Archaeology and the national identity

Dr Mike Smith's colleagues wanted to mark his career with a festschrift - a collection of essays by academics published in his honour.

But while he appreciated the thought, Smith wasn't sure it was what he wanted.

The archaeologist says of the festschrift, ''In my experience, it can often be a very dull affair, a lot of second-rate essays in the bottom drawer they pull out and dust off.

''I said, let's do something a bit more lively, more in keeping with the museum as a lively place of inquiry.''

And so the idea for a one-day symposium - affectionately dubbed ''Mikefest'' - was born. The more formal title for the event is The Compleat Archaeologist: Mike Smith, desert archaeology and museums. It is on at the National Museum of Australia on Friday, February 8.

''I said the guideline should be to try to make it of interest to the general public. If someone wanders in off the street they should find it an interesting day, not just a hagiography of Mike Smith,'' he says.


It will be a celebration of his career by archaeologists, historians, artists and museum staff that also draws attention to the past three decades of archaeology in Australia - in particular the desert archaeology that Smith has done so much to develop.

Smith, 57, a senior research fellow in the Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia and adjunct professor in the Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University, joined the museum in 1996 after many years working as a field archaeologist and curator. Among his career achievements, he established the often quoted date of 50,000 years for Aboriginal occupation of the Australian continent, dated the extinction of Australian megafauna to 46,000 years ago and provided the first evidence for late Pleistocene (ice age) occupation of central Australia. He has worked widely across the arid zone including digs on the Nullarbor Plain, at Lake Mungo, in Central Australia, Simpson dunefield, the Strzelecki Desert, Parnkupirti/Lake Gregory, and the Calvert Range (Little Sandy Desert).

His most extensive and influential excavations were at Puritjarra rockshelter between 1986 and 1990, which added 20,000 years to the history of Central Australia.

His previous appointments include field archaeologist with the Northern Territory Museum in Darwin and Alice Springs (1980-1988), research fellow in the Research School of Pacific & Asian Studies, ANU (1989-1993) and lecturer in the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, ANU (1994-1996).

He joined the National Museum of Australia in 1996, initially as head of the People & Environment section and later as director of Research & Development. In 2007, he set up the Museum's Centre for Historical Research, where he is now the senior archaeologist.

Smith says, ''I hope the event gets across that this has been a seminal 30 years in terms of Australian archaeology.''

While there were early efforts in the 1920s and 1930s by people such as Norman Tindale of the South Australian Museum, Smith says things only really took off in the field during the 1960s, by which time radio carbon dating was available.

Smith was born in Blackpool, England and his English accent is still strong despite the fact he came here when he was six and sees himself as Australian.

''I regard my accent as a speech impediment,'' he says.

''I don't feel British at all; I don't have a British passport.''

His family migrated seeking a better life and relief from the British class system and he grew up in Adelaide.

''I was 11 or 12 when I decided archaeology was for me,'' Smith says.

There were a few fields that interested him including outer space but he decided archaelogy would be the most viable as a career. When he was 15 he approached the South Australia Museum's curator of archaeology, Graeme Pretty, asking if he could volunteer on digs.

''I was a bookish kid; my parents were happy to see me get into the outdoors.''

So began his career in archaeology.

He gained early admission into the Australian National University and in 1974 began studying at its Department of Prehistory, then in its second year of undergraduate teaching. He spent his vacations on diggings, in Queensland and Bass Strait and the Nullabor Plain with such distinguished archaeologists as Alexander Gallus (''an eccentric Hungarian emigre''), Sandra Bowdler and John Mulvaney.

Asked what the appeal of archaeology was, Smith says, ''Its breadth, I think … archaeology is a science-based history with all the thrill of scientific detective work and the forensic side of things.''

He says it combines cultural history and environmental history, indoor and outdoor work.

The desert has always fascinated him - ''it's open, clear, you can see its structure'' - and it provided plenty of opportunities for him to explore and work.

He's also travelled to deserts in Africa and South America and worked with colleagues from those regions.

He was one of the curators who opened the new Northern Territory Musuem in September 1981 and did his doctorate at the University of New England in the 1980s on prehistoric settlement in central Australia as a part-time, remote external student. In 1976 he had married his wife, Monik, an archivist he met at university. They have two children.

''Long periods in the field working are difficult to handle. They're an occupational hazard for anyone doing field work.''

He tried to minimise the stresses by moving to Alice Springs when he was doing field work in the outback, since it was more central and involved shorter travelling times.

Smith is an elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and of the Society of Antiquaries (London). In 2006 the Australian Archaeological Association awarded him the Rhys Jones Medal for ''outstanding contribution to Australian archaeology''. In 2010 he received the Verco medal from the Royal Society of South Australia for his research.

He says he's always worked well with Aboriginal people, always seeking permission to go onto lands when appropriate.

And, he says, ''I'm told my work is regarded with deep respect by Aboriginal societies in the desert.''

In the recent Australia Day honours list, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia ''for significant service to archaeological scholarship, particularly of Australia's desert regions'' over the past three decades.

''I'm very proud of my discipline and its achievements. I think the award is part of recognising the contribution of archaeology to national identity, '' he says.

  • The Compleat Archaeologist: Mike Smith, desert archaeology and museums is on at the National Museum of Australia on Friday, February 8, 2013 from 10am to 4.30pm. Admission is free but bookings are essential: email bookings@nma.gov.au or phone 6208 5021.