A world in a grain of sand

THE GUNS WERE the first to catch my eye. One, two, three of them, looming larger than life on the rock wall. One sits above a figure in white kaolin clay, hands on waist, pipe in mouth, broad-brimmed hat: the familiar whitefella stance. Amidst the array of Dreaming creatures, these signs of contact are stark.

I look up at this fresco from the pit below. A large crocodile returns my gaze. He has been eyeing me off for seven weeks now, watching quietly as we excavate around him. I am in Kakadu National Park, on the fringes of Arnhem Land, standing at the bottom of the oldest archaeological site in Australia.

It is really no more than a slight overhang: a decorated rock wall leaning out from the escarpment, a last remnant of the plateau before the landscape gives way to wet, scrubby plains. As we dig, the back wall recedes and slowly the rock shelter is revealed. The pit has a musty aroma, occasionally sweetened by the scent of honey wafting in from a nearby beehive. The yellow sand at the base of the pit is damp to touch, and when you stand at the rear wall and look up, only a thin opening of blue sky peeks back at you. The world I inhabit – everything I have ever known – is coded in the sediment above me. The earth at my feet speaks of a land untouched by human kind.

Hundreds of pieces of ground haematite and crayons of red and yellow ochre are scattered throughout every layer of the site. These artefacts were mined from the Cahill formation, which is now mined for uranium; they were traded or carried to this shelter by thousands of people over thousands of generations; and here they were worn to a recognisable nub. What the haematite was used for is harder to tell. Perhaps it was ground to paint rock and skin, or to preserve food and tools. Perhaps it coloured a ritual object. As Philip Jones reminds us in Ochre and Rust (Wakefield Press, 2007), red ochre is the symbolic equivalent to sacred blood. It 'is a medium of transcendence, from sickness to health, death to renewal, ritual uncleanness to cleanness, the secular to the sacred, the present reality to the Dreaming.'[i]

The signs of contact continue below the surface too. A week ago, our team leader, Chris Clarkson, cut his foot on some debris left behind from the first time this site was excavated in 1973. A can of Carlton Draught and a bottle of Scram! insect spray had been backfilled to a thirty-thousand year old depth. More noticeably, a thick black line runs along the length of the pit: a neat scar from the auger hole that was used in the re-excavation of this site in 1989. That dig, conducted by Rhys Jones, Mike Smith and Bert Roberts, is the reason we are here today. What they discovered in twelve days of hot, sweaty digging made headlines around the world. It rocked our understanding of early human history and put Australia on the archaeological map.

When Mike Smith told me that the site was to be re-excavated in 2012, I leapt at the possibility of being involved. As an historian, not a trained archaeologist, my contribution was confined to the grunt work. I was the camp manager and cook. By day, I trawled through the remnants of ancient kitchens; by night, I cooked for a team of hungry archaeologists.

This is the account of that experience. It is the history of an iconic Australian site. It is a reflection on a global story.


FIRE DOMINATES THIS landscape. As we drive into our camp in Jabiru, a wall of fire progresses slowly, purposely beside us. Flames lick the edges of the bitumen and when I wind down the window a thick miasma of earth and ash and smoke engulfs me. This is a controlled fire, a human fire. The landscape is being cleaned.

In the final days of the 1989 dig, a grass fire roared towards the Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II) rock shelter. The three excavators, Mike Smith, Rhys Jones and Bert Roberts, spent an exhausting afternoon beating back the flames, protecting their camp and the pit they had worked so hard to dig.

By that stage they had dug a narrow pit four-and-a-half metres straight into the earth: a 'telephone booth' shaft. The pioneering phase of archaeology in Australia relied on excavating such pits. It allows an exhilarating glimpse into a layered landscape: an opportunity to see the refuse of past worlds, and all throughout, evidence of the people who inhabited them. A well-placed pit is the fundamental ingredient for what Rhys Jones liked to term the 'who was where, when and what was the weather like?' school of Australian archaeology.[ii]

But while the shaft was expedient from a time and money perspective, by the end of the twelve days the team was approaching it with 'trepidation'. At the bottom, the light was dim and the scent of dirt and sweat pungent. A long ladder leaned against one of the walls and an enormous rock hung ominously over the edge of pit, mocking the flimsy plastic hardhats the excavators wore. Perhaps it is no surprise that four years later each of the three men sought a gravedigger's licence.

The great virtue of the shaft was that it extended well into sterile deposits. From the base of the pit, with a torch in hand, they could study the land before human impact. The oldest dates at the bottom – around 110,000 years ago – told of naturally changing sand aprons, made of different quantities of fluvial sediments and wind-blown sand. At some point on the wall, the sediment begins to build up faster and the first signs of human presence emerge: small stone artefacts, quite simply made, but indisputably human.

