The Potential Contribution of Archaeology to Australian Frontier Conflict Studies

01st December 2007

Mirani Litster

BArch(Hons), Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, June 2006

This thesis examines the potential contribution of archaeology to studies of Australian frontier conflict, with a specific emphasis on massacre sites. The information required to address this was gathered from documentary sources and interviews conducted with professional archaeologists. In addition, comparisons were drawn with the North American precedent.

The successful archaeological investigations of the Battle of the Little Bighorn site during the 1980s established an archaeological approach for investigations of Indigenous-settler conflict sites in North America. Such archaeological research operates within a multidisciplinary framework, incorporating approaches such as historical and oral history analyses, remote sensing, geophysical survey, soil sediment testing and osteological analyses. This type of archaeology, although not methodologically unique, has since come to be termed ‘battlefield archaeology’ and, even though it was initially established as being useful on sites of ‘formal warfare’, it has proved to be successful on North American frontier massacre sites. Battlefield archaeology has been utilised to locate sites of physical conflict and also determine the specific nature of the events that transpired at those locations. This is achieved through the detailed examination of the material culture and its patterning within the archaeological record.

Since Stanner broke the ‘great Australian silence’ in 1968, redressing the lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous-settler violence on the Australian frontier, a wave of literature has emerged. The methods which scaffolded this literature were heavily criticised in the late 1990s. This academic conflagration, known as the ‘History Wars’, became the subject of a symposium conducted at the National Museum of Australia in 2001. One of the outcomes of the conference was a recommendation that archaeology could become a future avenue of research contributing to the history of Australian Indigenous-settler relations. However, despite this recommendation, archaeology in Australia has not yet been utilised to the extent of that in North America.

The potential for archaeology to contribute to studies of Australian frontier conflict is examined by discussing the possible archaeological signatures of massacre events, the techniques that could be utilised on massacre sites and potential ethical and legislative issues. The conclusion emphasises that in Australia, given the many constraints of the archaeological record, associated techniques, ethics and legislation it is extraordinarily difficult to locate specific physical sites associated with alleged massacres. However, if definitive evidence corroborates historical or oral accounts of the events, through archaeological investigation, there is a potential capacity to establish locations as sites of massacre.

Mirani Litster
The Potential Contribution of Archaeology to Australian Frontier Conflict Studies
December 2007
Thesis Abstracts
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