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Written By

Stephanie Schierhuber


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

11 September 2020

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Diving into Australia's Indigenous History

Human history, past and present, is a dynamic and diverse story. As cultures flourish and change they leave their mark in the earth and on history.

When JCU Distinguished Professor Sean Ulm came across archaeology while studying social sciences at university he knew that it was a perfect fit for his interests. “It captured everything I was interested in,” he says. “People today and their links to the past, how the past informs the present, but also the deep past and how it’s shaped where we are today and the extraordinary diversity of human cultures and societies we see on the planet today.”

In order to reveal the human past archaeologists must work closely with researchers from other disciplines. “One of the real hallmarks of archaeology, I think, is understanding how all these different disciplines fit together, and harnessing the power of those multidisciplinary approaches to reveal aspects of the past that you couldn’t do from any one of those disciplines on its own.”

One of Sean’s most recent research projects highlights the importance of collaboration in the social sciences, and the difference that cross-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary work can have on our social, environmental, and cultural futures.

A woman wearing with red hair wearing a hat and sunglasses writes on a plastic clipseal bag to document an artefact sitting in front of her with a blue notebook to her left.
A diver wearing a scuba kit is underwater and swimming close to the ocean floor with coral to their right.
The DHSC team spent hours combing the sea floor for artefacts and carefully documenting them. Left image: Sam Wright Photography. Right image: Hiro Yoshida

The Deep History of Sea Country

In geological time the current shape of Australia has only existed for a short time. For the first 40,000 years of the 65,000+ years of human history of the Australian continent, the land was 2 million square kilometres larger than it is now. Walking from southern Tasmania to northern New Guinea didn’t require the ability to walk on water as the lower sea levels revealed land that is now part of the ocean floor.

Submerged beneath the watery fringe of Australia’s coastline are records of the long relationship that Indigenous Australians have had with the continent. “Thousands of generations of people lived out their lives on land that’s now underwater,” Sean says. “So, to understand the real human history and diversity in Australia we need to find and interrogate the archaeology that’s left on the seabed.”

The Deep History of Sea Country project is a collaboration between archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots, scientific divers, and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. The project aims to locate the archaeological remnants of those thousands of generations that lived on the now submerged land that surrounds the Australian coastline.

Locating Indigenous heritage on the seabed is not a simple undertaking. “We have to locate areas that might have minimal sedimentation,” Sean says. “A lot of these features may well have marine growth on them, making it more difficult to identify.” To resolve these difficulties the research team combined the knowledge of sea country held by Traditional Owner groups with technology such as plane mounted lasers, sonar equipment, and scientific divers.

After years of work Sean and the team located approximately 270 stone artefacts on the seabed in two of their search sites. These findings are only the very beginning of the story. “It’s really proof of concept that if we can identify and locate these remains then the potential exists elsewhere,” Sean says.

“Indigenous people all over Australia made much bigger structures than just discarding stone artefact. We think the most likely sites to be found on the seabed are large intertidal fish traps made out of stone walls or shell mounds, rock art preserved on outcrops of rock, and also stone quarry sites where Aboriginal people have extracted raw materials for manufacturing stone tools.”

“In Australia there has been lots of underwater archaeology on shipwrecks and some sunken aircraft but very little attention paid to Indigenous heritage on the seabed.”

Distinguished Professor Sean Ulm

Protecting Indigenous sea country heritage

Researching the history of Indigenous sea country is impossible without collaborative effort and expertise.

“Archaeology is very multi- and transdisciplinary and over the last few decades it’s become more so,” Sean says. “I work with physicists, chemists, geologists, and archaeological botanists daily.”

Especially important to the Deep History of Sea Country project are the contributions of Indigenous Australians. “All our work is done collaboratively with Indigenous Traditional Owners and Custodians,” Sean says. “Traditional Owners have very detailed knowledge of their countries and sometimes that knowledge is very specific about the topography and geology, where resources are, and story places are, but also recent studies have shown that Aboriginal people have very detailed histories documenting sea level rise.”

In the face of heavy development around the Australian continental margins, these archaeological findings become more important and urgent. “Resource extraction, the tourism industry putting pontoons in, dredging ports and navigation channels, all of that development potentially damages archaeology and cultural heritage on the seabed,” Sean says.

The impact of the project goes far beyond the reconstruction of human history on the Australian continent. It has the potential to alter the future of environmental and cultural heritage management. “A lot of Traditional Owners are insisting that when developments occur on their sea country that these considerations are taken on board to make sure that their heritage is identified, protected, and managed into the future.”

“The Traditional Owners of the cultural heritage are determining what research happens and what happens with that research. The real value of that is that means that the research is relevant to those communities and to the community’s aspirations about what they want to do in the future.”
Distinguished Professor Sean Ulm

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Featured researcher

Sean Ulm

Distinguished Professor, Associate Dean Research Education

Prof Sean’s research focuses on persistent problems in the archaeology of northern Australia and the western Pacific. His research seeks to understand the relationships between environmental and cultural change through advanced studies of archaeological and palaeo-environmental sequences.

Professor Sean’s priority has been to develop new tools to investigate and articulate co-variability and co-development of human and natural systems. A major strand of his research has been in the field of archaeological science, where he leads research programs designed to improve our knowledge of the past and improve methods to increase confidence in the data underpinning our models of past human behaviour and environmental change.