Book Review: Deep Time Dreaming

Review by Sam Garrett-Jones

Billy Griffiths, Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia. Black Inc, Schwartz Publishing, Carlton, Vic, 2018.

In Deep Time Dreaming, Billy Griffiths takes a historian’s perspective on the interplay between the archaeological inquiry of ‘deep time’ and, in the words of the 2017 Uluru Statement, indigenous ‘ancient sovereignty’.

The heart of Deep Time Dreaming is a history and anthropology of the pioneers of the scientific ‘uncovering’ of Australia’s human history. It shows that science is rational and objective, but not disembodied. Rather, it is coloured and shaped by, as Griffiths notes, the attitudes, methods and personalities of the players. This is no more so than when a field is small and emerging, as was Australian archaeology and prehistory from the late 1950s.

Griffiths’ narrative follows the scientists: from John Mulvaney’s initial incredulity at a 13,000 year radiocarbon date for the Ice Age occupation of Kenniff Cave, high in Queensland’s Great Dividing Range; through Rhys Jones’ revelation of the ‘southernmost humans on earth’ in Ice Age Tasmania; to geomorphologist Jim Bowler’s ‘chance discovery’ of the 40,000 year old ‘Mungo Lady’ burial in western NSW; and Jones, Bert Roberts and colleagues’ excavations of rock shelters in Kakadu NP which pushed back human occupation dates to 50 – 65,000 years. Among others recognised are the work of pioneer Isabel McBryde and of social archaeologist Carmel Schrire in Arnhem Land.

A joy of Deep Time Dreaming is the observations on the ‘personalities and politics’ of the archaeologists. As a research student at ANU in the 1970s I knew many of the prehistorians well. Under Griffith’s transparent writing their characters leap off the page.

Griffiths shows how ‘archaeological insights’ have underpinned growing Aboriginal self-determination. He traces the developing and sometimes fraught interaction between Aboriginal custodians and scientists. Tense discussion and uneasy truce abound. Richard and Betsy Gould and Rhys Jones found themselves excluded from their field sites over alleged infractions of customary law. Today, there are Aboriginal archaeologists and collaborative partnerships. Yet the contestable question of ‘who owns the past?’ remains, to Griffiths, a ‘central … but … creative tension’ in Australian archaeology. 

Archaeological evidence – and individual scientists like Bowler and Jones – were instrumental in the preservation of Aboriginal sites and natural heritage. Lake Mungo – still a sheep station when I first visited in 1975 – was acquired as a National Park in 1978 and incorporated into the Willandra Lakes UNESCO World Heritage Region in 1981. Recognition of Kutikina Cave in Tasmania as ‘part of the cultural heritage of mankind’ led to the Commonwealth government’s use in 1983 of its external affairs power to stop the destructive Franklin Dam. Archaeological surveys made the case for Arnhem Land’s Kakadu National Park. Deep Time Dreaming emphasises that Australia’s national estate is as much a cultural as natural one. It further ‘asks us to respect the deep past as a living heritage’.

There is little to fault in Deep Time Dreaming. Mulvaney and Kamminga’s Prehistory of Australia gives more detail and a wider cast of contributors (other than Bowler, environmental scientists are largely overlooked, for example). But the story is beautifully tied together and very readable. Deep Time Dreaming has been critically acclaimed as a ‘modern classic’, won the 2018 John Mulvaney Book Award and was Book of the Year at the 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Highly recommended.

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