Review of ‘Port Essington: The Historical Archaeology of a North Australian Nineteenth-Century Military Outpost’ by Jim Allen

01st June 2009

Orser book review cover AA68Port Essington: The Historical Archaeology of a North Australian Nineteenth-Century Military Outpost by Jim Allen. Studies in Australasian Historical Archaeology 1, University of Sydney Press, Sydney, 2008, xvi+141 pp., ISBN 9781920898878.

Charles E. Orser Jr

New York State Museum, Cultural Education Center, Albany NY 12230, USA

Like many archaeologists of my generation, I first encountered Jim Allen’s work on Port Essington in World Archaeology in 1973. The article became considerably more widely read by historical archaeologists after being reprinted in Robert Schuyler’s Historical Archaeology: A Guide to Substantive and Theoretical Contributions (1978). I remember being impressed by Allen’s use of the word ‘imperialism’ because I was not aware of any other archaeologist using such interesting language at the time. Allen’s article left me wanting to know more about Australian archaeology because it seemed that important things were going to come from there. I never had the opportunity to read Allen’s full report so I was absolutely delighted to learn that the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology had published it all these many years later. Australian archaeology can claim this work, but in truth it constitutes a founding document for all historical archaeology.

The monograph is composed of three parts. A foreword by Tim Murray and a retrospective introduction by Allen preface the report. Both help to contextualise the work, but in obviously different ways. Murray notes that Allen’s was the first doctoral dissertation in Australian archaeology, but deplores that for 20 years Australian archaeologists were not able to live up to the promise Allen had demonstrated. I would qualify Murray’s comment by noting that the same holds true for all historical archaeology. American historical archaeologists, who are often erroneously given too much credit, were not writing about imperialism or the British Empire for just about as long. In fact, American archaeologists – perhaps in the early twenty-first century more mindful of imperialism and its costs than ever before – are only now starting to investigate such subjects, and often with considerable trepidation. Allen’s work at Port Essington glaringly disproves that American historical archaeologists were more theoretically sophisticated and methodologically refined than archaeologists elsewhere.

Allen’s retrospective introduction is a must-read. In Allen’s mixture of personal recollection and theoretical observation we are afforded substantive insights into the workings of the thoughtful archaeological mind. Rarely are archaeologists so willing to revisit their earlier work, to question their ideas, and to contemplate what they may have done differently if they only had more experience. Allen was a true pioneer, and his handling of the research at Port Essington, though understandably dated in some respects, reads as remarkably fresh and innovative.

Historical archaeologists with a critical eye will judge his artefact analysis as especially dated because of his use of information that has been long superseded (which Allen readily acknowledges). Even so, his handling of the material culture is as refined as was then possible. I learned historic-period ceramics from Arnold Pilling – beginning the same year that Allen’s article appeared in World Archaeology – and so reading Allen’s comments on Pilling’s ceramic terms brought back memories. It also made me mindful of the environment in which historical archaeology was practiced in the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the nascent level of Pilling’s pioneering research on nineteenth century European ceramics. Most historical archaeologists are probably not aware of Pilling’s contributions to historical archaeology and so this reprint will once again highlight his important achievements. What is remarkable about Allen’s handling of the data is that rather than blindly stumbling through the analysis and making a series of amateurish mistakes (as many might have done at the time), he sought out the advice of scholars throughout the English-speaking world who were engaged in similar research. He learned from them and used the developing lexicon of the historical archaeology of the late 1960s. Allen was clearly cognisant of the intellectual trends in historical archaeology and was conversant with the growing theoretical literature.

Allen provides a thorough historical context for life at Port Essington in the final three chapters of the book. He admits in his new introduction that he missed a few historical sources that were subsequently made available, but his historical narrative does not suffer for the omissions. And, rather than concentrating only on the English settlement as many historical archaeologists might have done, Allen presents a multicultural history, one in which the British realised that they were not alone in the region. They feared colonial incursions by the Dutch and the French, even as they interacted with trepang fishermen from Macassar. The historical and archaeological sources combine to prove that not all meetings between Europeans were hostile. The discovery of glass seals from French wine bottles substantiates the peaceful dinner between French visitors and British officers in 1839.

Allen’s chapter on the political background of Port Essington further extends the historical narrative and explains how the conditions at the port deteriorated as the British monarchy modified its imperial plans in the region. Allen also outlines the circumstances of daily life at the port in a manner that is still relevant today. His sensitivity to the tropical environment, the hurricane of 1839, and the impact of malaria provide a biocultural context that informed historical archaeologists will admire and should replicate today. His comments on the tyranny of isolation are consistent with contemporary research, as are his observations on multicultural contact.

In a final chapter, Allen provides interesting comments about the state of Australian historical archaeology in the late 1960s. At that time, historical archaeologists still found it necessary to justify their research, and so Allen briefly mentions the controversies then current in the field. Particularly trenchant is his observation that in the worst examples of historical archaeology ‘the archaeology and the history of a site … [are] written up totally independent of the relationship of one upon the other’ (p.133). Historical archaeologists still wrestle with this problem, with many of them continuing the practice that Allen so correctly decries. Like Allen when he was writing this monograph, many historical archaeologists are still learning how to integrate archaeological and historical sources of information.

This is an important monograph for many reasons, and historical archaeologists in Australia and elsewhere would be wise to obtain a copy and read it. Readers will be offered rare insights into the intellectual process of doing archaeology and will learn a good deal about a remote outpost of empire. At the same time, Allen’s observations on the state of early historical archaeology are enlightening and important for young historical archaeologists to understand. The Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology has shown wisdom in selecting Allen’s monograph as the first in their new series.


Schuyler, R.L. (ed.) 1978 Historical Archaeology: A Guide to Substantive and Theoretical Contributions. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood.

Review of ‘Port Essington: The Historical Archaeology of a North Australian Nineteenth-Century Military Outpost’ by Jim Allen
June 2009
Book Reviews
You must be a member to download the attachment ( Login / Sign up )