This is the most cryptic level of the site. The stratigraphy is compacted and each scrape of the trowel wipes away around 350 years of history. Organic material has not survived at this depth. There is no charcoal to date. Besides, the excavators are well beyond the radiocarbon barrier.[iii]

In the 1950s it was thought that people had occupied Australia for perhaps as long as eight thousand years. This date plummeted to thirty thousand years in the 1960s, and by the 1970s the phrase 'forty thousand years' was introduced to debates about human antiquity. But that was where the date plateaued. John Mulvaney's work at Fromm's Landing on the Murray River and at Kenniff Cave in southern Queensland, and the discovery of human remains at Lake Mungo announced the arrival of professional Australian archaeology. Each of these discoveries was considered to be of world importance, for they suggested that Australia had been inhabited for much longer than anyone had suspected.[iv]

But there were many, like Rhys Jones, who intuited that human occupation of the continent was even older. Jones thought it no coincidence that the earliest dates all clustered at around the same time as carbon-14 (in the form of charcoal) disappeared from a deposit. When it came to the state of early Australian archaeology, Jones liked to fall back on the rather morbid metaphor of a condemned man at the gallows. Every few years, it was as if a trapdoor had opened beneath the field; the dates for human occupation of Australia plunged, only to be jagged to an abrupt halt by the limitations of radiocarbon dating. 'Rope-bound theory', Jones called it. [v]

Radiocarbon dating was the driving force behind the revolution in Australia's timescale. It was an attractive method because it relied on carbon: that wonderful signature of life. While an organism is alive, carbon is constantly flowing through it; when it dies, this exchange stops. No carbon is taken in and the radioactive isotope, C14, gradually decays. The radiocarbon dating technique measures from this time of death. It compares the decaying isotope, C14, with the steady isotope C12. The rate of decay is the key to getting a date.

But carbon decays frustratingly quickly. After 5,700 years, roughly half of the C14 is gone, and after 38,000 years, only 1 per cent of C14 that was present in the living organism remains.[vi] Even with the most advanced forms of radiocarbon dating, it is rare to get a date older than forty thousand years: this is the radiocarbon barrier.[vii]

There remain further challenges. The proportion of carbon in the atmosphere changes over time and thus dates need to be calibrated to produce an age in 'calendar years'. But, more significantly, carbon acts like a sponge. It can be contaminated by something as small as a skin cell from a human hand or even organic matter carried in ground water. If the sample is young, and there is still plenty of C14, then the impact of contamination is minimal. In Tim Flannery's words, 'It is a bit like being one dollar out when counting a thousand.' But when a sample is old, he continues, 'The contamination may then be like miscounting by a dollar when there are only two dollars!'[viii]

These limitations led Jones to seek out Bert Roberts, a specialist in the technique of luminescence dating. Instead of carbon, this method dates the moment an individual grain of sand last saw sunlight.[ix]

The general idea behind luminescence dating is that when a grain of quartz is buried and protected from light, it is bombarded by background radioactivity from the surrounding sediment. Electrons from this radioactivity become trapped in the crystal lattice of the quartz, steadily building up a charge. When the grain of sand is heated or exposed to light, the charge is released and for a moment the quartz grain luminesces. The intensity of this light – a brief glow – is proportional to the number of electrons stored in the grain. And since the rate at which electrons are trapped is as regular as clockwork, this luminescence process tells us when the quartz grain was last exposed to sunlight.

The errors of this method are still relatively high (5 to 10 per cent), but it is capable of dating anything from a few hundred years old to several hundred thousand years old. And although it doesn't have the symbolic attraction that carbon has of once being alive, there is a certain romantic quality to the idea that it reveals a surface in time. It speaks directly to the vision Mike Smith articulates in The Archaeology of Australia's Deserts (Cambridge University Press, 2013) of an archaeological site as a layer cake: a palimpsest of different landscapes, 'stratified in time, stacked one above another'.[x]

The 1989 dig at Madjedbebe was one of the first times luminescence dating was put into action in Australia. The initial findings, published in Nature, suggested that people had been living in Australia for at least fifty thousand years.[xi] Jones often spoke of a human antiquity in Australia of sixty thousand years. He revelled in the fact that this was twenty thousand years earlier than any modern human site in Europe: '[it] really caused people to raise their eyebrows.'[xii]

The importance of these findings cannot be understated. The New World had become the Old. The radiocarbon barrier had been shattered. As American paleoanthropologist Richard Klein remarked, 'If the dates hold up it will force an enormous amount of rethinking.'[xiii] But there are many who remain sceptical, and when the site is discussed it often carries that same disclaimer: 'if the dates hold up'. Some criticise it for the use of the relatively new method of luminescence dating; others for the fact that the 1989 dig was never written up with a full site report.

