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ARC Laureate Project


‘Until the history of archaeology reflects a better understanding of the historical events that shape archaeological research, the subject will only ever be useful as an introduction. Unlike the wide-sweeping histories of archaeology traditionally accepted by archaeologists, in-depth research on the historical context of archaeology is still wanting.’ Amara Thornton (2011:38)*.

In histories of world archaeology the Pacific and Island Southeast Asia are essentially absent. This project seeks nothing less than to create a new sub-field within Pacific archaeology: the serious study of its history from its beginnings in the speculations of early European and American explorers on the origins of Pacific peoples, to its growth spurt and professionalisation following World War II.

The Laureate project has as a long-term vision to establish the ANU as the world centre for the study of the history of Pacific, Southeast Asian and Australian archaeology, and as a major centre for the history of archaeology more generally. The Laureate Program is the necessary springboard for this wider aim. Ten more specific aims can also be enunciated: 

  1. To create a sub-field of the history of Pacific archaeology, which draws on the until now parochial histories of Australian and New Zealand archaeology. We will produce a multinational history, showing that scholars from Australia and New Zealand were key influences on how the subject developed in the region, and exploring the 'webs of empire' that linked them to European and American discourses on world prehistory.
  2. To re-evaluate our current stalemated and inadequate theories about the settlement of the Pacific; and to re-engage with and critique histories of socio-cultural anthropology that have excised much of its shared past with archaeology in the Pacific in the development of key concepts and schools of thought. This is an urgent task at a time when our ideas are increasingly entering indigenous discourses about nation and region.
  3. To re-define the development of Australian archaeology within its wider Oceanic context and its participation in world archaeological debates over diffusion and evolution that were precursors to the recognisably modern archaeology brought into being by John Mulvaney and others in the 1950s and 1960s.
  4. To re-imagine the story of our understanding of Papua New Guinea and its people, through a detailed examination of the development of theories about the origins and spread of the peoples of Australia's only significant former colonies -- the pre-Independence Territories of Papua and of New Guinea.
  5. To re-discover the contribution of both French and German scholars to the early development of Pacific archaeology, and through translations of important texts to make their findings available to an Anglophone audience.
  6. To recover the considerable amount of archaeological excavation that took place in the Pacific from the 1870s until WWII, in order to demonstrate that the post-War professionalisation of archaeology in the region was built upon an ever-growing accumulation of knowledge and theories that had developed over a much longer time span. This will challenge the idea that 'modern' archaeology began only in the post-War period.
  7. To re-write this forgotten history of Pacific archaeological practice by re-uniting artefacts and field notes from a series of earlier scholars, particularly those involved in archaeological excavation, and attempting to re-interpret or in some cases interpret for the first time their findings, within our current methods and knowledge.
  8. To re-conceptualise the perennial issue of trans-Oceanic cultural contacts, recently coming back into vogue (see Jones et al. 2011), within its long history of discourse that extends back to the start of the 19th century and is particularly influential through the work of Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame.
  9. To redress the neglect of the role of women archaeologists working in the region, not only those professionally engaged but also the often-invisible archaeological wives who accompanied their partners into the field and who provided significant intellectual as well as physical labour towards the success of projects.
  10. To re-engage with descendant communities in the present in the light of our research and its findings and to restore knowledge of the now largely forgotten agency and contribution of indigenous scholars and interlocutors to the creation of a Pacific past.


* Amara Thornton (2011) The Allure of Archaeology: Agnes Conway and Jane Harrison at Newnham College, 1903-1907, Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 21(1):37-56

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