Review of ‘Prehistory and Heritage: The Writings of John Mulvaney’ by D.J. Mulvaney

26th May 2014

‘Prehistory and Heritage: The Writings of John Mulvaney’ by D.J. Mulvaney, 1990, Occasional Papers in Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, the Australian National University, Canberra, ISBN 0-7315-1010-0 (pbk)

Review by R. J. Lampert

The recycling under a different guise of works published long ago is not without precedent. Recently I read J. Bronowski’s William Blake and the age of revolution and learned with some surprise towards the end that the book was simply a reprint of an earlier work by the author entitled William Blake to which a different Introduction had been added. Other examples that spring to mind include several repetitious papers by R.H. Mathews scattered widely among a number of, often obscure, journals.

Motives for republication are usually either to bring up to date a work which has become rather flaccid through advances in its subject matter, or to provide sought-after material that is not easily available, usually because it has gone out of print. While the latter motive is applicable to the work under review it is not the main reason. John Mulvaney, ever the historian of Australian prehistory, has assembled a selection of his writings that span four decades and reflect on various stages in his development as a prehistorian, providing not only a retrospective overview of his own career but also a commentary on how prehistory has progressed in Australia. In selecting the 44 articles presented, the author gives priority to those that explore issues and ideas. There are a few regional research syntheses, but detailed excavation reports are excluded. The articles are arranges thematically into six sections, each introduced by the author with a page or so of comments arising from his present day views on the material. Except for the omission of some illustrations the writings themselves have not been modified from their original form. To give some idea of their range I will briefly describe a couple of papers from each section.

Australian Prehistory, the first section, contains ‘The Stone Age of Australia’ (1961), a remarkable paper that explored and assessed a diffuse collection of early writings by amateur and professional field workers and by other commentators. It was the first major synthesis of Australian prehistory and marked a watershed between the days of such early battlers as Davidson, McCarthy, Mitchell, Gill and Tindale, and a newer generation of archaeologists who were beginning to fill academic positions in the early 1960s. Also in this section are two short papers I had not seen before. ‘Why Dig up the Past?’ and ‘A New lime Machine’, both written for general consumption during student days at Cambridge in 1952. Though introduced rather apologetically by the author, they are very well written pieces of popular science, displaying a freshness and enthusiasm that many later papers lack. Notable among other papers in this section is ‘Archaeology in Sulawesi, Indonesia’ (1970). Co-authored by R.P. Soejono, this reports on a joint Australian/Indonesian expedition to Sulawesi aimed at discovering early cultural links between Australia and lands to the north, a topic always of interest to archaeologists but quite an obsession in those days.

Reflections on the human past, the second section, contains another paper exploring past links with Indonesia. In ‘Beche-de-mer, Aborigines and Australian History’ (1966), Mulvaney looks at a combination of archaeological and historical evidence for visits by Macassan trepang fishermen to Australia’s north coast, a topic studied in detail later on by his student Campbell Macknight. An historian before becoming a prehistorian. Mulvaney always writes with particular confidence and authority when combining the two kinds of evidence, as a number of later papers in the volume demonstrate clearly. Changing views of Aboriginal culture, from Dampier to the present day, and their relationship to more general developments in social theory are discussed in ‘Discovering Man’s Place in Nature’ (1971). This is a paper that withstands well the test of time, being as enlightening to read now as it was when written. ‘What Future Our Past? Archaeology and Society in the Eighties’ (1981) on the other hand fails to enthrall today because, after the requisite historical introduction, it merely describes a stage in developments a decade or so age (eg the new Shepparton Keeping Place, the proposed Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, the recently assembled Register of the National Estate); all of it yesterday’s news, overtaken by more recent events but not yet old enough or sufficiently digested intellectually to be interesting as history, even though such withering broadsides as ‘… a plethora of moral superiority and surficial scholarship’ aimed at certain academic writings of the time may still be relevant.