Luminescence dating is now a mainstream technique in Australian archaeology. As for the unpublished site report, I ask Mike Smith about this. It was his meticulous field notes – bound and organised – that guided the 2012 crew through the deposit, much as a ship's log from an earlier voyage provides a guide to later mariners. He reminds me that archaeological work is very much a marathon. It is not uncommon for a full site report to take twenty years to be published. Many archaeologists have died before finishing: Howard Carter, the lead excavator of Tutankhamen's tomb, among them.

The write-up of Madjedbebe was held up at first by funding issues and university bureaucracy, and then by an illness. In the late 1990s, Rhys Jones was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away in 2001.

His student, colleague and friend, Mike Smith, is now battling the same disease. For him, Madjedbebe is unfinished business.


THE DAY STARTS in the dark. I stumble out of the warmth of my sleeping bag and into the cool night air. The first signs of light have begun to bleach the starry dome above me. I put out breakfast and then sit quietly in the kitchen cutting cucumbers. Around me others begin to stir and then the rush is on to eat, pack the cars and get out to site before the sun is on the pit.

On site, dirt mingles with sweat. A team of diggers scrape the earth carefully with their trowels, ladling dirt into a bucket and occasionally 'taking a shot': plotting an artefact with a Total Station beside the pit, little by little creating a digital 3D map of the site. Note-takers outside the pit scurry around labelling bags, recording finds and preparing buckets. A little distance away, and further along the production line, are the sievers, tipping buckets into large metal sieves, shaking the dust out and squatting over the residue, separating bones from stones, shell from charcoal.

We are being filmed. The camera crew constantly seeks new angles and insights on the process, anything to stop us looking like big kids in a sand pit. Danny Teece-Johnson, an Aboriginal filmmaker, affectionately calls us 'dirt nerds'.

Occasionally some of the Traditional Owners, the Mirrar people, visit us out at site. Twice, kids from the local school came through. Some were eager to join in, picking up a trowel or getting dusty in the sieves; others were more reticent, watching us from a distance. On one of these visits, a boy walked me along the rock wall, telling me the stories written in the art: what is good to eat, what the artists used to paint the images, how the spirit creatures fit into the Dreaming. Within the community, my twelve-year-old guide is known as 'Old Man'.

I look at that same wall and I experience the deep past with a sense of distance; what I see is a fascinating and unfamiliar other world. 'But we live beside a First People,' historian Greg Dening reminds us, 'who experience the Deep Time more immediately in their daily lives. We are bound together with a people who catch their identity in the aboriginality of that Deep Time.'[xiv] These are a people who find a continued identity in the discontinuities of culture and living.

While there is a strong sense with Madjedbebe that we are standing at the cusp of a watershed moment, something new and certain about the 'authenticity' of the site; we are also part of a continuum of human interaction. We are rummaging around in the dirt to establish what the Mirrar feel in their bones: that they have always been here.


BACK IN SYDNEY my walk to work takes me past the iconic Redfern station, the Aboriginal heart of the city. Even amidst the morning crowds, I take a moment to search out a graffiti tag on the wall across from the station. In big letters someone has scrawled:

40,000 Years is a Long Time
40,000 Still on My Mind

When it comes to time, what does forty thousand years mean? And how is that different from fifty thousand, or sixty thousand, or ten thousand for that matter? There is a 'Gee whiz' element to any dates that transcend our ordinary understanding of time as lived experience.[xv] The dates become numbers. And aside from being 'a long time ago' they are hard to grasp imaginatively.

The other question implicit in this tag is, to whom does this history belong? Madjedbebe lies on Aboriginal land. It is cared for by the Mirrar and it is an important part of their past, present and future. The art on the rock wall and the archive of the earth speak of an intensely local history. But this is also a global story. In Rhys Jones' words, 'the prehistoric resources of Kakadu are an important part of the common heritage of all people.'[xvi]

Deep-time scholars, such as Jared Diamond and Steven Mithen, place the birth of history at around fifty thousand years ago. 'Or thereabouts.'[xvii] This is the time of Diamond's so-called Great Leap Forward, the moment when humans went from being a species no more exceptional than 'beavers, bowerbirds, and army ants' to becoming 'the first species, in the history of life on Earth, capable of destroying all life.'[xviii]

There was no stark anatomical change to mark this shift; rather, it is suggested, this was an inner event: a revolution within the mind.[xix] Why did this happen then? Was it, as Tim Flannery argues in The Future Eaters (Reed Books, 1995), colonisation into the 'new' lands that sparked the change? Was it the development of the modern voice box and thus a more sophisticated manner of communication? Or indeed is this idea of an inner event a misnomer, a 'coming-of age' invented by Eurocentric minds obsessed by revolution? Steven Oppenheimer, in his book Out of Africa's Eden (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003), strongly argues that 'Africans were fully modern, singing, dancing, painting humans long before they came out of their home continent.'[xx]

The debate rages on. And so it should. For at its heart is that most fundamental of questions: what does it mean to be human?

