Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

History Revisited - Danish insights on New England's past

CELEBRATING THE PAST: Jim Belshaw spent hours in the Danish National Museum during his recent trip to Europe
I have been away, arriving back from Europe Saturday very jet lagged. While the primary objectives of the trip were to spend some time with eldest and to follow the Rugby World Cup, history became an inevitable part of the journey. I can’t help myself, you see!

The trip began in Copenhagen where Helen is working for Danish shipping company Maersk. With Helen still working during the day, I roamed Copenhagen looking at the buildings and visiting the various attractions.

The Danish National Museum is very good. There was much to see. However, I fear I spent my entire time in the section dedicated to Danish prehistory!

The University of New England was one of the first in Australia if not the first to include world prehistory in its history course. A little later, it was the first to introduce Australian prehistory and archaeology as an honours course. I was lucky to be one of the early guinea pigs.

With this background, several things struck me as I looked at the exhibits and explanations on the different stages in the prehistory of that area that would become Denmark. One was the level of detail.

At 43,000 square kilometres, Denmark is something over a third of the size of the New England North West region. That smaller size allows for much more detailed coverage in both research and presentation. There is no equivalent museum display for the Aboriginal peoples of Northern NSW.

The second thing that struck me, and I was to feel this many times over the trip, was the advance in knowledge since I first studied Australian and world prehistory. It’s actually daunting.

At the highest level, the combination of new techniques in areas such as DNA analysis and dating are constantly reshaping our understanding of the deep human past. To a degree, this has outrun our capacity to absorb new knowledge, at least at popular level. There past but now invalidated conclusions remain firmly fixed in our minds.

At local level, work done by Danish archaeologists has pushed back dates and provided a detailed understanding of the changing pattern of human life in the face of constant environmental change. I was especially interested in the impact of the freezing Late Glacial Maximum (LGM) and then the subsequent warming associated with the arrival of the Holocene period.

In some of my columns I tried to tell the New England story of these periods. Now I was comparing my local understanding with the patterns in another place.

There are obvious similarities as well as differences. In both New England and Denmark, the cold dry conditions pushed human occupation back. Conditions were worse in Denmark, with much of the area covered by glaciers. However, the broad patterns remained similar.

As the LGM eased, the climate became warmer, while sea levels started to rise. Both plant and animal life responded to these changes, leading to progressive changes in patterns of human life. In both Denmark and Northern NSW, land was reoccupied, while human populations increased with more intense utilisation of the stabilising landscape.

However, there were also significant differences in response between the two areas directly associated with differences in food resources and raw materials. I will continue this story in my next column. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 21 October 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for2014, here for 2015.