Lachlan R Dale

Deep Time Dreaming – Billy Griffiths on Indigenous Australia


In Deep Time Dreaming, Billy Griffiths examines Australia’s coming-to-terms with its Indigenous past. Hyperbole aside, it is the most important analysis of who we were in a very long time.



It was 1837 and a young, British lieutenant named George Grey was looking to make his mark on the world. His opportunity came from one of the farthest flung corners of the Empire, Australia. Supported by the British Government and the Royal Geographical Society, Grey planned an expedition in search of Australia’s fabled inland sea.

The plan was to land at Hanover Bay and trek through the Kimberleys to the Swan River Colony some 3,000 kilometres away. With impeccable timing, his crew sailed through the azure waters of Australia’s north coast and landed on the scrubby shore just as the wet season began. Heavy rains, floods and skirmishes with the local Indigenous population made progress difficult – and when combined with the group’s lack of both knowledge and experience, almost impossible. They made it just 50 kilometres south before calling off the expedition. Almost all of the dogs, sheep and ponies they had brought with them lay dead.

Despite this, the expedition was not a complete failure. Grey’s “discovery” of unique Indigenous rock art restored some level of prestige. His sketches of the Wandjina – powerful spirits of cloud and rain known for punishing those who interfere with sacred sites – provided fodder for the burgeoning Australian media. Grey was happy to provide his thoughts on the artwork:

“Whatever may be the age of these paintings, it is scarcely probable that they could have been executed by the self-taught savage.”

Various theories were put forward in the press: were these paintings the work of some earlier people who were eventually driven out by the area’s currently inhabitants? Or was this evidence of visitors from another nation?

Grey’s views, from the existence of an inland sea, to doubting the immense cultural heritage of Australia’s First Peoples, are impressive in both their egoism and ignorance. But this line of thinking – which seeks to devalue, discredit and dehumanise the Australia’s Indigenous population – is far from a relic of some bygone era. Today the spectres of racism and white supremacy can still be observed in the continued loss of Indigenous language and culture; in the gaping chasm between the health and wealth of Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations; and in the hostility that meets those who resiliently fight to maintain their connection to law and land.

Much of the white, European, settler population of Australia only possess a shallow understanding of our past. We have carried with us the same ignorance and bluster that drove Grey into the Kimberleys. Our history books have extolled the civilising influence of the British Empire, while Indigenous perspectives were left to lurk on the periphery.

Gladly, waves of consciousness have begun to wear down such ignorance. Today, debates about the appropriateness of the date of Australia Day – which many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians regard as the beginning of an invasion which decimated peoples and cultures – and how we should regard a historical figure like Captain Cook are regularly discussed in mainstream media. This is still contested ground, however, and has become one of many battlefields upon which the culture wars are fought.

It is in this context that Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia appears through Black Inc, charting the young historian’s search for Australia’s deep past, through an exploration of the significant finds of Australian archeology over the last century. Perhaps what it does best is demonstrate the shockwaves that these discoveries generated, and how they resonated throughout political and social spheres.

Grey’s views, from the existence of an inland sea, to doubting the immense cultural heritage of Australia’s First Peoples, are impressive in both their egoism and ignorance. But this line of thinking is far from a relic of some bygone era.

As late as the 1920s, popular and scientific opinion held that the Indigenous Peoples of Australia were only recent migrants. Their myriad of complex beliefs and practises were regarded as a singular, static and primitive culture; so undeveloped as to have failed even to leave a mark on the ecology of the country. The political extension of this view is clear, after all Australia was founded on the fiction of terra nullius; the assertion that this was an uninhabited land, legally able to be settled and claimed by the British. Whether conscious or not, such views undermine the voices of Indigenous Peoples, and provide a context for continued dispossession and oppression.

Griffiths recounts archeological practises of the period, which he describes as almost indistinguishable from grave-robbing. Damage to artifacts and sacred sites were common. What was uncovered was usually locked up in the personal collections of amateurs. Clearly, this was a field in desperate need of reform.

That reformation came in the shape of John Mulvaney, a Victorian who had learnt the latest archaeological theory and techniques at Cambridge University. In the 1960s Mulvaney staged a series of formative expeditions to the Carnarvon Ranges, which, aided by the emerging technique of carbon dating, produced evidence of human occupation of the region for more than 12,600 years.

