Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia

Billy Griffiths

Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia
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Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia

Billy Griffiths

Soon after Billy Griffiths joins his first archaeological dig as camp manager and cook, he is hooked. Equipped with a historian’s inquiring mind, he embarks on a journey through time, seeking to understand the extraordinary deep history of the Australian continent.

Deep Time Dreaming is the passionate product of that journey. It investigates a twin revolution: the reassertion of Aboriginal identity in the second half of the twentieth century, and the uncovering of the traces of ancient Australia.

It explores what it means to live in a place of great antiquity, with its complex questions of ownership and belonging. It is about a slow shift in national consciousness: the deep time dreaming that has changed the way many of us relate to this continent and its enduring, dynamic human history.


In the introduction to Deep Time Dreaming, Billy Griffiths relates an anecdote that Arrernte filmmaker Rachel Perkins shared with him about a conversation she had with John Mulvaney, an Australian archeologist: ‘Perhaps a billion people have lived in Australia,’ Mulvaney had told her. Perkins went on, ‘I remember his eyes twinkling as they observed me grappling with the project to which he had given his life: understanding the depth of Australia’s humanity.’

In Deep Time Dreaming, Billy Griffiths brings us the story of the development of modern Australian archeology, in all its adventure and excitement and contradiction. He comes at the story of Australian archeology as an historian, as well as an enthusiast who has worked on many projects. As he says, he is neither an archaeologist nor an Indigenous man. What he seeks to synthesise is the relationship between the development of Australian archaeology and the emergence of the Western historical concept of ‘deep time’; and the gradual political and social understanding, or at least acknowledgment, of the relationship of Indigenous Australians to land, culture, and time – to the Dreaming.

A survey in the late 1990s of Australian archaeologists listed one of the most common questions they were asked as: ‘Are there things old enough to be archaeological here?’ Australia’s human history is over 60,000 years old. The process by which non-Indigenous people have sought to comprehend this time-frame of human existence, and the process by which Indigenous people’s knowledge has been able to affect political change are the twin strands of this work.

Yet Deep Time Dreaming is a work of individual stories and collective effort. It is structured as anecdotes that begin anywhere from a taxi driver waiting for a wayward bushwalker to an apprentice mechanic fossicking about underneath a French villa. It is a conversation in a truck heading out to Lake Mungo during which the author’s struggle to comprehend 60,000 years of human occupation is met with Mutthi Mutthi man and cultural heritage officer Daryl Pappin’s knowledge that ‘It’s a lot more than that. It goes up and up and up until forever.’

Deep Time Dreaming is a wonderful achievement, both scholarly and conversational. It addresses the scope of human inquiry, the desire to know our past, and the ways in which we have refused to know it. It is both political and humane.

Marie Matteson is a book buyer at Readings Carlton.

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