Review of ‘Weipa shell mounds: Cultural or natural deposits?’ by Geoff Bailey

09th January 2014

Review of ”Weipa shell mounds: Cultural or natural deposits?’ by Geoff Bailey, 1994, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 5 pp. (pbk)

Review by Elizabeth Rich

This booklet was accompanied by a note stating that it is the first of ‘a series of essays on topical issues related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. These will be short and written in a language that is accessible to everyone – not just heritage professionals. They will be simple in format and inexpensive to produce …’ (Australian Heritage Commission note).

This essay by Geoff Bailey includes an introductory discussion, a brief history of the natural versus cultural origin controversy, a statement of the criteria for identifying shell middens, a discussion of the debate and limitations of the currently available evidence, acknowledges the usefulness of debate for progressing knowledge and concludes that the Weipa shell mounds are cultural deposits. All of this in 4% pages of text with an easy-to-read typeface! The essay appears to be a summary of Bailey’s (1994) paper presented at the 1993 AAA Conference in Darwin.

Summarising complex archaeological issues in a brief plain English paper without appearing to patronise an audience is not an easy task. However, this paper would have benefited from a ‘plain English’ edit. While the meaning of the text is clear to an archaeological audience, many sentences contain relatively long words which may deter non-technical readers. Data on shellfish consumption presented on page 2, and the discussion of dating on page 4, could have been stated more simply. The nature of the debate may have been clearer if Stone’s hypothesis had been listed separately prior to Bailey’s refutation. Ethnohistoric and ethnographic observations of Aboriginal use of shell mounds (Stone 1989) may also have been of interest to a lay reader. The discussion of differences between the various natural deposits and middens might have been made more clear by including Table 5 from Bailey (1994) which distinguishes Anadara mounds from other types of deposits. These additions, together with an edit of the text, may not have added undue bulk to the essay.

Plain English versions of archaeological reports and debates are to be applauded, and the comments made here are meant to be constructive. I hope that the Australian Heritage Com- mission continues this series of essays.


Bailey, G. 1994 The Weipa shell mounds: Natural or cultural? Archaeology in the North: Proceedings of the 1993 Australian Archaeological Association Conference pp.107-29. North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, Darwin.

Stone, T. 1989 Origins and environmental significance of shell and earth mounds in Northern Australia. Archaeology in Oceania 24(2):59-64.

Rich, E.
Review of 'Weipa shell mounds: Cultural or natural deposits?’ by Geoff Bailey
December 1996
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