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Australian Radio-carbon Dates

  • D. J. Mulvaney

The Antipodean archaeologist has more than passing interest in the opinions expressed in ANTIQUITY concerning the reliability of radio-carbon 14 age estimations. To him, objective prehistory seems unattainable without the combination of stratigraphy and radio-carbon. Other geochronological schemes remain to be devised and tested in Australia, while the material simplicity of aboriginal culture deprives the prehistorian of many customary ancillary aids, such as coinage, pottery or sophisticated typology. Even the ubiquitous faience bead has proved elusive. In the Polynesian world there is dispute concerning the value of genealogies and traditions, but even the most ardent critic must grant that they contain more apparent historicity and chronology than Australian concepts of ‘the dream time’. In this generation, therefore, carbon 14 is likely to provide the basic clues for the interpretation of the past. This brief article is intended to record a series of dates which, it would seem, neither physicist nor archaeologist can impugn.

Despite the pressing need for a carbon 14 chronology, few age estimations are available for aboriginal cultural material. However, some of them are subject to the qualifications stressed by previous contributors to this journal. The sites have been dated by estimations on single samples, collected under circumstances where controlled, stratified excavation was not possible. The artifacts and the source of the samples were first exposed by natural erosion. Unfortunately, in some instances, the artifacts are such generalized types that they are of doubtful utility for cultural analysis. In the writer’s opinion, the three oldest Australian stone assemblages, and the only Tasmanian midden deposit dated so far, all suffer from one or other of these limitations, and they are relevant to any assessment made of the evidence. The relevant sites and antiquity are as follows. (Dates B.C.)

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1 The first three dates are discussed by Tinsdale, N. B., 1957. ‘Culture Succession in South Eastern Australia’, Records South Australian Museum, XIII, 34. Tasmanian information by courtesy of W. Bryden, Director, The Tasmanian Museum, Hobart.

2 Gill, Edmund D., 1955. ‘Aboriginal Midden Sites in Western Victoria Dated by Radiocarbon Analysis’, Mankind, 5, 51-55.

3 Mulvaney, D. J., 1959. ‘Dating of Australian Prehistory’, Nature, 184, 918; 1960, ‘Archaeological Excavations at Fromm’s Landing’, Proc. Roy. Soc. Victoria, 72, 53-85.

Mr Mulvaney is a Lecturer in Ancient History at Melbourne University and has for many years been concerned with the prehistory of Australia. Here he discusses the significance of some of the fist Australian C14 dates. Originally quoted as dates in years ‘Before the Present’ they have been converted into dates B.C. or A.D. as this is at present the common usage in Britain.

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  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
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