Based on the article ‘Birriwilk rockshelter: A mid- to late Holocene site in Manilikarr Country, southwest Arnhem Land, Northern Territory‘, published in Australian Archaeology 76 by Denis Shine, Duncan Wright, Tim Denham, Ken Aplin, Peter Hiscock, Kim Parker and Ronni Walton.
Archaeological research in Australia is increasingly driven by community interests. Such is the case with the research reported in Denis Shine and colleagues’ recent article in Australian Archaeology. This project is an important demonstration of how archaeologists and Indigenous communities are working together to undertake research that both parties desire and find mutually beneficial.
Birriwilk is a significant site in Manilikarr Country, a clan territory in western Arnhem Land. The story of Birriwilk is of critical importance to local Aboriginal people, particularly the Nayinggul family, the senior Traditional Owners of the Manilikarr estate. The rich oral traditions associated to the Birriwilk rockshelter links three Djang sites in this landscape—Ubirr, Njanjmah and Birriwilk. Birriwilk’s story is also associated with the Rainbow Serpent and Birriwilk is recorded in some creation stories for the East Alligator River. Owing to these rich continuing traditions, Birriwilk rockshelter is one of the most significant sites in Manilikarr Country and was chosen for excavation with the Nayinggul family as they wished to better understand the site’s settlement history.
In 2011 Birriwilk rockshelter was excavated as part of a doctoral program of research. The excavation findings, which detail how occupation of the Birriwilk rockshelter changed over the last 700 years, are reported in this article. Changes in the frequencies of stone artefacts and faunal remains through time have been used as proxies to interpret how Birriwilk rockshelter was utilised by people in the past. Results demonstrate that during the last 700 years Birriwilk was occupied regularly, with people foraging and hunting in the adjacent wetlands (as demonstrated through the faunal remains present at the site). There is clear evidence of increased stone tool working and ochre grinding at Birriwilk at this time.
In contrast to what came before, during the past 150 to 200 years there is essentially no archaeological record present at Birriwilk. However, according to the oral histories, Birriwilk was visited regularly through this time period. This disconnect provides another interesting way to understand how use of this site has changed through time. The decline in archaeological materials in the upper levels of the site is thought to be the result of a shift in the use of the Birriwilk rockshelter from an occupation site, to a site that was only occasionally camped at. Through this shift the site continued to hold significance as an important Dreaming site, where rituals were enacted.
Birriwilk is an important site that demonstrates the changing character of Aboriginal people’s connections to the landscape during the last millenium. However, the site is not only important due to its significance to the local Aboriginal community or its archaeological findings. Excavations at Birriwilk are also representative of the nature of contemporary archaeology in Australia, especially so as we continue to move further away from the ‘cowboy archaeology’ roots of past Australian archaeological practice.
Initially archaeologists in Australia were principally concerned with discovery and seeking dates for human occupation: this has been called the ‘dig and see’ approach (Murray and White 1981:257). While community members sometimes participated in fieldwork, until recently research projects weren’t designed with community desires to learn about their own past in mind—and they certainly weren’t directed or governed by community wishes. Along with all of the methodological and theoretical advances made in Australian archaeology, the recognition and involvement of communities in the archaeological research process is surely one of our most noteworthy accomplishments.
Murray, T. and P. White 1981 Cambridge in the bush? Archaeology in Australia and New Guinea. World Archaeology 13(2):255–263.
For more information:
Hiscock, P. 2007 Archaeology of Ancient Australia. London: Routledge.
Jones, R. 1979 The Fifth Continent: Problems concerning the human colonisation of Australia. Annual Review of Anthropology 8:445–466.
Macfarlane, I., M-J. Mountain and R. Paton (eds) 2005 Many Exchanges: Archaeology, History, Community and the Work of Isabel McBryde. Aboriginal History Monograph 11. Canberra: Aboriginal History.
Murray, T. (ed.) 2004 Archaeology from Australia. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.
Murray, T. and J.P. White 1981 Cambridge in the bush? Archaeology in Australia and New Guinea. World Archaeology 13(2):255–263.
Cole, N., G. Musgrave, L. George, T. George and D. Banjo 2002 Community archaeology at Laura, Cape York Pensinsula. In S. Ulm, C. Westcott, J. Reid, A. Ross, I. Lilley, J. Prangnell and L. Kirkwood (eds), Barriers, Borders, Boundaries: Proceedings of the 2001 Australian Archaeological Association Annual Conference, pp.137–150. Tempus Volume 7. St Lucia: Anthropology Museum, The University of Queensland.
Colley, S. 2002 Uncovering Australia: Archaeology, Indigenous People and the Public. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
Greer, S. 2010 Heritage and empowerment: Community-based Indigenous cultural heritage in northern Australia. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(1):45–58.
Greer, S., R. Harrison and S. McIntyre-Tamwoy 2002 Community-based archaeology in Australia. World Archaeology 34(2):265–87.
Marshall, Y. 2002 What is community archaeology? World Archaeology 34(2):211–219.
Murray, T. 1996 Aborigines, archaeology and Australian heritage. Meanjin 55(4):725–735.
Ross, A. and S. Cogill 2000 Conducting a community-based archaeological project: An archaeologist’s and a Koenpul man’s perspective. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2000(1&2):76–83.
Smith, L., A. Morgan and A. van der Meer 2003 Community-driven research in cultural heritage management: The Waanyi Women’s History Project. International Journal of Heritage Studies 9(1):65–80.