The two sections that follow, Archaeological History and Anthropological History, have titles that indicate the historical perspective of the papers they contain. ‘Research into the Prehistory of Victoria: a criticism and a report on a field survey’ (1957), the earliest field report by the author, describes a time when the landscape was dominated more by implement collectors than by archaeologists. The limitations this placed on site interpretation are described graphically with appropriate expressions of disgust. ‘Prehistory from Antipodean Perspectives’ (1977) is one of a number of papers, appearing at intervals of a few years, that sum up the state of play in Australian prehistory at the time of writing. Placed together in one volume, much of the material they contain seems unnecessarily repetitive but this would not have been the case when read as originally intended. In this example the material has been selected to illustrate the essay’s main purpose, to honour Grahame Clark as long-time editor of Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. It concludes by developing further the theme of an earlier paper ‘Discovering Man’s Place in Nature’, by weighing views on Aboriginal society at various times against changes in ethnic and philosophical thinking.

‘The Anthropologist as Tribal Elder’ (1970) uses hitherto unpublished letters and notes to document attempts by A. W. Howitt to persuade partly-Europeanised Aborigines in late 19th century Victoria to re-enact a ceremony that had not been performed regularly for several decades. Accrediting Howitt the status of tribal elder seems a little far-fetched, particularly when one reads how he had deceived some of the older men by showing them a bogus bull-roarer, thereby claiming, falsely, to have acquired the secret knowledge enabling him to promote and witness the ceremony. But of course it was all for that noblest of reasons, the pursuit of science.

A better balanced and more penetrating account of Howitt’s contribution to anthropology follows in ‘The Ascent of Aboriginal Man: Howitt as Anthropologist’ (1971). This not only recounts Howitt’s own development – from initial contempt of Aboriginal society, to sympathetic paternalism, leading eventually to zealous interest which inspired the compilation of a vast, unique ethnography – but also evaluates his work both at the level of intellectual standards of his time and in the light of comments by later anthropologists. It is a paper in which Mulvaney displays well the breadth of his historical scholarship.

Section V, entitled Heritage and Conservation, is made up of papers intended to raise levels of national consciousness in both the value of cultural heritage and the need to preserve its material remains. ‘The Aboriginal Heritage’ (1981), written when the author was a commissioner of the Australian Heritage Commission, is a general survey aimed at showing the range of heritage material for inclusion in the Register of the National estate. While admitting that ‘The Proposed Gallery of Aboriginal Australia’ (1978) says many of the right things, I find it a less stimulating guide to the development of such a gallery than Stanner’s ‘Gallery of Southern Man for Canberra’ (1966). Even though many of his ideas are outdated, Stanner has the clarity and enthusiasm of individual vision, whereas Mulvaney echoes the rather dull consensus views of a planning committee trying to be all things to all men. In a national project of such exciting possibilities, where is the passion that uplifts the public imagination and guides the hands of politicians to the public purse? Perhaps it is as well that the gallery did not eventuate then. We might have ended up with something like the so-called National Gallery, poor cousin of the older state galleries and safe house for senior bureaucrats, where the visitor is impressed not so much by the exhibits as the range of heritage industry products sold in its shop and the vogue decor of its restaurant; that is, if not already overwhelmed, as the collections are, by a building of brutal massiveness that seems designed more for the aggrandizement of central government than the display of exhibits.

In the book’s final section, Letters on Heritage Themes, we read letters that provide a more lightly targeted defence of specific heritage matters: a letter to the Times (1977) berating cricket historians for ignoring the Aboriginal team which toured England in 1868; another to the Senate Select Committee on Southwest Tasmania (1981) lucidly arguing the archaeological importance of the Gordon-Franklin region, then threatened by inundation. The letters make a fitting conclusion to the collected works of a man noted not only as a pioneering archaeologist and sound scholar, but also as a tireless campaigner on behalf of Australia’s cultural heritage.

Even if you have read most of the papers before in their earlier incarnation, having them together in one volume can be useful. Adding to the value are the more recent, and often revealing, introductory comments by the author. Then there are the photographs – I have deliberately left the best bit until last – showing Mulvaney excavating at Fromms Landing (1958), at Kenniff Cave (1962) and at Ingaladdi (1966), guiding Francois Bordes and Lewis Binford around Mungo in 1974 and, most fascinating of all, standing deferentially to the right and one pace behind his mentor Charles McBurney in the Libyan desert in 1952, both men wearing World War II army surplus desert clothes including bombay bloomers. All who are interested in the history of our subject will find the book of value.

Lampert, R.J.
Review of 'Prehistory and Heritage: The Writings of John Mulvaney’ by D.J. Mulvaney
June 1991
Book Reviews
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