Thesis abstract ‘Investigations Towards a Late Holocene Archaeology of Aboriginal Lifeways on the Southern Curtis Coast, Australia’

18th November 2013

Sean Ulm

PhD, School of Social Science, The University of Brisbane, St Lucia, June 2004

In this thesis I combine data from regional archaeological surveys and the excavation of eight stratified sites to examine aspects of continuity and change in the late Holocene archaeological record of the southern Curtis Coast, southeast Queensland, Australia. I focus on theoretical and methodological problems emerging out of studies in southeast Queensland, particularly the issues of chronology-building and assessment of site integrity.

Results of surveys and excavations are presented. Excavations were conducted at the Seven Mile Creek Mound, Mort Creek Site Complex, Pancake Creek Site Complex, Ironbark Site Complex, Eurimbula Creek 1, Eurimbula Creek 2, Eurimbula Site 1 and Tom’s Creek Site Complex. Differences in site structure, content and chronology are used to establish a framework to describe variability in the regional archaeological record through space and time. Radiocarbon dates and items of European material culture indicate that occupation of these sites spans from around 4000 years ago into the post-contact period. Dates were also obtained from several eroding archaeological deposits which were not subject to excavation. In total, 66 radiocarbon dates are presented from 12 archaeological sites.

Radiocarbon determinations are critically assessed to provide a reliable basis for calibrating radiocarbon dates into an absolute regional chronology. Local marine and estuarine reservoir effects are characterised through a study of known age marine shell specimens and archaeological shell/charcoal paired samples. The object of the study was to assess the potential influence of localised variation in marine reservoir effect on accurately dating marine and estuarine shell from archaeological deposits in the area. Results indicate that the routinely-applied DR value of –5 ± 35 for northeast Australia is wrong. The determined values suggest a minor revision to Reimer and Reimer’s (2000) recommended value for near-shore open marine environments in northeast Australia from DR= +11±5 to +12±7, and specifically for central Queensland to DR= +10±7. In contrast, data obtained from estuarine shell/charcoal pairs demonstrate a general lack of consistency, suggesting estuary-specific patterns of variation in terrestrial carbon input and exchange with the open ocean. Preliminary data indicate that in some estuaries, at some time periods, a DR value of more than –155 ± 55 may be appropriate.

Radiocarbon determinations, stratigraphy and bivalve conjoin analyses are used to evaluate the integrity of the open shell midden deposits investigated for the project. Methods for identifying and interpreting bivalve conjoins in archaeological shell assemblages are developed and tested. Results indicate that contrary to the cautions of Lourandos (1996, 1997), the open sites studied exhibited a high degree of vertical and horizontal integrity.

Results suggest continuous restructuring of settlement subsistence systems in the region throughout the late Holocene. A regional trajectory towards increased site occupation, intensity of site use, and localisation of resource use is identified. A three-phase cultural chronology is developed for the region which proposes initial occupation before 4000 years ago and significant changes in resource use after 1500 BP, including the widespread appearance of shellfishing and changes in stone raw material sources. Phase I (pre-4000 BP–ca 1500 BP) saw ephemeral coastal occupation by groups which occasionally used coastal resources as part of a diffuse and highly-mobile settlement strategy covering a broad area. Land-using groups may have been primarily based around the predictable resources of major rivers such as the Boyne. Phase II (ca.1500 BP–ca AD 1850s) is characterised by intensive permanent and structured low mobility strategies throughout the coastal zone. This phase is defined by a localisation in the use of resources. Extremely large, low density archaeological sites are established throughout the region on the lower margins of major estuaries and smaller resources extraction sites are also established. Phase III (ca AD 1850s–ca AD 1920s) saw the emergence of post-European mobility systems. Despite disappearing from the European historical record for the area, Aboriginal people continued to use traditional camping places well into the period of European settlement.

Results are discussed in the wider context of key themes in archaeological cultural chronologies proposed for southeast Queensland and adjacent regions which emphasise recent changes in settlement and subsistence strategies linked to intensifying patterns of regional land-use. Patterns identified on the southern Curtis Coast generally concur with other findings from southeast Queensland, suggesting major restructuring of coastal occupation strategies in the late Holocene and especially the last 1000 years.

Ulm, S.
Thesis abstract 'Investigations Towards a Late Holocene Archaeology of Aboriginal Lifeways on the Southern Curtis Coast, Australia'
Thesis Abstracts
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