The story unearthed at Madjedbebe gives form to this debate. The colonisation of Australia was no small feat. It required the traverse of a passage of water more than a hundred kilometres wide to a land where no hominid had roamed before. It was a major event in human history, and it helps us to understand how and when people like you and I colonised the globe. In the words of psychologist-archaeologist duo William Noble and Iain Davidson: 'Archaeologically, this is the earliest evidence of modern human behaviour.'

The endless debates surrounding when modern humans emerged and dispersed around the world ultimately come to rest on when people arrived at the southernmost extremity of their migration. Madjedbebe becomes the key date. It helps to calibrate this entire leg of human history. And while the 1989 dig turned up an old date, the hope is that the 2012 season will produce a rich assemblage: a chance to add colour and detail to the broad-brush strokes of early human history.


IN THE PAPUNYA School near Alice Springs, history is a lesson often taught outside. A teacher measures a long loop around the oval, with each metre marking one hundred years in time; then, together, the class steps out the Aboriginal occupation of this continent and talk about the spiral of the Dreaming. When the loop is finished, they regroup, and then they step out the European occupation of Australia: barely two or three steps in the sand.[xxi]

It is a simple exercise, but it helps to grasp imaginatively large sweeps of time. If I were to walk a timeline of human history, I would begin around 170,000 years ago with the emergence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. Human evolution, of course, has a far greater antiquity. At least 3.5 billion years have passed since the origin of life, some 7 million years or so since our lineage split from that of the chimpanzee, and around 1.8 million years since our cousins, the wanderlusting Homo erectus, first ventured out of the wide plains and rift valleys of Africa to spread around the world.[xxii]

The interglacial of 120,000 years ago created the conditions for Homo sapiens to move north out of Africa, but this first journey ended in tragedy with a brief but devastating global freeze.[xxiii]There is an outside possibility that a small relict population survived in a green refuge near Egypt, but this is a matter of heated debate.[xxiv]Most likely, our direct ancestors, modern humans, migrated by foot out of Africa in a single exodus around seventy thousand to eighty thousand years ago. They hugged the coast along the Arabian Peninsula and into India, where there was a population expansion. Some groups moved rapidly south into Southeast Asia and Australia; others meandered north into Asia and northwest back into Europe.[xxv] Along the way they met their cousins and slowly came to replace them.

The earth was a different place when Homo sapiens charged southwards. The ice caps bulged and today's shallow seas were dry. A great plain connected northern Australia and New Guinea; Tasmania was latched to the mainland. This giant land mass is known as Sahul.

People knew about Australia before they saw it. Smoke billowing above the sea spoke of a land that lay beyond the horizon. A dense cloud of birds traversing the trans-Siberian flyway from the south in March, and returning in October each year, may have pointed the way. But the first voyagers were sailing into the unknown.

It is a matter of much debate whether these first Australians were adventurers or castaways.[xxvi] Recent finds suggest that we underestimate our ancestors' technological capacities. Tools dated at 840,000 years old found beneath lava flows in Flores show that Homo erectus did cross the treacherous Lombok Strait and, in doing so, Wallace's Line: an amazing feat of seafaring.[xxvii] By thirty thousand years ago, distances in excess of a hundred kilometres were crossed frequently, and often to quite small islands.[xxviii] Robert Bednarik argues for these extraordinary voyages to be compared with present-day space travel: 'In both cases we are dealing with cutting-edge technology, which we do not necessarily find reflected in the general domestic evidence.'[xxix] Both are a measure of the maximum technological and cognitive capabilities of humans at a given time.

Sometime before fifty thousand years ago, people had made it to the Madjedbebe rock shelter on the Jabiluka escarpment. By thirty-five thousand years ago they inhabited Australia's centre, had travelled to the southern extremities of Tasmania, and had penetrated into the icy heart of Europe. By twenty thousand years ago they had crossed the Bering Strait into North America, and by ten thousand years ago they had reached the southern tip of South America.

These people endured some of the great climactic events of the last ice age.

