‘It is hard to reach the truth of these islands,’ observed Robert Louis Stevenson of Samoa in a letter written to a close friend in 1892, two years after the author had moved to an estate on Upolu. Stevenson, who died in 1894, could never have anticipated the prophetic dimension added to those words. Less than a century later, in the 1980s, the Western understanding of Samoan society would become the subject of a fierce and protracted international dispute among anthropologists and others that has raged ever since.

A cynic once said that the more bitter the dispute between academics the less there is at stake. But when in 1983, Derek Freeman, a New Zealand-born anthropologist based at the Australian National University, published a refutation of the fieldwork conducted in Samoa in the 1920s by his famous American colleague Margaret Mead, it wasn’t simply an intramural disagreement. Freeman seemed to call into question the most widely accepted assumption within the social sciences of what it is to be human.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Simon Caterson reviews 'Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the war over cultural anthropology' by Peter Hempenstall
  • Contents Category Biography
  • Custom Highlight Text

    ‘It is hard to reach the truth of these islands,’ observed Robert Louis Stevenson of Samoa in a letter written to a close friend in 1892, two years after the author had moved to an estate on Upolu. Stevenson, who died in 1894, could never have anticipated the prophetic dimension added to those words. Less than a century later ...

  • Book Title Truth’s Fool
  • Book Author Peter Hempenstall
  • Book Subtitle Derek Freeman and the war over cultural anthropology
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio University of Wisconsin Press, US$34.95 hb, 321 pp, 9780299314507

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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  • Custom Article Title Kim Mahood reviews 'Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia' by Billy Griffiths
  • Contents Category Anthropology
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    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 ...

  • Book Title Deep Time Dreaming
  • Book Author Billy Griffiths
  • Book Subtitle Uncovering ancient Australia
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Black Inc., $34.99 pb, 376 pp, 9781760640446