Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands

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Archaeologists studying the culture history of the United States have it relatively easy – for the most part. Here in Missouri, for example, the culture history is fairly well mapped out from the Archaic to the Historic. Which is not to say that we know everything there is to know Missouri archaeology. The situation is somewhat different in Oceania (which includes Australia, New Guinea and Polynesia). I mention this because I recently read Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands edited by Ian Lilley. The book is number eight in the Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology series.


Contributors to the volume include established archaeologists, recent Ph.Ds and a few indigenous archaeologists. Consequently, the book is a diverse and wideranging assessment of the state of the art in Oceania. The book is divided into three sections; Australia, The Pacific, and Politics. Each section contans both theoretical and “hands on” material. For example the first section, on Australia, begins with a contribution on changing Pleistocene settlement subsistence and demography and ends with an interesting study of Australian cave art. Specifically, the piece by Clarke and Frederick looks at representations of Macassan (from southern Sulawesi) boats and european boats in the cave art of Groote Eylandt. Another contribution, by Peter Hiscock, looks at technological change in the Holocene of Australia and realtes changes in technology to changing procurment costs and risks. Hiscock indentifies several strategies, which he calls the abundence strategy (characterized by multiple items with limited reworkability) and the extension strategy (characterized by few items with high reworkability) and he relates these to strategies back to several different classes of stone tools (backed artifacts, points and scrapers). Points and backed artifacts represent the abundence strategy while scrapers represent the extension strategy. Hiscock then applies this theoretical construct to several sequences in the Australian Holocene archaeological record.
The second part, devoted to Oceania, is probably the most interesting. The dominant theme in this section is Lapita. One not familiar with the archaeology of Oceania might be forgiven for thinking that Lapita is the lense through which all discovers in the area are viewed. If I were to compare the Lapita to anything in Americanist archaeology it would be Clovis/Pre-Clovis.
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One of the more interesting contributions (by Galipaud) in this section asks whether Lapita should be considered a tradition or a horizon. The answer to that question has profound implications for how one interprets the archaological record in Oceania. Equally interesting is Paul Rainbird’s contribution. Starting with the premise that there is often not a straight line between point A (the past) and point B (the present), Rainbird shows how current notions of social complexity can lead one astray in interpreting the past. This theme is echoed in Conte’s contribution on Ethnoarchaeology in Polynesia – especially his discussion of the use of ethnographic analogy.
The last section on politics is probably the most interesting. One of the main themes of this section is the tension between preserving what archaeologists consider culturally important (i.e. standing architecture, usually from the colonial period) and what indigenous peoples feel is important (which may not be tangible artifacts). Probably the most interesting articles in this section come from indigenous archaeologists. Consider the following from Mickaelle-Hinanui Cauchois:

Being a native archaeologist means having a strong responsibility as a mediator between our whole community and the scientific public. It is an honor but do not believe that it goes without andy difficulty along the way. Indeed, before the archaeologist, I am a human being. A part of that experience belongs to an area that the Western scientific approach does not care about: What scientific language will help me when it comes to explaining to my cousins the little knowledge we have about our past? And how will I respond to the elder who asks me why archaeologists make up stories about things that our tupuna (ancestors) probably did not want us to know? How can I explain to the scientific community that I respond to that elder “me neither, I don’t really believe us when we build up models with so few data and pretend to explain what happened in the past” What I say to the elder, in the privacy of his house, I can not tell my whole community. I can not tell them about the terrible frustration and dryness of the silent dialogue between stones and charcoal.

Overall, the book is an excellent snapshot of current state of the art. If the other volumes in the series are as well done as this one they would make a significant contribution to the archaeological literature. Archaeology of Oceania would be an excellent starting point for Seminar style archaeology classes and would make a great supplementary book for classes specifically dealing with the archaeology of Oceania. Some of the articles could also be used in method and theory classes or CRM classes. The book is definitely worth reading by archaeologists and interested amateurs.

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One Response

  1. Great post about an area I know little about.

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