When people first started visiting Madjedbebe, the climate was mild and stable. They camped in a wooded valley with a river nearby. Around thirty-five thousand years ago, things changed for the worse.[xxx] The global temperatures cooled, and the sea to the northeast receded as more and more of it became locked in the polar ice caps. The woody vegetation of the valley declined, and fresh water became scarce. Eighteen thousand years ago marked the peak of the Last Glacial Maximum. It was a time of extreme aridity. Temperatures dropped by around 6 degrees Celsius.[xxxi] Strong winds caused huge sand-dunes in Central Australia to become active, moving across the interior. The monsoon failed for perhaps twenty thousand years in the tropical north.[xxxii] The sea had retreated, leaving the shelter 300 kilometres inland.[xxxiii]

Then came the flood. We learn of it in daubs of air in ice and sediment, in coastal maps and shoreline graphs, in oral history and Dreamtime stories; it tells of the most dramatic change yet to face the first Australians. Between seventeen thousand and seven thousand years ago the extended polar ice caps melted and the sea level rose by around 150 metres. At its most rapid rate, between thirteen thousand to eleven thousand years ago, the poorly vegetated Arafura plain retreated into the ocean at the rate of one metre per week (110 kilometres in two thousand years). With every tide, the sea advanced further.[xxxiv]

About six thousand years ago, the sea level stabilised. Mainland Australia looked much as it does today. Close to three million square kilometres of land around the margins of the continent had been flooded.[xxxv]

The loss for those who survived it must have been immense. Vast territories, invaluable resources, and sacred features would have been submerged in the flood.[xxxvi] The advancing coastline pushed people inland, forcing local crowding, the mixing of cultures, and, most likely, causing conflict.[xxxvii] Darrell Lewis, one of my fellow diggers at Madjedbebe, also reads peace into this story. He links rising seas with the appearance in the rock art of the composite Rainbow Serpent. In The Rock Paintings of Arnhem Land (BAR International Series, 1988), Lewis suggests that instead of warfare, a more conciliatory philosophy emerged amongst these crowded communities: 'The Rainbow snake symbolises the possibilities of alliance among clan groups.'[xxxviii]

The sea drowned the wooded river valleys, bringing tidal conditions, and, eventually, freshwater wetlands[xxxix] to the edge of the rock shelter at Madjedbebe. For the past thousand years, Aboriginal people have gathered here in the dry season to harvest fish, turtles, crabs, goannas and freshwater mussels from the rich surrounds.

This is the story as is it told in stones and bones, in sediment and pollen. But data can only take us so far. As archaeologist Carmel Schrire reminds us in Digging Through Darkness (University Press of Virginia, 1995), 'Only imagination fleshes out the sound and taste of time past, anchoring the flavour of lost moments in the welter of objects left behind.'[xl]


MADJEDBEBE WAS FIRST excavated in 1973 as a part of the Alligator Rivers Environmental Fact-Finding Study, an endeavour funded on a dollar-for-dollar basis by the Commonwealth government and several mining companies.[xli] The mining companies were interested in the region's rich uranium deposits; the Australian government was trying to determine the borders of a national park in the area; both were keen to establish a body of basic data concerning the land and its resources. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act, passed in 1976, added to this complex set of interrelationships.[xlii]

Bill William Miyarki guided the young archaeologist, Jo Kamminga, to the Madjedbebe rock shelter in 1973.[xliii] Equipped with a trowel, ash shovel and brush, Kamminga dug a small test pit against the rock face, to a depth of 268 centimetres. The deposit was rich and a carbon sample collected above the level of the lowest artefact led Kamminga to conclude that 'the earliest occupation at Madjedbebe is therefore likely to be in excess of eighteen thousand years'.[xliv]

Madjedbebe was but one of more than 120 sites identified by Kamminga and his colleague Harry Allen in 1972–1973. The Fact-Finding Study declared the 'Alligator River Region [to be] one of the most archeologically significant areas in Australia'[xlv] and it provided the case for the declaration of Kakadu National Park and its subsequent World Heritage listing. But it did not stop the establishment of mining interests in the area. As David Lawrence reflects in his history, Kakadu (Melbourne University Press, 2000), 'there is little doubt that the Commonwealth, with its 72.5 per cent share of the Ranger mining development, had a conflict of interest during the negotiations.'[xlvi]

On 3 November 1978, traditional owners signed the Ranger Agreement. It was more of a resignation than an agreement. One of the signatories, Toby Gangale, is reported to have said, 'I've given up. It's been six years now. I'm not fighting anymore.'[xlvii] Historian Justin O'Brien describes the process as a 'failure of Aboriginal land rights legislation to deliver meaningful rights to the recognised traditional owners of the Ranger and Jabiluka project areas, the Mirrar people.'[xlviii]

A dark shadow from these times still hangs over the community. And although the relationship between the traditional landowners, the mining company and the government is improving, the Mirrar people remain active in their opposition to uranium mining on their country.[xlix]


ABOUT 2.30 PM, as the heat begins to build, I drive back to camp. I do some shopping, deliver a quick report to the team in the bone shed, shower, and get started on dinner. One day I came back to find a magpie goose sitting limply in my kitchen. A group from the local community had gone out hunting and shot seven majestic magpie geese and one runt. It was agreed that the runt should go to the archaeologists. Running out of time, I frantically plucked this beautiful bird, beheaded it, gutted it, rubbed it in olive oil and then roasted it for the evening meal. After dinner we carefully collected all the bones: Tiina Manne, our resident bone specialist, wanted them for her reference collection.

