Review of ‘Recovering the Tracks: The Story of Australian Archaeology’ by David Horton.

11th February 2014

‘Recovering the Tracks: The Story of Australian Archaeology’ by David Horton, 1991, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, xviii + 260 pp. ISBN 0-85575-221-1 (pbk)

Review by Sandra Bowdler

At first glance, reviewing a book of which the author has written less than ten per cent might seem an invidious task. On closer inspection, this particular example demonstrates well that selecting what to reproduce may be just as revealing as what one writes oneself. Horton has gathered together an anthology of writings purporting to trace the development of Australian archaeology, to what end and for what audience is never made quite clear; what does emerge is Horton’s own view of the subject, not one which I find very congenial.

The extracts are presented in roughly chronological order under the headings Beginnings, Palaeontology (why? – see below), First Syntheses, Classical Archaeology Begins, New Syntheses, Kow Swamp and Mungo, After Mungo. Each author is provided with a personal introduction. Thus the book appears as hagiography, quite literally in some cases: James Cook ‘has been elevated to sainthood’, Arthur Phillip ‘has almost attained sainthood’. Most of them were all jolly good chaps in one way or another. We are told that ‘that remarkable man William Dampier’ was ‘something of a larrikin … an enormously appealing character’; the saintly Phillip had ‘astonishing vision’ and was ‘amazingly enlightened’; Baudin was ‘an appealing character’; Oxley was ‘a very sympathetic character’, ‘an unusually sensitive and caring human being’ (because, having dug up a recent Aboriginal grave, he covered it over again); Macpherson was ‘a man of ability’ with a ‘clear analytical approach to archaeology’; Gregory was ‘formidable … stimulating’ , ‘with an amazing breadth of knowledge’; Edgeworth David turned in an ‘extraordinary’ performance (in Sydney or Antarctica, it is not quite clear which), had ‘quiet charm’ and ‘obviously wore his fame and place in the scientific establishment well’; and Pulleine was gentle and kindly but firm and often forbidding, he read widely and sang and entertained’. The living are spared these encomia and are represented instead smiling boyishly from recent snaps.

Looking for a role model? Forget it, girls. Horton recognises that his choices would not please everyone. Is it possible then that women have done nothing to deserve a place here? Reflecting along these lines leads one to perceive what is being left out, and what is being propounded. No Isabel McBryde, Carmel Schrire or Betty Meehan, for instance, means no emphasis on regional survey, no ethnohistory, no significant role for ethnographic analogy nor ethnoarchaeology. Further reflection leads to the realisation that anthropology in its social/cultural guise does not feature here at all: no significant contribution from Daisy Bates, Phyllis Kaberry or Catherine Berndt, to name but a few.

No, archaeology is about science. and perhaps also about scientific truth. Horton’s story is about people he chooses to call archaeologists approaching or otherwise ‘what we now know are the correct answers’; for instance, Birdsell’s colonisation model ‘was clearly not far off the mark’. What mark is that. one asks in vain. Australian archaeology, for Horton, has its roots in natural history, hence the emphasis on palaeontology, and a total lack of interest in anthropological contributions. Indeed these might be a drawback. Dawson was a ‘friend and student of the Aborigines … but he was no scientist and much of the information is unreliable … ‘; probably due to the fact that he relied on ‘the unanimous testimony of all the old aborigines .. .’ no match for analytical perception and the rest of it.

Etheridge, who wrote screeds of ‘ethnological’ papers, is represented by his most geological contribution; for what was at the time perceived to be the oldest evidence of human occupation in South Australia, Horton prefers to give us the geology, rather than the actual archaeology, of Fulham. It would seem no coincidence that Australian archaeology is represented as culminating with a geomorphologist.

For Horton, the discovery of the Lake Mungo human remains seems to represent the most significant watershed. On the one hand, he seems little concerned that his representation of this depends on a particular view of their Significance in a global context, which is increasingly open to attack. On the other hand, what this might mean in the context of archaeologist-Aboriginal relationships is also of no apparent account. It is curious that there is nothing actually by that appealing character, Nicolas Baudin. All that is offered are his instructions from the Societe des observateurs de I’Homme. The inclusion of these is however certainly instructive; Baudin is asked whether he might, like Cook, be able to return with :

“any specimens of the human varieties which he might discover? These strangers would be particularly welcomed by the observers of mankind, and if our hospitable intentions could persuade them to stay and agree, by adopting our country, to put an immense distance between their cradle and their grave, their remains, later cherished and preserved through the genius of science and the requirements of a gentle sensibility, would find a place in our museum, amongst the articles from their homeland, of whim they would then complete the picture” (p.19).

Bowdler, S.
Review of 'Recovering the Tracks: The Story of Australian Archaeology’ by David Horton.
December 1993
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