Kim Mahood reviews 'Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia' by Billy Griffiths

In Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia, Billy Griffiths describes the process of imagining the past through the traces and sediments of archaeology as ‘an act of wonder – a dilation of the commonplace – that challenges us to infer meaning from the cryptic residue of former worlds’. In his endeavour to infer meaning from this cryptic residue, Griffiths begins his wondering by sifting through the evidence, insights, enthusiasms, and mistakes of an articulate band of Cambridge-trained archaeologists who, from the 1960s, professionalised what had been the province of amateurs. Led by John Mulvaney, they halted the indiscriminate gathering of artefacts and human remains, brought rigorous techniques to the excavation of sites, and began to strip back the layers of time, aeon by aeon, to reveal the astonishing antiquity of human presence on the Australian continent.

By writing a history of the evolving discipline of Australian archaeology, Griffiths invites us to imagine a history of ancient Australia. The structure he has chosen serves his project well – to tell the stories of the significant players; the famous, the infamous, and the invisible; their personalities, methodologies, and discoveries – and, in so doing, to create a narrative that is accessible and compelling. It is a tale of the characters who dug the trenches, of the Indigenous people who objected to the cavalier approach of the early ‘cowboy’ archaeologists, of the political reverberations of archaeological finds within environmentally contested regions, of conflict and discovery and the shifting relations between white and Indigenous Australia.

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Published in April 2018, no. 400