Review of ‘Remains to be Seen: Archaeological Insights into Australian Prehistory’ by David Frankel

21st May 2014

‘Remains to be Seen: Archaeological Insights into Australian Prehistory’ by David Frankel, 1991, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 158 pp. ISBN 0-582-87040-2 (pbk)

Review by Annie Ross

In his introduction to Remains to be Seen, Frankel states that the book was written for teachers and students in senior secondary school, and for ‘anyone with an interest in Australia and in how archaeologists work’. It is a book about archaeological methodology, and about what can be, and has been, learned from archaeological study.

In many ways Frankel achieves his stated goal (Introduction): ‘My aim is … [to concentrate] on detail and the more practical side of archaeology. I hope that by introducing some of the complexities of archaeological procedures I will be able to demonstrate the challenge, as well as the products, of research’.

With chapters on approaches to research, Australian Aboriginal prehistory and society, nine different site types (including shell middens, burials, shelters, rock art and stone huts, but nothing on the most common of all site types the open campsite!), and general or regional prehistory, Frankel covers a wide range of the techniques employed by archaeologists. In the main he presents this information clearly and in an interesting, extremely readable style (but see below).

One of the most useful techniques employed by Frankel is to provide actual examples of site based research projects, often with alternative methodological approaches to site analysis outlined. These alternative approaches sometimes lead to alternative interpretations of the prehistory of the site, and it is both interesting and useful for students (including those at undergraduate level) to see this fact laid out in this way.

There can be, however, a problem with presenting data in this way. It is very easy for the examples to become confusing, especially for the lay reader. Frankel has fallen into this pit a couple of times in this book. The sections on Moonlight Head (Chapter 4) and Devon Downs (Chapter 5) are likely to be quite confusing to a teacher or student with little or no background in prehistory. Part of the problem here is that, although the concept of presenting alternative methodologies is a good one, Frankel has been too succinct in the presentation of the case to his audience, and his context is consequently unclear. Typographic errors, directing the reader to incorrect or nonexistent figure or table numbers, exacerbate this problem.

There are other examples of potentially confusing sections in Remains to be Seen. Succinctness is a general problem throughout the book. Clearly it is important that a work like this is not overly verbose or tedious. But brevity brings its own problems. A number of times in the book, complex topics are so briefly described that comprehension of the issue is likely to prove difficult for the audience for which the book has been written. The sections on MNI on pages 47 and 48, and on the dating of the Sturts Meadows engravings on page 134, are examples of this point.

The inclusion of new and unrelated information in some sections is also distracting and potentially confusing for the reader. Examples here are the inclusion of information about wooden artefacts from Wyrie Swamp in the middle of a section on changing resources (page 54), and the brief mention of Aboriginal burning in a chapter on Fishtraps (pages 103 to 104).

Another problem with the book vis-a-vis its target audience, is the lack of discussion of controversial issues in many places. There is obviously a fine line in a book of this kind between providing interesting insights into the complexities of the discipline, and making the book ‘heavy’ with details. Frankel is often very successful in treading this line. The chapter on Quarries (10) and the two introductory chapters (1 and 2) are excellent examples of this ability. The information is clear, and the issues are discussed in enough detail to be interesting, even quite exciting, without tedium or boredom. But the chapters on Middens (4) and Mounds (6) are examples of where there is too little discussion of interesting issues.

In the Middens chapter, for instance, the controversy regarding the change to mussels is mentioned at the end of a well described section on social explanations for the changes seen at Bass Point (page 54). What is the teacher or student to think when he/she reads that this well-described explanation has been challenged? ‘Well, what is the answer then? Who is right? How valid is this challenge?’. These are all questions that are likely to be asked, without there being enough evidence in the book even to begin searching for answers. I am not saying that the book should be one-sided, or that all the answers should be handed to the reader on a plate. But it is important that the reader is presented with enough information to enable her/him to make up her/his own mind about an issue. If there is to be no discussion at all of an issue such as described here, perhaps (for this kind of book) it is better omitted.

There is a similar criticism about lack of detail in tile section on heat retainers on page 82. Here the pattern at WiJIandra is described in the chapter on Mounds. Does this pattern apply to the mounds? What is the evidence?

A major concern about the book is its mjnimal inclusion of Aboriginal views about archaeology particularly in the chapters on Burials (3) and Ceremonial sites (9). In the 1990s, Aboriginal views and approaches to archaeological method and practice cannot be ignored. School teachers and students, and the public at large, need to be aware of Aboriginal perspectives on tile past, and on our profession. What do Aboriginal people think about tile archaeological study of burials? And what were the views of Aboriginal people regarding tile excavation of a ceremonial ground at Sunbury? These and other similar questions deserve to have been canvassed more fully in this book.

Despite the criticisms above, I found the book to be very well-written and informative. The exercises at the end of each chapter are stimulating, and I think would prove interesting to senior secondary students and to undergraduate classes too. The reading lists will be helpful for those who wish to find out more, and tile annotated bibliography and glossary at the end of tile book will be very useful to teachers.

I am not sure how wide an audience tile book will reach. The subject matter and examples are largely geared to Victoria, and it should therefore sell well in that state. It does not reflect the New South Wales syllabuses of History (where there are sections on archaeology in the junior years of secondary school) or Aboriginal Studies, and is nor therefore likely to he widely used in New South Wales schools. I do not know enough about curricula in other states to be able to judge this book’s relevance in schools across Australia.

Nevertheless the book is timely. A s archaeologists we need to let the general public see and understand what we do, and why. David Frankel’s book does this, and in the main does it extremely well.

The book is well illustrated, clear, interesting, informative and generally easy to read. The price makes it affordable. It would be a good text for first year university courses, and a good gift for friends, to show/them what real archaeologists do, as opposed to the treasure/adventure seekers of the movies. David Frankel’s book should set an example or us all to follow in making information about the history of Australia more widely available.

Ross, A.
Review of 'Remains to be Seen: Archaeological Insights into Australian Prehistory’ by David Frankel
December 1992
Book Reviews
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