Coastal Archaeology Revisited

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Burrill Lake, southern NSW coast

Browsing in my local Berkelouw’s store last weekend a title on the fiction table struck me:The Beach Caves”. Usually titles on that table bear no relation to the subject but a quick look and wow! The front page said this is “an archaeological thriller that has a real sense of lived experience”.  Where I wondered, could it be: in UK or somewhere exotic? No, it is here in NSW. A dive beneath the cover revealed this book features Canberra, ANU, and the south coast around Batemans Bay. Moreover it covers the early 70s when we were living in Canberra and doing field work in areas covered by the book. The author is Trevor Shearston and the book is first published by Scribe in 2021! Turning to the acknowledgements, I noted familiar names: Jack Golson, Phil Hughes, Marjorie Sullivan, and the late John Mulvaney. But what struck me most was the reference to the late Ron Lampert with the words “His papers on sites along the New South Wales coast are models of thoroughness and detail and were a constant reference”.

I have previously written an ACS blog on interests in coastal archaeology including my association with Ron (21 March 2018). What is fascinating about this new book is how fiction can be constructed from the real-world discoveries of a researcher like Ron who died in 2008 (see obituary by Golson in Proceedings Aust. Acad. Humanities., 33, 2008). Details of how surveys are undertaken, the role of teams including students new to field work, and what can be discovered by painstaking excavations all get described. It was though it was Ron coming to life again under a different guise exploring various sites on the open coast, in outer parts of estuaries, and also further inland up tidal reaches of rivers like the Clyde (or in Ron’s actual case the Shoalhaven). Fictional characters are brought to life as tensions and mysteries unfold, but behind all of this is discovery of changes in Aboriginal use of resources. I will put that fictional part to one side for the moment.

Reading this book sent me back into references by Ron and others on sites on the NSW south coast. The literature is quite extensive with observations by different teams and records from the time of the First Fleet. Some of this is summarised in a paper by Lampert and Steele in 1993 entitled “Archaeological studies at Bomaderry Creek, NSW” (Records Australian Museum, Supplement 17). This volume was dedicated to Fred McCarthy of the Museum who had much earlier offered a model of time periods of changing cultural practices during the Holocene. The Lampert and Steele paper builds on Ron’s earlier work including his fantastic monograph published in Terra Australis (Dept. of Prehistory ANU) in 1971 (“Burrill Lake and Currarong: coastal sites in southern NSW”). Here he provided details on tools and biota associated with lake and foreshore sites, but in particular opens our eyes to occupation of a cave from the late Pleistocene into the Holocene. The Bomaderry site near Nowra offers contrast as it is more distant from the sea. It is these differences that are picked up in the fictional story by Shearston.

My own observations in the early 60s travelling with Jack Golson to Port Stephens and around Era in the Royal National Park had already alerted me to differences in food resources and tools derived from nearby habitats.  But it was in 1973 when Ron and I prepared to guide the INQUA field trip on the south coast that I fully appreciated the depth of work that a professional archaeologist must undertake to get answers. Later research by those intrepid partners, Sullivan and Hughes, further enlightened me on the complexities of prehistory in coastal Australia.

More recently, news has emerged of great interest globally about our Australian coast with discussion on the age and character of a midden and hearth site near the mouth of the Hopkins River in western Victoria. This site was recently the subject of an ABC Science Show broadcast. Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou discuss the research at Moyjil (Point Ritchie) in their recent book Loving Country (see p. 286 and references on p.291). Jim Bowler, John Sherwood and Ian McNiven are involved in ascertaining the history of the site especially given the possibility that it dates back to the Last Interglacial c. 120k (see Bowler, Quat. Australasia, 36,2, 29-36, 2019). It opens the great debate on just when our first peoples arrived on this continent and shows how much more we can learn from coastal archaeology.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email