In class this week, we learned about Alice Gorman’s work with space archaeology, but also her earlier career as a cultural heritage consultant for Aboriginal archaeology. This field of archaeology is important for understanding the majority of past human activity on the continent. It is also incredibly important to protect Aboriginal artifacts and heritage to preserve Aboriginal heritage in the face of colonial destruction.
Australia’s oldest known archaeological site is the Madjedbebe rock shelter. The site is so old that radiocarbon dating is unreliable for many of the artifacts, which include stone tools, seashells, and supplies for making rock art. The tools include stone spear tips and axes. (Britannica). In 2012, researchers applied the technique of optically stimulated luminescence to date some artifacts as 65,000 years old (Odyssey Traveller). In 2017, further application of the technique found that they could even be up to 80,000 years old (Britannica). This discovery shows that humans were on the Australian continent much earlier than Archaeologists had thought.
However, the Madjedbebe rock shelter isn’t just important for its oldest artifacts. The site’s use spans a long time. Rock art in the shelter also seems to depict European colonization (Odyssey Traveller). This makes the site important for the study of many different time periods, and it is a prominent site in Australian archaeology for this reason.
The rock art depicting European colonizers also serves as a reminder that archaeology is never separate from the violent colonization that it may study. The capitalism and extractivism of colonial occupation is often directly destructive to Aboriginal archaeology and heritage. In 2020, the Rio Tinto mining company destroyed the Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelter sites, all for the expansion of its iron mine (Dvorsky 2020). Protections for important sites like this are often weak, and many of them are not even officially designated as heritage sites. Mining companies like Rio Tinto have the power to commit this destruction completely legally (Dvorsky 2020). If Aboriginal heritage is to be protected, Australian laws must change to favor these sites over the interests of the mining industry.
This injustice is concerning to archaeologists, but archaeology has its own problems regarding the treatment of Aboriginal heritage. While archaeology can be a powerful tool for preserving and elevating the importance of this heritage, archaeologists also have a problematic historical tendency to take control over artifacts, remains, and sites. This is not usually destructive, but it is still harming the heritage of people who are alive and have to be included in archaeology. Without working in collaboration with Aboriginal interests, archaeologists risk contributing to these same colonial systems. Indigenous people have historically been used as informants in Australian archaeology since the 1930s (Wilson 2014), but consulting them for information and sharing in the benefit of the work are two different things. It is imperative that Australian archaeologists emphasize ethics and repatriation, and always use their skills to benefit indigenous people rather than harm them.
Dvorsky, George. “Mining Company Blows Up 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site, Expresses No Regrets.” Gizmodo, May 28, 2020. https://www.odysseytraveller.com/articles/madjedbebe-archaeological-site-northern-territory/.
“Madjedbebe Archaeological Site, Northern Territory.” Odyssey Traveller, March 4, 2021. https://www.odysseytraveller.com/articles/madjedbebe-archaeological-site-northern-territory/.
“Madjedbebe.” Britannica, accessed December 4, 2022. https://www.odysseytraveller.com/articles/madjedbebe-archaeological-site-northern-territory/.
Wilson, Christopher. “Indigenous Archaeologies: Australian Perspective.” Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer, New York, NY. 2014. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-1-4419-0465-2_1012/.