Review: The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts
By Rob Paton

The front cover of The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts gives a view across open spinifex country in the Gibson Desert. Rocks dominate the foreground of a lush deep green plain. The sky has dark clouds, harbingers of a coming storm. This image immediately shifts the mind’s eye away from the expected. It is not the typical image of an Australian desert: where are the deep red denuded dunes and salt pans baking beneath cloudless skies? The books title, with the word “Deserts” in plural, further hints that Mike Smith’s work may be no ordinary volume about the archaeology of Australia’s desert interior, a place more commonly imagined as a single expanse of hot, timeless and arid land.

By choosing this cover and title, Mike sets an expectation that readers will be taken on an intellectual journey into countries less travelled. For those prepared for this journey, you will not be disappointed. In 350 pages of text we are given a tour de force of Australia’s deserts and the vibrant cultures that have inhabited them for some 50,000 years. The book brings together sources from archaeology, environmental history, ethnography and anthropology into an impressive and symphonic  human history of half a continent.

Mike is able to successfully orchestrate these detailed sources in his book because he treats the deserts very much like the way he treats archaeological sites. His approach to excavating Puritjarra Rockshelter, where his dates tripled the age of human habitation in the interior, was to see the site as having a morphing character. He saw it as a living piece of landscape sculptured over time by humans and nature. And this is how he has approached his synthesis of Australia’s deserts.

For Mike the desert is alive. It has a symbiotic relationship with humans, as well as having its own natural history. For him, the impacts of both of these processes are left behind as stratigraphic traces in the landscape. It is these traces that are then given life by people, like himself, who now live and work in the deserts. In this sense, Mike’s book is as much a history of ideas about the deserts as it is an archaeology or natural history of these landscapes. By giving eminence to the impact of ideas to our understanding of deserts, Mike seamlessly binds the diverse sources, intimately engaging the reader with the deserts deep past. One can, for instance, feel the crushing impact of heat, flies, sandstorms and thirst on the South Australian Museum team who struggled in appalling conditions at Lake Mulligan to uncover vast numbers of unknown megafauna fossils, demonstrating in one field season the past richness of this now bleak landscape. These insights draw us into understanding how the deep past of the desert is an entangled history of people, past and present, of the sweeping forces of nature, and of great archaeological discoveries.

The early chapters (Chapters 1-3) place the Australian deserts in a national and international context, while challenging the notion of there being one unchanging desert environment. He slowly draws us closer to this view by introducing the Australian deserts as living and changing sets of landscapes. Engaging with these landscapes are researchers and explorers as diverse and often unfathomable as the deserts themselves. Mike sees these people as having shaped how we see the desert landscapes as much as the wind and aridity. These early chapters are the setting for the heart of the volume, which is a more or less a chronological account of human habitation from the Late Pleistocene to the present

In Chapter 4 Mike brings together information from some forty archaeological sites spread across the continent from the Pilbara to the Nullarbor Plain to tell us about life in the deserts in the period from 50,000 to 30,000 years ago. He gives a prodigiously detailed account of the known material for this period. While much of this chapter is naturally concerned with the movement and spread of people into the deserts, the chapter also analyses the evidence in terms of important themes like stone tool technology and subsistence economy. Chapter 5 deals with one of the most interesting and debated periods of occupation in the deserts from about 30,000 to 12,000 years ago. This includes Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), from about 30,000 to 18,000 years ago, a period of extreme aridity for which various models of human adaptation of the deserts have been proposed. The book deals with these very important models in a fair and even handed way, testing the theories against the known data and showing where gaps exist for further research. Chapter 6 deals with the final phase of prehistoric occupation, from about 12,000 years ago to European colonisation, again giving a thorough and lively review of the known archaeology. Several themes are discussed in this chapter, many broadly centering on ideas of cultural intensification, including the uptake of significant grindstone technology and the introduction of new flaked stone artefacts into the desert toolkits.

Chapters 7 and 8 diverge from the chronological narrative and deal with rock art and place, and trade and exchange. These subjects dovetail quite neatly with the ideas of intense social change alluded to at the end of Chapter 6. The rock art chapter (Chapter 7) is a broad and sweeping endeavour to characterize and analyse rock art of very large regions. It runs the risk of not satisfying experts in that field.  Certainly, the approach is different to many contemporary rock art projects that are more focused on detailed subjects or confined geographic areas. Nevertheless, Mike’s approach gave me, a rock art novice, a good understanding of the subject and the broad types of analysis attempted by researchers. The chapter on trade and exchange (Chapter 8) is a wonderful summary of what we know about trade and exchange across wide areas of the continent. It looks at the different approaches to research in this area and highlights the importance of trade and exchange in contemporary societies.

The final chapter (Chapter 9) looks at archaeology and the classic desert ethnographies. By leaving this chapter till last Mike is able to bring the force of summary to general statements about the archaeology and link these to a historic narrative about redefining Aboriginal desert cultures. There has been a recent move away from this sort of historic discourse in Australian archaeology. Mike’s elegant reengagement with both historic questions and sources will hopefully reopen and widen this interesting debate. In this final chapter I would have liked to have seen a bit more on the connection between concepts of the Aboriginal Dreamtime and Western ideas about the deep past, but perhaps that is for another book.

Archaeology books are usually weighty technical works of interest mostly for professionals. The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts is certainly suited to an academic audience. The ideas and data in the book are able to be tested, dismantled and built on. This was in fact one of the core aims of the book, and Mike hoped this would happen after what he calls a “polite interval”. But The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, as I suggested earlier, has different and unexpected qualities. It is much more than just another fine tertiary text.

Like the unexpected view of the Gibson Desert on the books cover, I think this volume will have an appeal to wider audiences unintended (at least consciously) by its author. It is in many ways a story of imagined past landscapes. After my first read of the book, it brought to mind a time in 1986 when I worked on Mike’s crew excavating on the Lake Woods lunette in the central Northern Territory. I recall witnessing his remarkable ability to think “with” the landscape, to imagine its past. Around our campfire at night he talked with us and the Aboriginal Traditional Owners about how he saw the stratigraphic layers in the trenches and how these related to each other and to the living landscape. My good friend Nugget Collins Jarpata later told me the creation stories about the lunette, and remarked to me that Mike also “knew” how the country came to be. This was one of those very rare occasions when an Aboriginal person of high degree acknowledges a kindred soul from a very different culture. For me, this synchronicity of imagining the deep past exemplifies the wide appeal of Mike’s work as much as his formidable scientific achievements.

The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts by Mike Smith
Cambridge University Press, 424 pp.
New York, 2013
ISBN 9780521407458