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

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Billy Griffiths, Isabel McBryde and Deep Time Dreaming - a note

On Saturday 17 March 2018, ABC's Radio National Geraldine Doogue interviewed Billy Griffith, the author of Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia. (Black Inc, February 2018).

Billy is a historian and research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. In his book, he explores a twin revolution: the reassertion of Aboriginal identity in the second half of the twentieth century, and the simultaneous uncovering of the traces of ancient Australia by pioneering archaeologists.

The ABC interview is on-line and well worth listening too.An excerpt from the book telling the story of archaeologist Isabel McBryde, Haunted Country, was published in Inside Story. It is well written and will give you a feel for the book as a whole. It is also an excerpt of particular relevance to me because I was one of that group of Isabel's students that Billy talks about.

I have written a little on all this, material that I need to consolidate. Billy's assessment is to a degree limited by space and focus.This does not detract from its value, it's a very good piece indeed, but means that it does not fully reflect the scope of Isabel's work.

John Mulvaney, Isabel's mentor, has been described as the Father of Australian archaeology, while. Trowelblazers described  Isabel as the mother. Leaving aside a certain feeling of discomfort about the use of such gender specific terms, it does reflect her importance and influence.

In a paper delivered in 2010, Unrecognised and now almost unknown: explorations through the history of the broader New England, I described Isabel's contribution to the University of New England in this way:

" Isabel’s personality and approach exactly fitted the University’s culture. The results were quite outstanding for such a small institution.

Four years after Isabel’s arrival came the first thesis, Sharon Sullivan's 1964 honours study on the material culture of the Aborigines of the Richmond and Tweed Rivers.

By 1978, UNE students had written at least 22 theses on the Aborigines, 4 Litt.B's, 16 BA honours and 2 MAs. Isabel herself was awarded her PhD in 1967, laying the basis for a 1974 book, Aboriginal prehistory in New England. This was followed in 1978 by book of essays, Records of Time Past: ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes mainly written by her former students. This included an article of mine, Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in Northern NSW, drawn from my original work. The story does not end there, for there were also journal articles and monographs, including her pioneering study with R A Binns, A petrological analysis of ground-edge artefacts from northern New South Wales.

The citation for her award in 2003 of the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology justly summarised her work this way:
Her work in New England was remarkable for its extent and depth, and Isabel's examination of the interface of archaeology and ethnography in the region shaped not only the approach taken by many later researchers but also prepared the basis for the arguments about upland regions created by archaeologists such as Sandra Bowdler and Luke Godwin."
It is now 55 years since I first became involved as a student with Isabel. My career choices took me well away from archaeology, prehistory or Aboriginal studies.Still, here I am 55 years later trying to develop a new synthesis for New England Aboriginal history. That's a remarkable reach.  

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