Sentient seascapes: the archaeology of ritual engagements with the marine realm

Professor Ian J. McNiven
Monash University

Friday 11th August 2017

There is an old saying in archaeology that if you find something that is behaviourally odd or out-of-the-ordinary then label it ritual. Yet for Australian Indigenous societies, ritual practices, especially those of a socio-religious nature, are anything but out-of-the-ordinary. Ritual practices are fundamental to the ways that Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders directed their lives and related to each other, to the spiritual realm, and to the broader world within which they are enmeshed. As such, understanding the nature and long-term development of past rituals and ceremonial practices provides enormous scope for archaeologists to create historical narratives that express human and spiritual agency and intentionality that resonate with Indigenous worldviews. In this paper I explore the history of Torres Strait Islander ritual practices over the past 1000 years from an ethnographically-informed archaeological perspective. This perspective takes as its starting point the materiality of ritual practices as known ethnographically through historical texts, museum objects, and contemporary Islander views. Critically, many ritual practices also involved shrines comprising objects such as shells, bones, artefacts, and stone figures that can be studied archaeologically and radiocarbon dated. Results reveal successive use of shrines expressed through constant additions of objects over hundreds of years. These chronologies not only define the temporal limits of ethnographically-known practices back in time, but also position shrines as historically dynamic and ever-emergent works-in-progress. In this sense, and somewhat ironically, the ever-changing materiality of shrines were expressions of ritual constancy and historical continuity in the socio-religious lives of Torres Strait Islanders.

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Ian McNiven is with the recently launched ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage and Professor of Indigenous Archaeology in Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, Monash University, Melbourne. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Society of Antiquaries London. He specialises in the archaeology of Australian Indigenous coastal societies. His archaeological research is transdisciplinary and heavily informed by anthropology, history, and close working relationships with Indigenous communities. His books include Goemulgaw Lagal: Cultural and Natural Histories of the Island of Mabuyag, Torres Strait (Queensland Museum, 2015), Appropriated Pasts: Indigenous Peoples and the Colonial Culture of Archaeology (Altamira, 2005), and Constructions of Colonialism: Perspectives on Eliza Fraser's Shipwreck (Leicester, 1998)

Friday 11th August 2017
New Law School Lecture Theatre 101
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*The lecture will be followed by a reception in the Nicholson Museum

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Professor Peter Hiscock