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The Stone Age of Australia

  • D. J. Mulvaney (a1)

Fieldwork in Australian prehistory began in the opening year of Australia's history; the first excavation was directed by the Colonial Governor. In an official despatch dated 15 May 1788, less than five months after the landing at Sydney Cove, Governor Arthur Phillip recorded the results of his excavation.

‘The ground having been raised in several places, as is common in England, where poor people are buried, I had one of these graves opened, and from the ashes had no doubt but that they burn their dead. From the appearance of the ashes, the body must be laid at length only a few inches below the surface, and is, with the wood ashes made by burning the body, covered lightly over with mould, fern and a few stones.’

Elsewhere, he remarked, that

‘… we frequently saw the figures of men, shields, and fish roughly cut on the rocks ….’

Phillip's early despatches were ‘compiled’ for publication by J. Stockdale. The influence of 18th-century English Antiquarianism is evident in the ‘rude’ remains in Stockdale's revised version, and his comment that ‘Phillip caused some of these barrows to be opened.’

Despite this auspicious excursion into aboriginal prehistory, Australia remains the dark continent of prehistory even after the passage of 170 years: it will be many years before the publication of a Pelican Archaeology of Australia becomes a practicable possibility. This contribution is intended as a preliminary sketch of present problems and a résumé of existing evidence. If it were restricted to a study of archaeological stratigraphy, it would be little more than a brief note; as its scope is broader, limitations of time and space impose a selective approach to the literature.

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