While many Australians were heading to the beach during the mid-January heatwave, La Trobe archaeologist Dr Jillian Garvey was undertaking an archaeological dig west of Mildura in outback Victoria.
It is one of the largest archaeology projects in Victoria and the first Indigenous archaeology project funded by the Australian Research Council in the area.
Another Lake Mungo?
Dr Garvey believes the project may find evidence of human occupation similar to that already known from the Lake Mungo area in New South Wales.
The Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area, not far from Mildura, is famous as the site of the discovery of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady – the oldest human remains discovered in Australia – dating back 42,000 years.
Dr Garvey said that there’s no reason why the Murray corridor in northwest Victoria could not have a similar antiquity to Lake Mungo.
‘People when they first came to Australia needed water to colonise and spread across the landscape, and the Murray was pretty much a constant supply of water,’ Dr Garvey said.
‘So it makes sense that people would have followed that water across the landscape to then penetrate into harsher places across the continent.’
Dr Garvey’s work will look at animal remains, including those of shellfish cooked and eaten by Aboriginal people in the past, in order to learn more about human occupation of the area.
With a group of students and colleagues, she spent two weeks on site at Ned’s Corner in January. Ned’s Corner was one of the largest sheep-grazing properties in the state’s northwest and is now managed for conservation purposes by Trust for Nature.
‘The floodplains around the Murray River are well-known for supporting a large number of people in ancient times, but we’ve found a surprisingly high density of sites of human occupation some distance away from the Murray,’ Dr Garvey said.
‘This suggests that many of these sites are older than we expected as they may date from a time when the river took a different path across the floodplain.’
Excavating a shell midden
Dr Garvey’s two-week excavation of a shell midden at Ned’s Corner has already yielded extensive material, mainly the remnants of shellfish and gastropods.
‘We’ll spend the next 18 months in the lab, weighing, measuring and sorting all the shell so we can gather a picture of what people were doing in the past,’ Dr Garvey said.
‘This includes looking at what size mussels they were harvesting and collecting. We also collected a lot of charcoal from the excavation, so we’re going to get that carbon dated to try and get an idea of what time period this particular midden dates to.
‘There’s evidence to suggest that this midden has been used by Aboriginal people to cook and eat shellfish collected from the Murray at various times spanning thousands of years, so we are very curious to see how old some of the material here might be.’
Dr Garvey’s research is being conducted with the consent of the traditional owners, the Ngintait, Latji Latji and Nyeri Nyeri peoples. – Suzi Macbeth