Review of ‘The Archaeology of Montebello Islands, North-West Australia: Late Quaternary Foragers on an Arid Coastline’ by Peter Veth, Ken Aplin, Lynley Wallis, Tiina Manne, Tim Pulsford, Elizabeth White and Alan Chappell

01st June 2009

The Archaeology of Montebello Islands, North-West Australia: Late Quaternary Foragers on an Arid Coastline by Peter Veth, Ken Aplin, Lynley Wallis, Tiina Manne, Tim Pulsford, Elizabeth White and Alan Chappell. British Archaeological Reports International Series S1668, Archaeopress, Oxford, 2007, iii+84 pp., ISBN 978-1-4073-0103-7 (pbk).

Geoff Bailey

Department of Archaeology, University of York, The King’s Manor, YorkY01 7EP, United Kingdom

This volume is a report on the fieldwork conducted on Campbell Island, part of the Montebello group of islands about 50km offshore of the Pilbara mainland, as part of the Montebello Archaeological Research Project (MARP). The work is described as ‘a summary of the survey, excavation and analysis results’ (p.1), and as ‘a synthesis of the first phase of archaeological analysis of two stratified sites on CampbellIsland’ (p. 45). It is, in fact, rather more than this, giving an account of survey and excavation results that is as full as one would expect for a final publication, with details of methods, stratigraphy, dating, a full tabulation and analysis of the excavated materials, and a sustained evaluation of their significance in relation to issues of preservation and taphonomy, to the evidence from the wider region in the Northwest, and to substantive issues of wider interest in Australian archaeology, and beyond.

Survey began in 1991, with excavation in 1992 and 1994, and post-excavation work extended over the subsequent 10 years. This publication is therefore relatively prompt by archaeological standards, and more rapid than many. That it is, properly speaking, a final report (though one that the authors seem shy of describing as such), rather than that more common phenomenon, the preliminary report that is clearly deficient in detail but masquerading as a final report, or one which, after the passage of many decades, is clearly not going to be followed up by a final report, is to the credit of the authors. If there is more work to come, we are not told what it is, though it may relate to the investigation of other sites in the region.

The two sites described here, Noala Cave and Hayne’s Cave, are not substantial, with about half a metre depth of deposit in both cases, and a total inventory of just 158 lithic artefacts. Shell and bone are more numerous with combined totals of over 1200 (MNI) shells and more than 14,000 bone fragments, including a substantial fish bone assemblage. The results from each cave are presented in turn, except for the lithics, which are treated together in a separate appendix, presumably because of the small sample size. A second short appendix details descriptive measurements in support of taxonomic identifications of species of bettong and wallaby that have biogeographical significance.

The combined sequence shows evidence of occupation at about 30,000 years ago, and more enduring use from 12,000 to 7000 years ago, after which the sites were abandoned. The long hiatus associated with the glacial maximum is regarded as a genuine reflection of human absence rather than the result of erosion of sediments, with abandonment the result of extreme local aridity when the sites were far inland from the contemporaneous coastline. Placed on an island, which was once part of the mainland and far inland from the coast at the maximum glacial sea-level regression, and then progressively encroached upon by sea-level rise to form successively a peninsula, part of a large island close to the mainland, and finally a small and distant offshore island, the archaeological sequence provides an opportunity to calibrate the effect of sea-level change on local environmental conditions and human responses to them. Stone raw materials that include local calcrete, and volcanic and siliceous exotics present only at distance on the mainland, provide further opportunities to track changing patterns of mobility. The marine resources are rare early on in the sequence and progressively more substantial and diverse towards the end.

The interpretation presented here is that the sites were associated with a stable regional adaptation entailing high levels of mobility, and a mixed economy that combined resources on land with marine resources at the shore edge. The authors reject the idea of a trend towards development of specialist marine-based economies, and see changes in the relative emphasis on marine resources throughout the sequence as the product of the changing distance from site to shoreline with changes in sea-level, with earlier shorelines and their archaeological sites lost beneath the sea, as has been argued in other parts of the world. Final abandonment came about not because marine resources were depleted, but because of the scarcity of drinking water on a small island, the loss of complementary resources on land, and a sea crossing to the mainland of some 50km that inhibited temporary visits. Close analysis of the shell species further suggests that shorelines at the glacial maximum and during sea-level transgression were no less productive than those present from the mid-Holocene onwards, while changes in the representation of mammalian species chart subtle shifts in moisture regimes and habitat distributions in the wider landscape.

The evidence and arguments in favour of these interpretations are detailed and persuasive, and appear to refute, at least for this region, the two dominant Australian models of Holocene population dynamics, Beaton’s time-lag hypothesis and Lourandos’ intensification hypothesis. Whether Veth et al. turn out to be more generally correct in this regard remains to be seen. One of the great challenges for all the competing hypotheses is their dependence to some extent on negative evidence from earlier periods. In the coastal context the greatest challenge is to find out more about what the now-submerged landscape and its associated shorelines comprised in terms of environmental conditions, and what underwater archaeological evidence has survived to substantiate human use of that lost landscape. This is a worldwide challenge, and one that has, as yet, scarcely begun to be tackled.

There was a time when a report such as this would have appeared in an archaeological journal. However, international journals seem increasingly reluctant to publish long and data-rich papers in the competition for wider audiences, while field archaeologists for their part hope for wider dissemination and recognition of hard-earned primary research than can usually be offered by a regional or national journal. British Archaeological Reports are regarded as rather unglamorous in British archaeological circles, but they perform an important service for archaeologists in many countries, who see the virtue of an outlet that is widely accessible and can cope with primary field data, rapid publication and high production standards. Without the opportunity to disseminate widely the full results of primary fieldwork, archaeology would be that much weaker in its claims to be an independent empirical discipline. This volume is exemplary in showing how careful analysis of what might seem at first sight to be unpromising and limited material can be systematically interrogated to throw light on issues of far-reaching interest and significance.

Geoff Bailey
Review of ‘The Archaeology of Montebello Islands, North-West Australia: Late Quaternary Foragers on an Arid Coastline’ by Peter Veth, Ken Aplin, Lynley Wallis, Tiina Manne, Tim Pulsford, Elizabeth White and Alan Chappell
June 2009
Book Reviews
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