The Importance of Aboriginal Archaeology


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.

Some of the rock art at Madjedbebe possibly depicting European colonization.

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.

Protestors rebuke Rio Tinto’s destruction of the two Aboriginal rock shelters.

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.

“Madjedbebe Archaeological Site, Northern Territory.” Odyssey Traveller, March 4, 2021.

“Madjedbebe.” Britannica, accessed December 4, 2022.

Wilson, Christopher. “Indigenous Archaeologies: Australian Perspective.” Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer, New York, NY. 2014.



Code of Ethics

The Sausage Vat Murder and Early Forensic Anthropology

An advertisement for Luetgert’s sausage factory and business. Source: chicagology

In 1897, sausage factory owner Alfred Luetgert, known as Chicago’s Sausage King, was convicted for the murder of his wife, Louisa. In order to dispose of the body, he burned it and then boiled it in caustic potash in a vat in his sausage factory, dissolving most of the remains. However, some evidence of Louisa Luetgert’s body was found in the factory, which was central to the trial. At the bottom of the vat, detectives discovered small bones and two rings, one of which was a wedding ring engraved with the initials “L.L.” (Schecter). In a pile of ash, detectives found “more bone fragments, as well as a false tooth, a hairpin, a charred corset stay, and various scraps of cloth” (Schecter).

A diagram of the 2 foot bones found at the scene of the crime, and where in the foot they came from. Originally printed in the Chicago Journal. Source: chicagology

Archaeologist George Dorsey, one of the first Americans to earn a PhD in anthropology (Pauls), was an expert witness at the trial. The defense argued that the fragments were animal bones from the sausage making process. However, Dorsey testified that the fragments were human, and included parts of the skull, rib, metatarsal bones and phalanges of the foot (Bansal), and thigh bone (Schecter). He also identified the bones as female. Dorsey’s expertise was one of the factors that led to Adolph Luetgert’s conviction. Luetgert was sentenced to life in prison (Schecter). Dorsey’s testimony on this high-profile case was the first application of anthropology to a forensic setting. It also introduced forensic anthropology to the morbid imagination of the American public. The case had such an impact that the consumption of bratwurst in America declined to a record low (Snow 1982, 100).


More recent review of the case brings some of Dorsey’s testimony into question. Anthropologists generally avoid expressing such high confidence in the sex of remains. In the Luetgert case, the evidence was also heavily damaged and fragmented, further complicating sex identification. Forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow suggests that the question of certainty is not the result of Dorsey’s specific analysis, but rather the result of a persisting interaction between the scientific method and the American legal system. As a scientist, Dorsey would have normally provided nuanced information about his specific degree of certainty, which was evidently higher than completely indeterminate, but not necessarily very high, but, as someone testifying in court, he was legally required to simply provide an opinion, which – according to Snow – does not include certainty or probability (Snow 1982, 101). This limits the ability of scientific consultants to provide full information, and it is an issue that extends beyond this case, and even beyond the field of forensic anthropology.


The legal system is a lot better with the knowledge provided by forensic anthropologists. But there can be difficulties with proper scientific communication in the courtroom. This means that we need to carefully consider the relationship between law and science. The field of forensic anthropology must include discourse about how experts can best express themselves in the legal system, and how to possibly change the legal system to better accommodate scientific nuance.


Bansal, Pranshu. “Feel It in the Bones: Forensic Anthropology.” Crime Scene to Court Room. Jindal Global University, January 10, 2017.

Pauls, Elizabeth Prine. “George A. Dorsey.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed October 2, 2022.

“Sausage Vat Murder.” chicagology. Accessed October 2, 2022.

Schecter, Harold. “The ‘Sausage Vat Murder,’ 1897.” The Yale Review. Yale University. Accessed October 2, 2022.

Snow, Clyde Collins. “Forensic Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 11 (1982): 97–131.
Further Reading