By the time I find a moment to turn to my diary, it is 10 pm. My notes are terse. Within the entries you glimpse a microcosm of the academic world: discovery, speculation, Indigenous interpretation, scepticism and various levels of rejection.

18 June 2012: Red stripe found on wall in B1 – underground rock art? Ambrose (TO) comes to site and helps with bone IDs. Leek and mushroom risotto for dinner.

19 June 2012: Chris and Lynley talk with Mirrar at GAC (Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation). Board unsurprised by the ochre stripe below the surface: 'earthquake dreaming', they explain. Turned up a few beads and a glass flake from the contact period. Visit to Ubirr at sunset. Kangaroo pie, Pumpkin and Spinach pie, lentil salad.

20 June 2012: Reached 40cm below surface. The shells are becoming larger: fewer gastropods and more and more bivalves. Paul Taçon visited in the afternoon – unimpressed with our 'underground art'. Roast lamb, stuffed mushrooms, roast vegies.


What the diary doesn't capture is that exciting sense of possibility that each day brings. After the shell midden, which is rich with bones and organic material, we move into the quartz belt. The site is littered with shattered quartz and discarded stone tools. The lithics experts huddle around each new find, commenting on its beauty, its perfection, its shape. They are ardent admirers of the craftsman.

Meanwhile, under a big blue tarp, the sievers keep an eye on the finer debris coming out of the pit. Even a change in the size of a shell can tell us about the salinity of the water and what is happening in the environment at that time.

We watched over a period of several days as a tall, upright stone emerged from the earth. It was surrounded at its base by a ring of evenly spaced large stones. Beneath that we found human remains. On that day, my only entry was:

21 June 2012: Ratatouille with couscous, lamb salad, chocolate brownies.

I recorded the daily meal as a castaway scratches a tally on the side of his boat; it gave a sense order and normality to a period of intense intellectual and physical activity. How else does one express the relentless visceral encounter with the past?

We knew from the 1973 and 1989 seasons that we would find some bones; the Mirrar were aware of this, too. At the end of each day the dig directors would communicate the findings back to the Traditional Owners. And at regular meetings with the Board the community had the chance to respond. The archaeology continued only through a process of constant and respectful communication.

The Mirrar were supportive of the work, just as Big Bill Neidjie, 'Kakadu Man', was for Jones, Smith and Roberts in 1989. They also recognise this as an opportunity. There is some interest in the genetics of the prehistoric samples, for these can act as a baseline or a control to compare to the modern situation. Radium, for example, behaves very similarly to calcium inside the human body. Tooth enamel locks in background radioactivity. If one were to compare the teeth of an individual from pre-mining times to the teeth of someone born and raised beside the Ranger Uranium mine, some compelling results might be found. The deep past can act as a powerful tool in the political present.

As I talk more with anthropologists, archaeologists and Traditional Owners, I begin to understand the depth of Mirrar opposition to the expansion of mining on their land. Aside from health and land management concerns, there are profound spiritual matters at hand. Mike Smith put it well in a recent interview: 'it's not just that people are losing control over the sites or losing access to lands, the actual land is being shipped off to China. I mean there goes the Dreaming! There goes the body of the ancestral beings!'[l]

Archaeologists, with trowels in hand and eyes on the earth, are also regarded with suspicion. But I like to think that the work at Madjedbebe will give back to the community. Different forms of knowledge can combine in beautiful and powerful ways. And after all, archaeology is a fundamentally creative exercise. Madjedbebe is not a monument in itself; it is a history that has been recovered through sweat, science and imagination. Stories that have passed beyond memory and tradition survive by virtue of archaeology. Again I am reminded of Mike Smith's words as he reflects on his contribution as an archaeologist:

'There is a history here. It is something that sits next to the Dreaming. It doesn't displace it, it doesn't replace it, but it's a rich history here, it's something to be proud of… It's been my privilege to work on this history, but in a sense it has also been my gift.'[li]


IN THE FINAL days, I am charged with cleaning the back wall. With a damp cloth and a small paintbrush, I work carefully to remove the caked dirt: there is an outside hope that art lies beneath. I work slowly, standing on a ladder in the middle of the pit, my head still below the surface. Around me, samples are being collected and stratigraphy is being drawn. The film crew hovers, recording the last few moments of the dig.

It is hard to tell what are lines drawn by hand and what are natural stains in the rock. The reds and yellows continue underground, but what is missing is the definition of the artwork. Later someone in the lab will feed photos of these pigments into a software program and perhaps conjure something from the wall. But with the bare eye, it seems as if this part of the story is lost to us.

