walked in and found a rock shelter with some very ancient-looking carvings on it to Bob, and a very good potential for Pleistocene. So I gave my copy to Mike. He followed up with Bob and went out on a trip there. I think there was Grahame Walshe on that trip, I remember, and Walshie was only interested in art, nothing else. So we went to the wrong site first. I’d been out on a camel trip out there before - we better not go into that - but Mike was riding with his camel. I tried writing on the back of a camel. It’s rather unusual because you got this forward movement like that, but it had a lame leg so it was hitching as well. So it’s rather difficult to read my writing in that notebook. [laughter] It’s rather difficult to read now.
Mike went out there and Walshie - we pulled up on the rise at sundown and it was a lovely sunset light and desert oaks and Marg, my wife, was there. She’s the brains of the family, by the way. We were sitting up there and I said, ‘How do you beat this, Walshie?’ and he said, ‘There’s no bloody art, Dick,’ and that was Walshie’s view. If there’s no art, there’s no site.
So we went on the next day and Mike said, ‘We’ve got to look here.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll start up this end,’ and I climbed up Mount Winter, which is the south-eastern part of the range and started walking to check things out, knowing it wouldn’t be there, but a bit of a chance it might be there. Then Mike came along and he said, ‘Look, we’ve found it, Dick.’ So I went up there, and Mike had actually found the site again, and that was the start of Puritjarra.
I think that’s enough from me, but thanks very much, and best wishes to Mike and the family. It’s been lovely to be here. It’s lovely to see Jim Bowler and John Mulvaney, all these very good friends of long times ago and some more recent too. Thank you very much. [applause]
PHILIP JONES: We still have a few minutes. So if anything has bubbled to the surface in the audience, I think we should release it into the public domain. A question or a comment - not necessarily to any of us, but responding to any of the morning’s contributions. The floor is yours, Mike.
MIKE SMITH: I just want to say something about that fabulous 1996 trip with the Martu native title claim. That was really an important time for me. I’d bailed out of an ANU job and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. There was all that personal stress of was I going be able to stay in archaeology and all that sort of stuff. The invitation to do the fieldwork in the Western Desert with Peter was very timely. I’d been interviewed for this National Museum job but I’d heard nothing.
So off we went 5000 kilometres across country with 20-odd Martu, driving this supply wagon and just a few little moments stand in my mind. We’d driven this incredible distance across country, across sand dune after sand dune after sand dune. My co-driver, or the guy in the cab with me, was Tommy Watson, a Pintupi guy. He was a bit of a sour character. Every time I made a mistake, he would say something like, ‘Bloody white fellas, no bloody idea.’ He wasn’t very supportive. [laughter]
I was the last truck in the line and we were just coming in to the Calvert Range again. It was going on dusk, we were getting to the end of a long journey across country, and I got another puncture. I got out and I had to fix it, and of course Tommy sat and watched me. That was just one of those little moments when you think, ‘Why am I out here?’ [laughter]
There was another little cameo moment when we came into the Percival Lakes and we were desperately short on water. We were using a lot of water with 20-odd people with us and we were really down to our last cupful each. We had come into, I think it was Cordaroy (?) Well, which is a little mound spring on the edge of the salt lake. We could see from a distance that it had water in it so we thought we’re right. We got to it and there was a decomposing camel in it. Someone had the bright idea of pushing a piece of hose pipe down and sucking a bit of water out. It was fresh at the bottom. So we bailed out the stinking camel, scraped out all the smelling mud, and we had to sit there overnight while it refilled with water. Fortunately it did, and we had our water.
In all this trip - it was the most fabulous trip across country - we didn’t have any radio communications. HF radios, our usual way of communicating, were becoming scarce because we were now into the era of satellite telephones. But we couldn’t get a satellite telephone. They were a bit expensive for us. Our radio telephone that had been promised hadn’t caught up with us, so we’d done this big bush trip without any radio communications.
We went into Port Hedland to resupply. I was really surprised. By this stage, all my angst about whether I could stay in archaeology had evaporated. I just loved being a bloke driving a flat-top truck with 44s of petrol on the back. I would have been happy driving the salt dozer, a bulldozer on the Port Hedland salt pile. I could have just stayed out there and been a bloke - forget archaeology.
But anyway, we went into the Land Council offices and there were two phone messages waiting for me. There was a very frustrated phone message from the National Museum offering me this job - couldn’t understand why I’d been out of contact - and there was another phone message from Manik saying, ‘Take it’. [laughter]
PETER STANLEY: We’re glad you did. I’m afraid we have to wrap up there. Can I say thank you to Philip and his panel. [applause] Can I just point out that everyone on the stage here has come a very long way to be with us here today, and I think that’s a symbol of the affection in which we all hold Mike. So thank you Philip, Peter, Dick and Anne. [applause]
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 10 April 2013