Billy Griffiths is a Sydney-based writer and historian who published his first book The China Breakthrough: Whitlam in the Middle Kingdom, 1971 in 2012. Last year he worked as the camp manager and cook for the re-excavation of Madjedbebe (formerly known as Malakunanja II).
You published a book on Whitlam and Australia-China relations straight after finishing your Honours year at the University of Sydney.
Yes. I finished my Honours in October 2011, but I was still caught up in the story and there was so much more I needed to say. So I kept going after the submission, and expanded it in all the ways I wanted to, and then submitted it blind to a number of publishers and got lucky I suppose. It was the 40th anniversary of Australia-China diplomatic relations in 2012, so it all worked out well for me.
Given that your focus has been on the Australian history of recent memory, what was it that made you want to go out to Kakadu and work on the excavation?
I've always been interested in origins, about where we begin our histories and why. It's always frustrated me that Australian history so often begins with Cook, or that we explain away the Aboriginal occupation of this continent in a paragraph or a page. So I was keen to learn more about that deeper history. When I heard there was the remote possibility I could get on the dig, I leapt at the chance. I wanted to understand more about the Aboriginal occupation of this continent. I was excited to be involved in the excavation and see what the tradecraft of archaeology is like, and to get into that deeper history, to literally scrape away the earth, and to be able to look at landscapes in time: one stacked upon another, upon another. It was the thrill of chasing another kind of archive, I suppose.
It's also a much more physical archive, which you can't readily understand through language. The stories are more instinctive.
Absolutely. Having mainly written in political history up until this point I was keen to get beyond the documents, in a way. And I think historians should work with different types of archives more often - with sediment, with ice cores, with fossils, with artefacts - to tell different kinds of stories. You're grappling with different materials to construct a narrative, but I think the story they tell is in some ways more truthful. A document always has an intention embedded within it. Someone's written it wanting to convey a point. Something like an artefact or sediment doesn't tell lies. It doesn't have any intention. It holds a story within it which is bereft of intention and influence.
You come from an academic background, and what you have written before has been so different in both scope and subject to this piece. What motivated you to write a memoir?
There's a quote by the British socialist historian R.H. Tawney, saying that 'good historians need strong boots'. Any piece of writing is always written to some extent from your own experience. I've never believed that passion is the antonym of objectivity, or that the two can't go hand in hand. So I thought it was a great opportunity to get out there and get into a different kind of history, and really be a fly on the wall. When I returned I had so many things swirling around in my head, without having a way to process them. For me, writing is a way to think; it's a tool; it's a journey; it's helps me to make sense of things. I find writing hard; but not-writing is even harder. It was also my opportunity to give back a little bit to all the people who were so kind to me on the excavation, and who shared their knowledge with me, and to the traditional owners who welcomed us into that community. It was my opportunity to make a contribution, aside from just providing food.
In one instance you described your journal as a kind of tally kept by a castaway. Your voice in the piece often seems to be one of somebody who is observing from a position of distance.
I was very fortunate that my role was so central to the actual day-to-day life of the dig. I found myself in a position as the cook, where everyone – the archaeologists, the community, the filmmakers – would, in a way, relax around me because I was going to be feeding them at the end of the day. They say the way to someone's heart is through the stomach, and it's true. It's also important to stress how physical a dig is. It's physical from a mechanical point of view but there's also an emotionally exhausting element to it. I try to convey that in the piece. We look back at the deeper past with a sense of distance, as though you're looking at it through a telescope. It's this fantastic, unfamiliar, foreign landscape. The enormous privilege was to have the traditional owners, the Mirrar, coming through the site, giving a sense of urgency to the unfamiliar. They have a deep connection to this past. What I look at from a distance, they feel it in their bones.
It seemed that the knowledge of the traditional owners was crucial to understanding what the archaeologists were uncovering over the course of the dig.
I think these two different knowledge systems – the indigenous and the archaeological – combine in powerful and beautiful ways to paint a vivid picture of the past, a picture which each system on it's own can't quite achieve. The Mirrar would come to the site and explain what we were finding, show how a tool was used, and tell stories about the land. That knowledge is invaluable. But the archaeological contribution is also immense. In the piece, I barely scratch the surface of what we were finding, and what that means, and the wonder that it inspires. The title, 'A world In a grain of sand', is an expression of my wonder at the archaeological practice, and in particular the luminescence dating technology: I'm still amazed by how much you can learn from a single grain of sand. That's an incredible breakthrough, and it's just one of so many in the archaeological toolkit. To have both archaeological knowledge alongside indigenous knowledge is a powerful combination.
Towards the end of the piece you write that 'Archaeology is fundamentally a creative exercise'. I wonder whether that was something you thought before you went out to the excavation? Or did that thought come about as a product of being at the excavation site and being witness to the creative process?
I did develop an appreciation of the creative potential of archaeology on the dig. Archaeology is a creative enterprise. It's something that's achieved through hard work and sweat and imagination. Good archaeology ties science with the humanities. You can accumulate as much data as you want, but it's only when you take a step back and look at that data that you can imagine a different society and different time and a different landscape. What they can do with the data is creative and imaginative. But in order to reconstruct that lost world, you also need to be content with sitting down and counting fragments of shells, doing the mechanical stuff in order to glimpse that big and mesmerising picture.
That seemed to be a strong theme in the piece – that the landscape is a storied landscape. That particularly came across in the image of the rock wall paintings which you mention at the beginning and end of the piece, as things which are not only ancient, but which have continued to be produced.
Absolutely. There's nothing static about Aboriginal culture or Aboriginal history. The site is not a museum, but a living place. The art on the rock wall is a beautiful expression of dreamtime stories, contact moments, and just sheer information. We have, in our culture, this idea of what is 'past' and what is history and what needs to be preserved and conserved. History is experienced with distance. But we're also living as part of a continuum of interaction with land and with people. I think it's important to remember that these places mean something, mean profound things to a lot of people. This country is not just something that can be analysed clinically or simply dug up and sent to China, it also needs to be respected. There's a very strong connection to the past in Aboriginal communities, even to something that might have happened thousands of years ago. I wanted to bring that out in the piece, because we need to appreciate that more. It is a storied landscape; we're a part of that story.
You seem to come away from the site with an altered sense of understanding about the Australian landscape and its history.
The experience has certainly encouraged me to think about history on a much larger scale. When we talk about origins we tend to look for arbitrary dates, we don't tend to think of everything as a whole. I think if you step back and look at history on a large scale, start thinking about when we became humans, how the seas have risen and fallen, how the land has been shaped over time, then you start looking at the present moment with a different perspective. The deep time is a powerful thing in the political present, and, I think, also in understanding our everyday lives.