Review of ‘Sites and Bytes: Recording Aboriginal Places in Australia’ edited by Josephine Flood, Ian Johnson and Sharon Sullivan

11th February 2014

‘Sites and Bytes: Recording Aboriginal Places in Australia’ edited by Josephine Flood, Ian Johnson and Sharon Sullivan, 1989, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission. Special Australian Heritage Publication Series No. 8 Australian Government Publishing Service, xiv + 311 pp. ISBN 0814-8171 (pbk)

Review by Peter Veth

In a nutshell, this is a useful resource document which is characterised by a plethora of examples of how two different groups in Australia store, manipulate and retrieve site data. It is of historical interest in that many of the storage systems detailed for State Statutory Authorities have now evolved or, in fact, been transformed altogether. The four major sections entitled site recording, site registration, computerised systems and special approaches present a logical, if somewhat uninspired, progression through data acquisition and different models for registers. It is difficult to see, however, why some papers were grouped together in Part 3, rather that Part 4 and vice versa, given the considerable overlay in their contents.

Perhaps the most coherent philosophical statement about what it means to ‘capture’ and manage site data is found in the Preface by Sharon Sullivan. She highlights the threefold significance of site data banks as management tools, as repositories for the keeping and protection of cultural material of importance to contemporary Aboriginal groups and as research tools. She strikes home, and perhaps prophetically underscores a recurring weakness in some of the papers, when she notes ‘We must consider what the major research questions are, and whether the system should be designed to answer them. There are dangers in either a too wide or too narrow approach, and obvious problems in trying to double-guess the future needs of researchers’ (p.x). The flip side of defining the ideal scope and breadth of the ‘passive and recipient’ register is, of course, the articulation of its expectations to donors; in the case of Statutory Authorities often in the form of quasi-legal guidelines. The problem in realising that appropriate data is forthcoming from the largest donor group (consultants), has been highlighted in a recent review of CRM archaeology in the United States. Commentators (Abovasio and Carlisle 1988:83) have noted ‘Until very recently, most state and federal agencies had very diverse stipulation, more often guidelines about the levels of analysis and reporting required of extensive field projects. The inevitable consequence was a staggering mass of ‘reports’ of widely varying quality …’

This seems to me to be the crux of the site management/assessment problem. Databases are a dime-a- dozen and vary from the carefully tailored MINARK through to robust, user-friendly packages such as File Maker Pro. They are cheap, easily available and adequate for most site management/research needs. Therefore, surely the focus should be on how different users structure their database fields and how they rationalise the selection of specific attribute clusters. Only some of the papers in this volume seem to really address this issue.

In the paper by Hughes and Koettig, detailing the recording formats used for the 01ympic Dam and Hunter Valley Projects, the authors successfully demonstrate that their data acquisition is embedded within broader and explicit research frameworks. Equally, Hiscock provides an excellent rationale for appropriate levels of assemblage/attribute recording in the field, providing many useful, practical examples for the analysis of stone tool assemblages. Walsh, in providing a background to the ‘Central Queensland Sandstone Belt’ project seems to opt for the notion of an ‘unbiased’ database, somewhat reminiscent of the numerically weighted significance approaches of the late 1970s. I sometimes felt his abundance of site forms might have been the product of inductive frenzy, although their detail is clearly apparent.

Both the papers by Truscott and Johnson reviewing historic/prehistoric sites legislation and registers provide useful comparative data. Importantly, Johnson notes that survey coverage and techniques are still not recorded on many site register.

I enjoyed Rowland’s paper very much in that he was one of the few contributors to detail biases in the Queensland State Files in terms of who had recorded the sites, what types had been (preferentially) recorded, the geographical bias in sites and the imbalance in quality. Clearly computerisation does little to address these fundamental problems.

Finally, the well exposed MINARK database of Johnson is characterised as a well designed piece of software, designed specifically for managing archeological data and research projects, providing user-friendly access to a wide range of archaeological organisations.

One feature of this volume which was irritating to the point of distraction was the apparently random thematic juxtaposition of photographic plates and text. What do rock engravings of the Olary Province (p. 191) have to do with multiple site forms in South Australia; carved trees (p.174) with the AIATSIS register; axe-grooves (p. 167) with the ACT local site inventory or the Brewarrina fish traps (p.147) with Johnson’s review of Australian site registers?

In conclusion, I believe Sites and Bytes provides a wide enough range of examples on how different parties rationalise their getting and manipulation of data to be a useful resource document. It falls short, however, in developing major themes highlighted by Sullivan in the Preface. With reference to registers as cultural traps (whether computerised or not) we might reflect on the concluding comments of Adovasio and Carlisle (1988:85, 86): ‘Merely satisfactory CRM work is not always good archaeology, but good archaeology always stands the best chance of answering the questions upon which reasonable decisions about cultural resources depend’.


Adovasio, J.M. and R.C. Carlisle 1988 Some thoughts on cultural resource management archaeology in the United States Antiquity 62:72-87.

Veth, P.
Review of 'Sites and Bytes: Recording Aboriginal Places in Australia’ edited by Josephine Flood, Ian Johnson and Sharon Sullivan
December 1993
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