In 1989, the mood was high when the moment came to say goodbye to the ominous shaft. Rhys Jones popped the cork on a bottle of Dom Pérignon to celebrate; they used the same bottle to ceremoniously mark the bottom of their pit. Inside, they left notes on small slips of paper. A message in a bottle through time.

Twenty-three years later, I vowed to unearth that Dom Pérignon bottle. On the final day, I climbed down into the pit and dug feverishly through the sterile deposit, first with a shovel, then hunched over with a trowel and a bucket, and finally on my knees with my bare hands clawing the earth. I am grateful to Richard Fullagar, who shored up the wall above me.

At a depth of 4.5 metres, my hands touched upon cool, hard glass. The label remained, still legible; but the paper slips inside had been lost to time.

We returned the bottle to the base of the 1989 trench. It is joined by a collection of carefully selected artefacts from the 2012 dig. I will leave them as a surprise should the site ever be excavated again.

Recently, Chris Clarkson showed me a photograph of the site, which made me doubt that we were ever there. But there is no denying that we were, and that we left a mark. Throughout the dig, I was acutely aware that this is another moment of contact. We have become another episode in this storied landscape. Madjedbebe is not a museum, but a living place.

There are murmurings in the community that new art might join the magnificent frescoes on the Jabiluka escarpment. On a clear area of wall, in reds, yellows and whites, more stories might be added to this landscape. Will they speak of the construction of the Arnhem Land highway? Or of the growth of uranium mining in the region? Or perhaps they will tell of the waves of archaeologists who have come to this country to study its history, and, in doing so, have added something themselves, something to celebrate.


I am indebted to Mike Smith and the 2012 Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II) team for putting up with my many, many questions, as well as my cooking. I also want to recognise the support of the team at Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and Community Prophets. My thanks go out to Xavier Carah, Chris Clarkson, Caro Constantine, Richard Fullagar, Ebbe Hayes, Zenobia Jacobs, Amy Jordan, Jo Kamminga, Darrell Lewis, Kelsey Lowe, Tiina Manne, Ben Marwick, Jacq Matthews, Cameron Muir, Justin O'Brien, Colin Pardoe, Bert Roberts, Will Sheridan, Ceri Shipton, Danny Teece-Johnson, David Vadiveloo, Lynley Wallis and Alan Williams.



[i]Philip Jones, Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers (Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2007), 349.

[ii]Rhys Jones, 'Different strokes for different folks: Sites, Scale and Strategy' in Ian Johnson (ed.) Holier than thou: Proceedings of the 1978 Kiola conference on Australian Prehistory (ANU, 1980), 151-171.

[iii]Rhys Jones, Richard G. Roberts and M.A. Smith, 'Beyond the radiocarbon barrier in Australian prehistory', Antiquity 68 (Sep 1994), 611.

[iv]Tom Griffiths, 'In Search of Australian Antiquity', in Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths, eds, Prehistory to Politics: John Mulvaney, the Humanities and the Public Intellectual (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996), 42-62, 43.

[v]Jones, 'Different strokes for different folks'.

[vi]Martin Aitken, Science-based dating in archaeology (London: Longman, 1990).

[vii]Radiocarbon dating has been given a new lease on life in recent years with the development of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), which uses magnetics to measure carbon atoms directly and thus enables the dating of even smaller samples. But contamination remains a problem, thus all samples are now 'pre-treated'. The standard pre-treatment is Acid Base Oxidixation and stepwise combustion (ABOX), which uses an acid to remove carbonates and an alkaline to remove humic acids. Then the sample is heated to a certain temperature, one layer is burnt off and dated, then the temperature is raised and another layer is burnt off and dated, until you can get three or four dates for a sample. When the dates plateau out, you assume you have hit upon the real date.

[viii]Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters: An ecological history of the Australasian lands and people (Melbourne: Reed books, 1995), 151.

[ix]I am indebted to Zenobia Jacobs, Bert Roberts, Mike Smith and Ebbe Hayes for patiently explaining this process to me.

[x]Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia's Deserts (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2013), iv.

[xi]R.G. Roberts, Rhys Jones and M.A. Smith, 'Thermoluminescence dating of a 50,000 year-old human occupation site in northern Australia', Nature 345 (1990), 153-6.

[xii]Virginia Morell, 'The earliest art becomes older – and more common', Science 267 (Mar 31 1995), 1908.

[xiii]Richard Klein, a Stanford University anthropologist, as quoted in: Morell, 'The earliest art becomes older – and more common', 1908.

[xiv]Greg Dening, 'Living In and With Deep Time: Public Lecture XII, David Nichol Smith Conference, July 19, 2004', Journal of Historical Sociology 18 (4) (Dec 2005), 269-81, 273.

