Beyond the Cootharaba Mill: An archaeology of social interaction, practices and community in colonial Australia

01st June 2011

Karen Murphy

PhD, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, October 2010

This thesis explores a new approach for understanding communities in the historical past. It examines community as a fluid entity, constructed through the social interactions and practices of its members. This approach is used to investigate the community associated with the operation of the Cootharaba sawmill, in late nineteenth century southeast Queensland.

Previous archaeological approaches to understanding community have been founded on the paradigm of a ‘natural’ community; a naturally-occurring, spatially-bounded, static entity. Recent approaches have viewed the community as ‘imagined’; a unit with ties to external entities and comprising active internal agents. My research adopts the latter approach using concepts of agency and practice to model the community as both a physical and a mental phenomenon. This practice-oriented approach recognises that the community is a social institution that structures and is structured by internal agents and external forces.

As Canuto (2002) proposes, a community can be seen as comprising four elements – locale, habitus, agency and pacing – which enables spatial, ideational, interactive and temporal interpretations to be made about a community. A study of a community must consider the multiple scales of interaction and the broader external contexts in which the community operates. My research provides a methodological contribution to studying historical period communities by providing a framework of indicators to address the physical nature of the archaeological remains of a community’s actions and practices in order to examine the mental and social aspects of the community.

Archaeological data for this study were generated from extensive survey and excavation of the residential area of the Cootharaba sawmill settlement. Historical research included the investigation of a range of primary documents and secondary sources concerning the lives and characters of the Cootharaba story. The archaeological and documentary evidence enabled each of the indicators to be examined in order to identify the actions and practices of the community at the domestic, local and regional scales.

The social group of the community of Cootharaba was a complex, interacting social institution that operated in different ways at different scales. The company operating the sawmill, McGhie, Luya and Co., was the key to the establishment and ongoing existence of this community and as such the company and the organisation of its operations was the overarching structuring factor of the community. Examining the community solely through this lens, however, provides a biased view and marginalises the majority of the population – the women and the children. Using three scales of practice to examine the interaction and social constitution of the community of Cootharaba provides for the elucidation of the complexities and variances both between and within groups in the community.

This research demonstrates that communities are not simply equable to a spatially bounded location; the relationship between community and locality is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship. For the Cootharaba community there were relationships between people in different localities but who still belonged to the same community group. The linkages and inter-relationships between the people of the Cootharaba community, the localities where they lived and interacted and the material culture they created and used all occurred within a broader social and historical context. This research examines the relationship between the people, localities, and material culture of the Cootharaba community within its context of nineteenth century Queensland. The community development, maintenance and dissolution were reliant on natural resources and their extraction and were tied to the economic highs and lows of the Queensland colony. The actions and practices of the community members were also tied into the social expectations and requirements of the society of nineteenth century Queensland and their mainly British and Irish cultural backgrounds.

The study of the Cootharaba community demonstrates the importance of social interaction and individual practices in the formation of social groups, and in the maintenance of community at different scales and across different localities. The community was not just made up of the group of people living at the physical settlement at Cootharaba. The Cootharaba community was an active, interacting social institution that was structuring and being structured by the internal actions and practices of its members at the domestic, local and regional scales, as well as by external forces well beyond the mill.

Karen Murphy
Beyond the Cootharaba Mill: An archaeology of social interaction, practices and community in colonial Australia
June 2011
Thesis Abstracts
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