How this news was received is telling. While today Mulvaney is lionised as “the grandfather of Australian archeology”, there was little interest in this first, ground-breaking finding. When he called the ABC to share the news, Mulvaney was informed it would be of no interest to the general public, and they declined to run the story.

Richard Gould had more luck. His work, Yiwara: Foragers of the Australian Desert – born of successive years of fieldwork alongside the Yiwara in the Warburton Ranges – gained some level of popular acclaim. Gould was an inquisitive man, and deeply respectful of Yiwara culture, absorbing whatever he could about the group’s rock art, rituals and sacred sites. He once proclaimed that the Yiwara possess “one of the most sophisticated and unique religious and philosophical systems known to man”.

But good intentions don’t guarantee positive consequences. When a copy of Gould’s book – which contained images and descriptions of male secret-sacred ceremonies – made its way back to the community in the hands of a schoolgirl, he was banned from returning. Gould, who considered himself an advocate and a friend of the Yiwara, spent decades struggling to come to terms with the events. The incident sparked a backlash from Indigenous Peoples across the country, who began to deny access to archaeologists en masse. Intense debates around issues of ownership, access and identity challenged norms, until finally new rules of engagement were developed in partnership and consultation with Indigenous communities; informed consent became essential. The cowboy years of Australian archeology were coming to an end.

Recall the Uluru Statement From The Heart. Or that Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Peoples proportionally remain the most incarcerated people on the planet. Or that efforts to “close the gap” in life expectancy and health inequality are well behind target.

As the decades passed, so too did crucial social and political reforms. In 1963, Indigenous Peoples were still legally considered wards of the state in the Northern Territory. By 1975, legislation designed to protect Indigenous sacred sites was passed in every Australian state – and in 1976 the Aboriginal Land Rights Act recognised the Aboriginal system of land ownership within the context of Australia’s legal system. The Australian referendum of 1967, which was popularly understood as an endorsement of the equal state of Indigenous Peoples, gained a “yes” vote of more than 90%. Griffiths demonstrates how these landmark reforms were fed partially by successive archeological findings – which also had the effect of invigorating an emerging black power movement, and opened up space for powerful re-assertions of Indigenous identity.

Today we can be tempted to take such social and political gains for granted, but this would be a mistake: by failing to recognise the significant battles that have been fought to assert the rights of Indigenous Peoples, we may come to regard the present as static, and the status quo as immovable.

This is the goal of conservative politics and the History Wars: to strike at the very heart of the idea that progress is possible, let alone necessary. By severing the past from the present, issues of structural inequality and institutionalised racism can be minimised. Griffiths’ book therefore is a call to consciousness, so that we might understand how far we have come, and how far we have still to go.

Recall the Uluru Statement From The Heart – an incredible call for reconciliation and constitutional recognition which was so callously and contemptuously dismissed by the Turnbull Government. Or that Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Peoples proportionally remain the most incarcerated people on the planet. Or that efforts to “close the gap” in life expectancy and health inequality are well behind target.

This is far from a dead issue, and this is what lends Griffiths’ work such relevance. Deep Time Dreaming is not a book without flaws – Griffiths’ historical recollections can read a little drily at times, particularly when juxtaposed with passages of more poetic prose which depict the author out in the field, absorbing the presence of country and musing about deep time – but the timeliness of the message more than makes up for such minor criticisms.

As Australians, we all have a moral responsibility to come to terms with our past, and work towards reconciliation.

At the end of Deep Time Dreaming, Griffiths takes us to a final dig out at the Madjedbebe rock shelter near Kakadu. It is here that scientists are able to definitively state that the history of Indigenous Peoples in Australia stretches to more than 65,000 years – a finding so significant that it calls into question our current understanding of humankind’s migration out of Africa.

But there is something of an inversion here. Throughout the book, Griffiths provides ample space for Indigenous voices. Some question the value of archeology, given that their histories have long been told in song and recorded in sacred law. This provides a challenge to non-Indigenous Australia: why is it that we seem to need such evidence to spur on social and political reform? Why are Indigenous Peoples constantly called on to validate the legitimacy of their presence in Australia? And why are we so seemingly unable to recognise the immense value of the oldest continuing culture on earth?


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