[xv]George Seddon as quoted in Kirsty Douglas, Pictures of Time Beneath: Science, Heritage and the Uses of the Deep Past (Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing, 2010), 11.

[xvi]Rhys Jones, 'Recommendations for archaeological site management in Kakadu National Park' in Rhys Jones (ed.), Archaeological Research in Kakadu National Park (Canberra: Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, Special Publication 13, 1985), 304.

[xvii]Steven Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 – 5000 BC (London: Phoenix, 2004), 3; Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London: Vintage, 1998), 39.

[xviii]Jared Diamond, The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee (London: Radius, 1991), 48.

[xix]Lydia V. Pyne and Stephen J. Pyne, The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 195.

[xx]Steven Oppenheimer, Out of Africa's Eden: The Peopling of the World (Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003), 55.

[xxi]Diane de Vere and Nadia Wheatley, Teaching Notes for the Papunya School Book of Country and History (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2003), 3.

[xxii]Mithen, After the Ice, 3.

[xxiii]Oppenheimer, Out of Africa's Eden, 54-63.

[xxiv]P.M. Vermeersch et al, 'A Middle Palaeolithic burial of a modern human at Taramsa Hill, Egypt', Antiquity 72 (277) (Sep 1998), 475-84; Oppenheimer, Out of Africa's Eden, 54-56.

[xxv]Vincent Macaulay et al, 'Single, Rapid Coastal Settlement of Asia Revealed by Analysis of Complete Mitochondrial Genomes', Science (13 May 2005), 1034-1036; Q. D. Atkinson et al, 'mtDNA variation predicts population size in humans and reveals a major southern Asian chapter in human prehistory', Molecular Biology and Evolution25(2) (2008), 468-474.

[xxvi]J. Peter White and James F. O'Connell, A Prehistory of Australia, New Guinea and Sahul (Sydney: Academic Press, 1982), 42-49; John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1999), 103-112.

[xxvii]R.G. Bednarik, 'Replicating the first known sea travel by humans: the lower pleistocene crossing of Lombok Strait', Human Evolution 16 (3-4) (Jul-Dec 2001), 229-242; Peter Bellwood, 'Special Report: Ancient Seafarers', Archaeology 50 (2) (March/April 1997).

[xxviii]R.G. Bednarik, 'The origins of navigation and language', The Artefact 20 (1997), 16-56.

[xxix]Bednarik, 'Replicating the first known sea travel by humans', 241.

[xxx]Mulvaney and Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, 103.

[xxxi]Jones, 'Recommendations for archaeological site management in Kakadu National Park', 305.

[xxxii]Chris Johnson, Australia's Mammal Extinctions: A 50 000 year history (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 132-133.

[xxxiii]Carmel Schrire, The Alligator Rivers: prehistory and ecology in western Arnhem Land (Canberra: Australian National University, Terra Australis 7, 1982), 7-8.

[xxxiv]Mulvaney and Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, 120-121.

[xxxv]Johnson, Australia's Mammal Extinctions, 134.

[xxxvi]Mulvaney and Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, 121.

[xxxvii]Paul Taçon and Sally Brockwell, 'Arnhem Land prehistory in landscape, stone and paint', Antiquity 69 (1995), 676-95.

[xxxviii]Darrell Lewis, The Rock Paintings of Arnhem Land, Australia: Social, Ecological and Material Culture Change in the Post-Glacial Period (Oxford: BAR International Series 415, 1988), 90-91.

[xxxix]Jones, 'Recommendations for archaeological site management in Kakadu National Park', 305-6.

[xl]Carmel Schrire, Digging through darkness: Chronicles of an Archaeologist (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 11.

[xli]David Lawrence, Kakadu: the making of a national park (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000), 64.

[xlii]Justin O'Brien, 'Canberra Yellowcake: The Politics of Uranium and How Aboriginal Land Rights Failed the Mirrar People', Journal of Northern territory History 14 (2003), 79-92, 85.

[xliii]Johan Kamminga and Harry Allen, Alligator Rivers Environmental Fact-Finding Study: Report of the Archaeological Survey (unpublished report, Canberra, August 1973), 116.

[xliv]Kamminga and Allen, Alligator Rivers Environmental Fact-Finding Study, 45-52.

[xlv]Kamminga and Allen, Alligator Rivers Environmental Fact-Finding Study, 108.

[xlvi]Lawrence, Kakadu, 103.

[xlvii]Lawrence, Kakadu, 103.

[xlviii]O'Brien, 'Canberra Yellowcake', 79.

[xlix]Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, 'Ranger uranium mine agreement updated', Media Statement, 24 Jan 2013.

[l]National Library of Australia, Mike Smith interviewed by Tom Griffiths, 8 June 2012.

[li]National Library of Australia, Mike Smith interviewed by Tom Griffiths, 8 June 2012.

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