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Ancient rock art.
Faculties and schools_

Department of Archaeology

Examining and preserving the material remains of our human past
Our department offers teaching and research in archaeology, the study of the material remains of the past.

Our academics and researchers have a broad range of expertise in archaeological method and theory including key areas of archaeometry, digital technology, archaeozoology, lithics and ceramics analysis. 

They conduct fieldwork in regions around the world, including East and Southeast Asia (Angkor in Cambodia), the Caucasus, China, Central Asia (Uzbekistan), the Middle East (Iran, Jordan), Africa and the Mediterranean (Cyprus, Greece, Italy) and Sri Lanka. Our teaching program reflects these regional interests.  

Study areas

You will find the Master of Museum and Heritage Studies within Creative Arts.

Our research

Our internationally recognised scholars conduct fieldwork all over the world. They also specialise in six broad regional and thematic research programs:

  • Australia and the Pacific
  • Human Cultural Evolution
  • Mediterranean
  • West, Central and East Asian archaeology
  • Southeast Asia
  • Urbanism

Research centres

Our people

  • Brit Asmussen
  • Valerie Attenbrow
  • Jean (Judy) Birmingham
  • Stephen Bourke
  • Steve Brown
  • Ross Burns
  • Mary Casey
  • Kathryn Da Costa
  • Jean-Paul Descoeudres
  • Trudy Doelman
  • Paul Donnelly
  • Melanie Fillios
  • Smadar Gabrieli
  • Martin Gibbs
  • Ian Gilligan
  • J. Richard Green
  • Thomas Hikade
  • Monica Jackson
  • Ina Kehrberg-Ostrasz
  • Melissa Kennedy
  • Michael Knight
  • Nina Kononenko
  • Bernadette McCall
  • Ian McNiven
  • Christophe Pottier
  • Wendy Reade
  • Till Sonnemann
  • James Specht
  • Hugh Thomas
  • Robin Torrence
  • Arianna Traviglia
  • Robyn Veal
  • Peter Veth
  • John Peter White
  • Steven Wolverton
  • Abdul Zahir Youssofzay

Our events

This annual lecture is made possible through the generosity of University of Sydney graduate Tom Austen Brown (LLB ’46 BA ’74).

In his early professional life, Tom was a lawyer but had the heart of an archaeologist, often searching for Aboriginal artefacts in the sand dunes and desert flats around Broken Hill, where he lived. Without realising it, he put together one of the most significant – yet unofficial – collections of Aboriginal stone artefacts in Australia. He completed archaeology studies at the University in 1973.

During his life, Tom gave $1.6 million to the University, and on his passing in 2009, left a $6.9 million bequest to the Department of Archaeology. Tom’s bequest has already created the Chair of Australian Archaeology, the first endowed chair of archaeology in the country to include Australia in its brief. There is also the Tom Austen Brown Grants Program for Prehistory.

Tom has helped create a future for Australia’s past.

Comparative ethnology and archaeology

3 August 2018

Dr Mark Collard, Canada Research Chair and Professor, Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University, Canada

In conjunction with Sydney Ideas

Comparative ethnology is the practice of comparing and contrasting the features of large samples of human societies. Also known as cross-cultural analysis, it has a long association with archaeology. For example, the pioneering archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers was also an exponent of comparative ethnology. Similarly, the career-capping book of the most influential archaeologist of the second half of the 20th century, Lewis Binford, is a work of comparative ethnology. However, comparative ethnology has never been considered a key archaeological tool. In this talk, I will argue that it should be. Drawing on my own work and that of colleagues, I will show that there are both theoretical and practical reasons for archaeologists to enthusiastically embrace comparative ethnology. Adding it to the techniques that we expect archaeology undergraduate students to know will enable the discipline to make faster progress with the task of making sense of the patterns in the archaeological record.

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

11 August 2017

Professor Ian J McNiven, Monash University

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 how Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders direct their lives and relate to each other, to the spiritual realm, and to the broader world. 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. We will start with 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. The ever-changing materiality of shrines was an expression of ritual constancy and historical continuity in the socio-religious lives of Torres Strait Islanders.

Environmental conservation and archaeology

8 August 2016

Dr Steve Wolverton, University of North Texas 

Archaeologists contribute data and perspectives to conservation biology, restoration ecology and environmental science. Although zooarchaeology, and to a lesser extent archaeobotany, have led the way, what archaeology truly has to offer stems from the unique nature of the discipline. Archaeology is the only field of study that offers a long-term record of human-environmental interactions. There are two major contributions that archaeologists provide conservationists, one philosophical and one empirical. The value of archaeology in environmental conservation is easily demonstrated through exemplary case studies.

Banner image: Aboriginal rock art at Yankee Hat in Namadgi National Park, ACT. Photo by James Flexner.

Department Chair

Professor Alison Betts

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