Review of ‘Coastal Themes: An Archaeology of the Southern Curtis Coast, Queensland’ by Sean Ulm

01st June 2008

Barker book review cover AA66Coastal Themes: An Archaeology of the Southern Curtis Coast, Queensland by Sean Ulm Terra Australis 24, ANU E Press, Canberra, 2006, xxviii+314 pp., ISBN 1-920942-93-9 (pbk).

Bryce Barker

School of Humanities and Communication, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba Qld 4350, Australia

Coastal Themes: An Archaeology of the Southern Curtis Coast, Queensland by Sean Ulm is another in the long standing Terra Australis monograph series, which has had a new lease of life in recent times. One of the strengths of Terra Australis is that it is one of the few publications that allow the full presentation of archaeological data in the form of site reports – something that is increasingly difficult to access in published form. The research outlined in this monograph is the culmination of Ulm’s PhD research and continues a long line of regional coastal research projects emanating from the University of Queensland Department of Anthropology and Sociology (now School of Social Science). This work is also the latest of a series of intensive regional coastal studies on the east coast of Queensland spanning some three decades, including Moreton Bay, the Cooloola Coast and Fraser Island, the Keppel Islands, the Whitsunday Islands and Princess Charlotte Bay.

The study aims to combine a broad regional archaeological characterisation of the southern Curtis Coast, addressing issues emerging out of archaeological studies in southeast Queensland with more specific methodological issues relating to chronology, taphonomy and sampling.

In broad terms the research in this monograph attempts a critique of the mid-late Holocene archaeological signature, by arguing that more fine-grained regional analyses show that there was no pan-continental uniformity of mid-late Holocene change, and that rather there was considerable variation across the continent. Ulm specifically questions Lourandos’ pan-continental model of late Holocene change by making the case that his use of supraregional trajectories as a primary locus of change, amalgamating diverse sequences from widely separated regions to define overarching patterns, actually masks the regional diversity of Holocene change. Ulm argues that intensive localised regional studies, focusing on specific methodological issues such as fine-grained chronologies will ultimately challenge the archaeological signature of mid-late Holocene change. The author argues that ‘fundamental elements of our understanding of the mid-to-late Holocene have been challenged in recent years’ (p.4) citing, for example, that eel traps and swamp management ‘may date to the early Holocene’ (p.4) and that backing technology is found to be much earlier than a mid-late Holocene innovation (even though it is clear that it was not a commonly adopted technology until the mid-late Holocene). These challenges are all to be welcomed, and intensive finer-grained regional studies will no doubt change aspects of how we view the mid-late Holocene.

However, one issue that is not addressed in the author’s critique of pan-continental models is that of scale. As Lourandos (Lourandos et al. 2006:35) has stated

the question of scale is central to questions of intensification and complexity – the debate [keeps] slipping between scalar levels – between big picture, to more nitty-gritty middle range. It [is] a case of comparing apples to oranges. The two levels need to be kept separate as they have different logic and data … the long-term archaeological trends [are] often criticised as not including enough middle-range information; as if finer-grained analysis would reveal further variation in the general trend itself. But the two sets of data are quite different. Finer-grained data would not necessarily alter the general trend, but just provide more information; in this case, at finer temporal levels. It’s a bit like saying, for example, that while population in Great Britain generally has continued to increase over the last 150 years or since the Industrial Revolution, when one looks at finer-grained regional British data the patterns are varied. Both may be correct, and data from one level doesn’t necessarily alter the information or pattern from the other.

While the fine-grained research outlined in this volume, highlights considerable regional and local temporal and spatial variation, it still broadly supports a mid-late Holocene change; such as evidence of increasing intensity of dynamic site and landscape use over time, and an accumulative increase in the establishment of new sites in the late Holocene on the central Queensland coast.

As part of the more fine-grained regional study, Ulm advocates a focus on refining regional chronologies, stating that ‘establishing secure regional chronologies remains a fundamental key to building meaningful accounts of intra- and inter regional sequences in Australia’ (p.5). In particular, he critiques the way in which some sites are dated, specifically the common procedure of obtaining basal dates and subsequent assumptions made as to continuity of use, with the surface being treated as analogous to the contact period. Ulm’s meticulous collation of radiocarbon dates in all Queensland archaeological sites has shown that Holocene sites in Queensland have an average of 2.41 dates per site which he sees as being clearly inadequate to properly address the complexity of regional variation across the continent, especially in regard to assumptions about continuity of site use. There can be no doubt that it is certainly preferable to obtain as many dates as possible for a site. However, in many cases the decision not to date anything other than the basal XU and identifiable stratigraphic changes relate almost wholly to cost. In regard to surface or upper-most XUs many sites have post-contact artefactual material such as glass etc, and thus can be relatively dated.

