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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

‘Fire and Hearth’ Forty Years On: Essays in Honour of Sylvia J. Hallam edited by Caroline Bird and R Esmée Webb, 142 pp, Records of the Western Australian Museum, Supplement no 79, Perth, 2011, ISBN 9781920843656 (pbk), $33.75.

As Australian archaeology emerged in the 1970s, one of the pioneers of the field was Sylvia Hallam, one of the few archaeologists working in Australia’s western third. This early work set a high standard. Fire and Hearth, her analysis of past Aboriginal landscape burning has few comparisons as a treatise encompassing history, ethnography and archaeology, and taking full advantage of a wealth of colonial-era documentation (Hallam 1975). The present volume, edited by Caroline Bird and Esmée Webb, celebrates four decades of Sylvia’s contributions to Australian archaeology and ethnography, through research, teaching and service to the archaeological community. Many of the contributions are from her former students, covering a range of disciplines and themes, and attest to the influence of an original thinker. The quality of journal format production is also good, with excellent illustrations and colour figures and photographs.

Chapters in this book fall into two main themes: explorations in archaeology and ethnohistory starting with Western Australia (Gibbs; Smith; Mulvaney; Randolph; Schwede) and ending with several papers beyond the West (White; Clarke; Bird and Rhoads; Brown, Kee and McConnell; Armstrong). In between these are three papers on the development of Hallam’s role in Western Australian Aboriginal history and biography (Reece; Tilbrook; Green). Apart from White and possibly Armstrong, these authors had a direct connection with Sylvia Hallam in early stages of their careers, and all derived inspiration to various degrees from her work. On these criteria there would have been several other potential contributors among Hallam’s contemporaries and students, who could have added still other research strands. However, the 13 contributions in this volume provide a good overview of Hallam’s research and some of the work that it has inspired.

Synopses of Hallam’s role in the early development of Western Australian archaeology are aptly provided in two short pieces by her contemporaries and peers from the east coast, Isabel McBryde and John Mulvaney. The first research paper in the volume is by Martin Gibbs, who brings to light his Honours dissertation describing the primary historical and ethnographic data on Aboriginal gatherings at a celebrated fish-weir near Perth. This work epitomises the Hallam approach to documentary evidence to illustrate the very recent past and from there suggest or infer earlier developments towards the complex ceremonial and social practices described historically (see also Reece’s contribution). While such data should not be accepted uncritically, many regions of Australia allow some form of this approach (McBryde 1979). Gibbs’s paper suggests several forms of ethnographic and archaeological evidence that archaeologists may search for in documenting the development of these networks over time.

Moya Smith’s paper, based on her contemporary but more processually-oriented PhD thesis, nevertheless highlights the value of ethnography, and of another Hallam approach, the regional study, in her analysis of artefact assemblages on the Esperance sand plains at the margins of the south-western Australian biographic region. The south-west, she argues, largely features many small artefact scatters that are very uniform (the influence of quartz as the predominant raw material accounts for a lot of this), expediently produced, and lack time depth, creating an impression of high residential mobility across the region. It takes ethnographic interpretation to reconcile this record with the historic evidence for complex organisation, in that constant mobility within and between territorially-affiliated dialect and clan groups enabled much economic, social and ritual activity.

Reporting his rock art analyses in the north-west of Western Australia, Ken Mulvaney notes Sylvia Hallam was one of the first to predict a great antiquity for rock art of the Dampier Archipelago. The succession of motif subjects that Hallam noticed is consistent with Mulvaney’s comprehensive analysis of patination and production methods indicating at least five phases of artistic style. Mulvaney observes that despite early identification by Hallam and others of the potential of Dampier Archipelago rock art to chart cultural and landscape changes over a vast period, governments continue to neglect this highly significant heritage resource.

A neglected field in south-western Australian archaeology is the study of stone arrangements: while difficult to date and difficult to interpret, Randolph’s outline of his site management work in the 1970s shows that they are widespread and varied across the region, and that Hallam was one of the first to systematically record any of them. These features are a tantalising but under-valued part of the archaeological landscape of the region.

