Review of ‘Salvage Excavation of Human Skeletal Remains at Ocean and Octavia Streets, Narrabeen, Site#45-6-2747’ by Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management Pty Ltd

01st June 2009

Salvage Excavation of Human Skeletal Remains at Ocean and Octavia Streets, Narrabeen, Site#45-6-2747 by Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management Pty Ltd. Australian Archaeological Consultancy Monograph Series 2, Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists Inc., St Lucia, 2008, 59 pp., ISBN 9780959031027.

Judith Littleton

Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland Mail Centre, Auckland 1142, New Zealand

This monograph is the second in a series by the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists Inc. and reports on the excavation of a male skeleton found partly under a bus shelter in Narrabeen, New South Wales. The AACAI monograph series is designed for consultant archaeologists as examples of best practice and so, as is evident here, the format follows the consultancy report with appendices of the relevant information. This format is no doubt very valuable for consultants as a model to follow. In some respects, it does not work so well for a monograph.

The monograph starts with a summary which is repeated in Chapter 1. This chapter deals with the background to the investigation, followed by a discussion of the environmental context (Chapter 2) which includes a very interesting description of the environment as it would have been. However, there is an anomaly between the estimated date of the soil based on its formation characteristics and the date of the skeleton. It would have been good to see some resolution or discussion of this in the text.

The regional archaeological context is presented in Chapter 3. This begins with ethnohistoric evidence. There is no introduction to this explaining why particular pieces of information are included, so it feels like a slightly random collection of information: the sex division of fishing, use of shell artefacts, clan organisation and ceremonies. There is also a more extensive and informative discussion on spears where it would have been good to have illustrations of the types discussed. However, this is the difference between the constraints of a consultancy report and a monograph. Ceremonies are also described with a particular focus on tooth avulsion, although, as the authors point out, the evidence is inconclusive. Absence of avulsion might be significant or merely indicative that the practice was not as widespread as suggested or more temporally defined. It is hard to rely on ethnohistoric sources in these respects. What is being noted is potentially the unusual given an emphasis in early years of European observations to discern ‘rules’ and hence variability is often downplayed. As Meehan’s (1971) thesis indicates, while there is inter-regional variation this is often swamped by intra-regional variability.

The fieldwork is clearly and fully described in Chapter 4. The circumstances were not that straightforward because of the built infrastructure, the initial disturbance, and the location of the remains partly under a bus shelter.

The human remains are described in Chapter 5 and this represents a good technical description of human remains using standardised techniques by Denise Donlon. It would have been good to see the inventory tabled or a diagram showing the degree of preservation. The authors note the missing right femur, but it is hard to work out the significance of this when it is not clear how much of the innominate is also missing. The missing femur is a mystery because judging by the position of the upper body it looks like the body was rolled onto its right side so that the bone was more likely to be underneath than above (where it could have been more easily removed post-death).

The burial position as present in Figure 2 is difficult to interpret (vertical levels would have helped). The left scapula is moved relative to the left humerus, the right clavicle is displaced to the left of the body. The authors argue that burning brush was placed on the burial as it was flung down and, given the extent of movement, it is quite possible that the body was not buried for some time after that. The range of displacement of the head and upper girdle is not consistent with the remains being surrounded by soil at the time of initial interment (Duday 2006). More consideration of this would possibly support the argument for this being an unceremonious death.

The lack of reconstructive illustrations also makes it hard for the reader to interpret the very careful written descriptions of trauma and backed artefacts.

What is to be commended is the presentation of the results in such detail including the stable isotope analysis of the bone. It is not explained how the change came about in the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council from initially not allowing dating (as seen in the initial research design, Appendix A) and the final decision to do so.

The monograph is fascinating and present the background to the description of the remains reported in Antiquity (McDonald et al. 2007). My only wish would have been that more diagrams had been included and the actual measurements undertaken. I think this could have helped in the interpretation.

The monograph does raise two issues. Here the human remains are published because of their uniqueness, but how are these individual osteobiographies going to address broader archaeological research questions? The other issue that the report illustrates is the lack of archaeological research undertaken in Australia, not just on human remains. For instance, there are no background isotope values available so that the results of the dietary analysis cannot be interpreted beyond broad generalisations, and the references for the SydneyBasin sequence are only Attenbrow and McDonald. This is not a complaint about the monograph, but a worry about the state of the discipline. On the other hand, the publication of a monograph on human remains is a matter for some optimism on the state of play.

References

Duday, H. 2006 L’Archeolothanatolgie ou l’archeologie de la mort. In R. Gowland and C. Knusel (eds), The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains, pp.30–56. Oxford: Oxbow.

McDonald, J.J., D. Donlon, J.H. Field, R.L.K. Fullagar, J.B. Coltrain, P. Mitchell and M. Rawson 2007 The first archaeological evidence for death by spearing in Australia. Antiquity 81:877-885.

Meehan, B. 1971 The Form, Distribution and Antiquity of Australian Aboriginal Mortuary Practices. Unpublished MA thesis, University of Sydney, Sydney.

Judith Littleton
Review of ‘Salvage Excavation of Human Skeletal Remains at Ocean and Octavia Streets, Narrabeen, Site#45-6-2747’ by Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management Pty Ltd
June 2009
68
69-70
Editorial
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