The other chronological issue raised in this volume relates to environmental factors such as the uneven distribution of 14C in the biosphere, which impact directly on samples selected for dating. These factors lead to distinct regional differences which can impact on the accuracy of radiocarbon determinations measured on charcoal as well as marine samples. Ulm’s work on obtaining a more fine-grained analysis in relation to chronology is meticulous and breaks new ground in conclusively establishing the degree of variation in marine reservoir effect; particularly between samples taken from estuarine environments and the routinely applied ΔR value for northeast Queensland. The differences of up to 300 years can certainly be crucial when dealing with sites of short occupation. However, for many research models – depending on what questions are being asked and the scale involved – a couple of hundred years difference may not radically alter regional interpretations.

Other sampling issues Ulm addresses are the rockshelter versus open site bias – where Ulm (p.7) states that ‘even in coastal Australia, where the recent archaeological record is dominated by shell middens, accounts remain based on rockshelter sequences’. He states that ‘several studies have demonstrated that a high degree of post-depositional movement of cultural material between stratigraphic units can occur without damaging the physical appearance of strata or strata boundaries … calling into question basic assumptions about the integrity of the rockshelter deposits which form the basis of our understanding of the archaeology of Australia’. Taking a leaf from the author’s localised regional approach, I would argue that this greatly depends on local conditions relating to specific rockshelter sites and that no assumption should be made that, because conjoin analysis at Kenniff Cave showed downward movement (p.9), the same conditions relate to other shelters in completely different contexts with completely different geological sediments and deposition histories. In any case I am not sure too many Australian archaeologists assume that rockshelter sites have total stratigraphic integrity, but I am reasonably sure, based on a wide body of research including my own, that relative to rockshelter sites, open sites on the tropical coast are more problematic in terms of post-depositional integrity. I am surprised that this is still seen as an issue as a lot has been written about the reasons for a preference for rockshelters – especially on the Queensland tropical coast.

As an example of rockshelter sampling bias the author states that ‘accounts of the regional archaeology of the Whitsunday Islands on the central Queensland coast are based almost entirely on evidence from small excavations conducted on rockshelters despite open sites featuring in the ethnohistoric and archaeological record’ (p.7). This statement is as baffling as it is misleading. There are simply no known open sites of stratigraphic integrity in the WhitsundayIslands. The reality is that by the far the majority (not all) open sites north of the tropic of Capricorn are disturbed, redeposited or occur in problematic contexts.

Assessing site integrity through conjoin analysis of shell is one of the methodological approaches taken by the author in order to provide a sturdier framework for determining the degree of integrity of open sites (Chapter 5). As Ulm points out, it is strange, given ‘explicit and implicit reference to this site type [i.e. open sites] as stratigraphically problematic’ that further work has not been done in regard to taphonomy of open midden sites.  Ulm states that ‘[i]n certain circumstances, bivalve conjoining may be a useful adjunct to conventional approaches to shell midden analyses involving very basic characterisation of assemblage composition, with the potential to contribute an independent form of evidence to our understanding of site integrity and resolution, discard patterns and periodicity of occupation’ (p.77). If we are to have greater confidence in the integrity of open midden sites, it is clear that a much more sophisticated and refined methodology such as that presented here, needs to be applied. Methods such as conjoin analysis on bivalves, coupled with recent developments in foramina analysis in middens and analysis of non-cultural shell deposits, can lead to archaeologists being able to sample a broader range of site types in future analyses.

Overall the call made in this volume for a more fine-grained regional approach to archaeological models is timely and to be applauded. After some three decades of pioneering research directly to the south and north of the CurtisCoast it is possible to start focusing on a more refined and sophisticated regional perspective. Inevitably the more work carried out in a region relating to questions and problems already posed by prior research will reveal a greater degree of detail and complexity than the models that preceded it. This is certainly to be welcomed. In this volume the author has demonstrated meticulous attention to detail in what amounts to an almost flawless presentation and he has set the methodological standard for a more meticulous and fine-grained analysis of sites in the future. Ulm concludes by stating that ‘[t]he major task ahead therefore remains a basic one: to construct and compare detailed individual site sequences from a range of site types, at the local and regional level, to establish the existence of trends independent of site-specific taphonomic and/or environmental factors’ (p.255). I have no doubt that future research can and will focus on these tasks; however, as to what extent it will change how we view mid-to-late Holocene change in Australia remains to be seen.


Lourandos, H., B. David, B. Barker and I.J. McNiven 2006 An interview with Harry Lourandos. In B. David, B. Barker and I.J. McNiven (eds), The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies, 21-39. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Bryce Barker
Review of ‘Coastal Themes: An Archaeology of the Southern Curtis Coast, Queensland’ by Sean Ulm
June 2008
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