Cautioning against uncritical acceptance of Sylvia Hallam’s four-phase sequence of artefacts based on surveys of the Swan Coastal Plain around Perth, Schwede presents evidence for intrusive European materials amongst stone artefacts in unconsolidated pre-European sand deposits. While Schwede does not investigate means of testing for disturbance, such as refitting, or sedimentological analysis, her paper warns against over-enthusiastic acceptance of orthodox chronologies – something that Sylvia Hallam would probably agree with.

The three essays in the middle of the volume by historians highlight the different research directions resulting from Hallam’s forays into colonial era records of Aboriginal people. Reece presents his interviews with Neville Green and Sylvia Hallam, recalling the labour of an army of research assistants and volunteers in transcribing and cross-referencing decades of hand-written colonial records and hundreds of names, to create the four Aboriginal volumes of the Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians. Green says the reward is seeing the value these volumes have for Aboriginal people researching their family histories, and the parts they have played in reconciliation and Native Title (eg Bennell v State of Western Australia 2006).

An essay by the late Lois Tilbrook recounts how, from starting points in history and archaeology, Tilbrook’s and Hallam’s research interests converged, leading to ten years of collaboration, culminating in a broad perspective of Aboriginal history ranging from the ritual and economic life of Aboriginal societies of the pre-colonial south-west through the colonial-era conflicts and to the infamous Aborigines Act 1905 (WA). Written to engineer the disappearance of a people, the investigative powers that this Act enabled ironically led to the recognition of more Aboriginal people than had been thought to exist. The third essay, by Green, reviews colonial justice before the 1905 Act, in which Aboriginal people from across Western Australia were sentenced in the harshest possible terms for the most dubious of convictions, often leading to their transportation 1000 or more kilometres south to Rottnest Island prison.

Leaping across the continent, White describes the artificiality of the notion of agricultural and non-agricultural societies divided by Torres Strait, a subject close to Hallam’s heart. He cites her interpretations of historical Aboriginal south-western land management and protection of yam grounds, and parallel developments in the south-east, as evidence for Australian plant cultivation. The southern regions of Australia are missing large chunks of archaeological evidence for this, but new technologies to better understand residues on artefacts and microfossils in sediment cores may help archaeologists to eliminate the kinds of preconceptions that White grappled with, and develop more detailed and particular comparisons within and between Australia and New Guinea.

Clarke uses twentieth century mission records and anthropological observations from Groote Eylandt for charting cross-cultural interaction and change, rather than towards Hallam’s goal of documenting pre-colonial conditions. Clarke suggests that the latter is a futile goal in northern Australia where inter-cultural contacts began centuries before historical records. Nevertheless these data represent a mine of detailed information about culture and economy that could be exploited archaeologically.

One of Hallam’s favoured approaches was the topographical archaeological survey, epitomised by her Swan Coastal Plain surveys, which was innovative for the time. Now a relatively common approach, or at least better understood, Bird and Rhoads apply it to the Wimmera in western Victoria and develop a useful tool for understanding past population distributions and for heritage management.

In a similar way, topographical archaeological approaches were applied in Tasmania, where Hallam’s students Brown, Kee and McConnell each applied regional perspectives in heritage management. Coupled with these approaches was their training in analysis of historic records, which allowed them to better appreciate views from the ‘other side of the frontier’ and the interests of descendent communities who were then assuming a greater role in heritage decision-making.

The final paper, by Armstrong, has only one obvious connection to Hallam’s research, the interpretation of historic records. This time they are Charles Darwin’s observations on hunter-gatherer cultures during his voyage on the Beagle. Detailed analysis of the observer’s biases enables inferences about historic events – unlike the other papers, it is unclear how the author’s research relates to Hallam’s.

Taken together the papers in this volume represent a detailed view, albeit incomplete, of the diversity of research that in some way or other was connected with or inspired by Hallam’s work. This research requires an acceptance of the value of ethno-history, a sense of the archaeological topographic landscape, and an appreciation of multi-disciplinary approaches. While these ideas may be unexceptional today, they were new in Western Australia when Hallam began to apply them. This volume provides a good overview of the development and findings of an important phase of Australian archaeology.


Hallam, SJ 1975, Fire and Hearth: a Study of Aboriginal Usage and European Usurpation in South-western Australia, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

McBryde, I 1979, ‘Ethnohistory in an Australian context: independent discipline or convenient data quarry?’, Aboriginal History 3: 128–151.

Joe Dortch

Eureka Archaeological Research and Consulting

University of Western Australia

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