Review of ‘An Archaeology of Australia since 1788’ by Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies

01st June 2011

Stuart book review cover AA72An Archaeology Of Australia Since 1788 by Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies. Springer, New York, 2010, xix+421pp, ISBN 9781441974846 (hbk).

Reviewed by Iain Stuart

JCIS Consultants, PO Box 2397, Burwood North NSW 2137, Australia

Australian historical archaeology may be deficient in a number of areas, but it has never been short of reviews and overviews. An Archaeology of Australia since 1788 by Lawrence and Davies is significant for a number of reasons. It is an attempt to summarise the achievements of historical archaeology in Australia; namely what historical archaeology has added to the corpus of Australian history. The book can be seen as a response to Egloff’s well-documented concern that Australian historical archaeology may become irrelevant if it did not engage with relevant issues in Australian history (AA39:1-9). An Archaeology of Australia since 1788 – although not an explicit reply to Egloff – does demonstrate important contributions made by various historical archaeological projects to the understanding of Australia’s history.

The authors are of the third generation of historical archaeologists in Australia. Moreover, the authors were not educated and based in Sydney. Indeed, their professional education in historical archaeology occurred as the hegemony of the subject by the University of Sydney was being replaced by teaching centres such as those at La Trobe University and Flinders University. Thus, this view of historical archaeology in Australia is one from a different place and different generation to the norm. This is a welcome change in viewpoint.

Lawrence and Davies are not young punks intent on critical destruction of the edifice of historical archaeology in Australia. Rather, they are concerned in reporting what has been learned over 30 or 40 years of work. Accordingly, this is a work that ranges widely across the whole breadth of issues in Australian history. The authors admit that some material has been left out simply due to space and they also regret the omission of some New Zealand work of relevance to Australia.

The bringing together of diverse material from across Australia is a tremendous achievement and the authors are to be congratulated for doing this successfully. However, their achievement is more than simply bringing information together; they have provided a synthesis of material that is very useful for those working in the field and for students learning about historical archaeology. This is an important benchmarking of historical archaeology in Australia.

The authors have divided the work into specific topics that reflect prominent issues in Australian history and attempt a broad-ranging discussion covering a wide geographic area and differences of approach. They also choose to emphasise social themes such as gender, status, ethnicity and identity, reflecting the authors’ roots in post-processual archaeology. The principle topics which form individual chapters in the book include: Convict Origins; Aboriginal Dispossession and Survival; Shipwrecks and Maritime Trade; Sealing, Whaling and Maritime Industries; Pastoralism and Agriculture; Gold Rushes and Precious Metals; Manufacturing and Processing; Migration and Ethnicity; An Urbanised Nation; Australians at Home; Death; and the Twentieth Century and Beyond.

Although each chapter is an entity in itself, the chapters are organised so that each generally leads to the next topic. For this review, rather than attempt a blow-by-blow analysis of each chapter, two chapters were selected by random for more detailed discussion in order to convey a sense of how the authors approach each topic.

The chapter on ‘Manufacturing and Processing’ begins with a brief overview of the topic noting it is part of the field of ‘industrial archaeology’ and mentioning Casella’s recent overview of the topic as well as brief mention of various studies. From this overview Lawrence and Davies identify the themes of continuity and change, technological transfer, landscape and social context as being an important framework for understanding the archaeology of manufacturing and processing in Australia. It is unclear to the reviewer why other themes – such as the nature of capital formation or transport (which have been discussed by economic historians) – are not also of relevance to the archaeologist studying this broad topic?

The chapter continues to discuss some of the archaeological research that illustrates the approaches that Lawrence and Davies highlight as being important. Studies of water mills, for example, discuss the themes of continuity and change, technological transfer and landscape. Similarly, the review of archaeological research on timber mills reflects studies on tramways and on mill sites such as Henry’s No 1 Mill (the subject of Davies’ doctoral work). Other archaeological work on brickworks, potteries and lime-making is also discussed.

The discussion on ‘Coal, Iron and Steel’ could have been omitted. The coal studies discussed are concerned with marginal aspects of the industry and not the major coal producing areas or periods. For ‘Iron Production’ only Cremin and Jack’s excellent work is discussed, but the large-scale excavation of the iron works at Mittagong in 2005 has been overlooked. Similarly, the industrial archaeology of steel is discussed only in the context of Sandford’s works at Lithgow (again Cremin and Jack) as this is the only archaeological study of an Australian steel works despite the total demolition of the Newcastle works in recent years

There is also a notable omission from this chapter in the form of extensive research by vocational archaeologists associated with the Light Railways Research Association in the areas of timber milling and its technology, as well as coal mining and iron and steel works. All this work is accessible as the researchers have an enviable record of publication. It is unclear why such a body of research is not discussed.

The second chapter to be looked at is that covering archaeological research on urban Australia. Again, the chapter opens with a general overview of the field noting the major discussions on the topic. The chapter moves to a discussion of archaeological deposits and formation processes, and then looks at broader analysis of neighbourhoods and cities. The section on site formation processes and their influence on the archaeological evidence in urban environments is a good summary of the archaeological research and would form a useful reading in itself for students learning about formation processes and stratigraphy.

The bigger picture is one of neighbourhoods, slums and class and is mostly based on the two projects ‘Little Lon’ and Cumberland/Gloucester Street and the work of well-known researchers Murray, Mayne and Karskens. The fruitful dialogue between historians and archaeologists is notable in the area of urban archaeology, despite the disdainful rejection of the idea by Melbourne’s elite historians (on film), when it was first proposed. From slums the discussion moves towards notions of class and of gentility and respectability developed by Linda Young and explored in archaeological work in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

This chapter is marked by a more coherent subject matter than the broad brush of industrial archaeology, and it is more successful in summarising the arguments and explaining the archaeological research than the chapter on manufacturing and processing in the previous example. It seems that in reporting on the historical archaeological work, Lawrence and Davies have been at the mercy of their subject matter. A neat coherent topic like urban archaeology is much easier to report on than the sprawling research on industrial archaeology which is not so easily synthesised and the chapters reflect this problem. There is, of course, the perennial problem of the ‘gray literature’ not being accessible, although projects in Victoria and in New South Wales are making the material more widely available so that authors following in the footsteps of Lawrence and Davies should have even more material to consider.

Lawrence and Davies seem unwilling to comment on areas that might be fruitfully explored or developed in the future. There is also a lack of reflective comment on the overall topics and studies. While it can be understood why this is so, the aim of the book was not to set agendas but report on work undertaken; there seems something missing by not making such comments.

Overall An Archaeology of Australia since 1788 succeeds in presenting the broad-range of Australian historical archaeology and its contribution to understanding Australia’s past. The authors are to be congratulated in undertaking such a task and setting the scene for the next decade of growth in the field. This is a work that all serious historical archaeologists need, especially those formulating research designs for projects whether they be salvage archaeology or research archaeology.

At the conclusion of this review a comment needs to be made about the price of this work. An online search reveals that the price in Australia ranges from $172 to $337, the highest price being that of Angus and Robertson, which is almost double the lowest price at Abbeys or the Co-Op Bookstore (if you are a member). Overseas the best price is ₤81.00 plus postage. For a book that deserves to be read by a lot of people, and presumably a book that the publishers feel should be bought by a lot of people, this price point surely is madness.

Iain Stuart
Review of 'An Archaeology of Australia since 1788' by Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies
June 2011
Book Reviews
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