Who Owns the Past?

‘Who owns the past’ and the relationship between a western science based archaeology as the basis for reconstructing Aboriginal ‘history’ in relation to indigenous knowledge and versions of that past.

2nd April 2012

Indeed no science is free of the culturally defined filter

Barker 1999:2

The question “Who owns the past” was barely articulated prior to the twentieth century when dominant countries of the era claimed priceless artifacts as they traversed the globe. During this time, so called “primitive” civilizations where incapable of stopping them from destroying and looting their culture and heritage through acts of war and the expansion of their empires. The ability of these civilizations to now demand the return of their heritage has sparked debate as to “Who owns the past”. Today, this question is surrounded by controversy and is a frequent focal point of heritage debates, particularly those involving transferable heritage artifacts. It also presents an interesting dichotomy, posing the question of ownership, indicative of tangibility, and its relationship to the past, nominally denoted as time or a period gone by. By refining the question in one of many possible directions, to include the relationship between a western science based archaeology as the basis for reconstructing Aboriginal ‘history’ in relation to indigenous knowledge and versions of that past, a starting point for this discussion may be found.

Many people recognize the past as a socio-cultural construct resonating the views of a dominant body. Although this view might sound reasonable, it has facilitated and justified the domination of other groups by western cultures (Allen, 1983:8). Given this revisionist perception, history can be seen as comprising of “many little pasts, multiple, contradictory and inferred” (Barker, 1999:5). In this sense there can be many “pasts” each of which ultimately depend on the people who create them (Allen 1983:8). In rejection of this notion many contemporary archaeologists have posited that no one, or rather everyone, owns the past since it exists in the sense that people in the present created it from historical documents, oral traditions and archaeological evidence. They further argue that regardless of its origins and the cultural, religious or conceptual significance that this heritage has to a particular group, it is the inheritance of all mankind. Part of the problem therefore lies in the fact that indigenous societies reject the western oppositional concept of past and present, a notion that characterizes archaeological views of the past as objective representations or records. Barker (1999:6) surmises that Aboriginal societies frequently categorize past events in terms of “before people” or “beginning period”, a period generally denoting the dreaming or creation time and then more recent categories. This is supported by Stanner (2009:57), who writes that “the Australian Aborigines’ outlook on the universe and man is shaped by a remarkable conception…’the dream time ’…a sacred heroic time long ago when man and nature came to be as they are; but neither ‘time’ nor ‘history’ as we understand them is involved in this meaning.” Munn (1970:144) furthers this by explaining Aboriginal views of that past as being “split into two broad temporal ages, that of ancestral times, djugurba, and that of the ongoing present and recent past… Since transformations were created in djugurba times but remain visible for ever… they condense within them the two forms of temporality and are thus frees from specific historical location” (cited in Ucko, 1983:13). It appears to be this “contrast between a dead and living past [which] underlies many of the responses of indigenous people to archaeology” (Hodder 1996, cited Barker, 1999:6). Barker (1999:4) argues that the crux of this problem pertains to the relative position of oral traditions in the hierarchy of western scientific knowledge. Additionally he expresses that indigenous versions of the past are frequently ignored since they are viewed as lacking the authoritative imperatives of scholarship and objective science.

Having established the dilemma existent in defining the past, the fundamental issue, according to Langford (1983:2), is control. In opposition to Aboriginal ownership Mulvaney (1981:20) asserted that, “this virtually imposes a racial monopoly of data and its exposition. The implication of such claims to absolute custodianship of the past goes much further than the undoubted need for Aboriginal scholars to undertake research and tertiary education in their own cause” (cited Langford 1983:3-4). Taken in context, ownership or any degree of power and control is desirable, and archaeology is an area over which the Aborigines have been able to exert increasing influence over access and dissemination because of their definable cultural and historical links to the past. Langford (1983:2) writes, “it is our past, our culture and heritage, and forms part of our present life. As such it is ours to control and it is ours to share on our terms”. If this is true, then as primary custodians of that cultural history do they then not also hold the responsibility to educate and inform the rest of the world? For Aboriginal people, control over culture and heritage encompasses these wider issues with limited relevance to archaeology or issues of differing historical worldviews. For many, “history has become the primary matter of any ultimate analysis, the primary substance of social identity and the primary source of all entitlements” (Faubion, 1993:36; Suzman, 2004:215). It follows that the Aboriginal people are highly interested in the substance of archaeological research as a validation of their historical presence. Notably, various Aboriginal movements have used “white” acquired data to substantiate their claims. Many others resent outsiders for investigating their past, particularly the excavation of aboriginal skeletal remains. Some Aborigines contend that since all prehistoric material is Aboriginal, “whites” have no rights to disturb any of it (Murry & White, 1981:260). This has to some extent resulted in politicization and, in some cases, radicalization of issues relating to the past.

The resultant complex relationship between archaeology and Aboriginals in Australia has made the practice of “prehistoric” archaeology increasingly difficult during the last decade owing to the greater degree of control Aboriginals have over their cultural heritage. Professional academic archaeology dealing with Aboriginal heritage only emerged during the early 1960s (McCarthy, 1965:32 cited Ucko, 1983:13). Prior to this, Australian Aborigines were only noteworthy to anthropological science as examples of the lowest savages, “Paleolithic survivals”, mirroring the distant past (Murry & White, 1981:256). A people who, according to archaeologists of that time, had remained unchanged in Australia for at least 40,000 years. Although Murry and White (1981:257) write that 50,000 years is the generally agreed upon likely upper limit, they also note that there are some who believe that considerably greater antiquity will be revealed.

Archaeology has long been isolated from social and political issues, making its acknowledgment as a micro political practice particularly important in Australia and that it reevaluates its position as a cultural practice reflective of a dominant, capitalistic, western society (Barker, 1999:8). Some states such as Victoria interpret their role as the development of protection, archaeological survey and the education of the white majority about Aboriginal sites. This view proves to be confrontational insomuch as it implies that sites are important because they are part of Australia’s heritage, but it doesn’t matter who created them, “we” have taken them over. Alternatively in states such as South Australia, the governing bodies regard their role as being primarily concerned with sites that are of significance to living Aboriginals. These sites are recorded, protected and generally not investigated. States such as New South Wales attempt to cover both roles (Murry & White, 1981:260). What Australians, and more specifically Australian archaeologists, now need to recognize is that Aboriginals, as a deeply involved and committed group, are among the legitimate custodians of Australian cultural heritage and that field research should only be performed in consultation with those custodians (Allen, 1983:9). This does not advocate that they alone should become the sole custodians, however, their attachment to the land, their culture and systems of beliefs can no longer be ignored as they have been in the past.


Allen, J., 1983, ‘Aborigines and archaeologists in Tasmania’, Australian Archaeology, vol. 16, no. June, pp. 7-10.

Barker, B., 1999, ‘Hierarchies of knowledge and the tyranny of text: archaeology ethnohistory and oral traditions in Australian archaeological interpretation’, Australian anthropological society annual conference, pp. 1-10.

Faubion, D.J., 1993, ‘History of Anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Annual Reviews, vol. 22, pp. 35-54.

Langford, F., 1983, ‘Our Heritage – your playground’, Australian Archaeology, vol. 16, no. June, pp. 1-6

Murry, T. & White, P., 1981, ‘Cambridge in the bush: archaeology in Australia and New Guinea’, World Archaeology, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 255-263.

Stanner, W.E.H., 2009, The Dreaming & Other Essays, Black Inc. Agenda, Collingwood, Vic.

Suzman, J., 2004, ‘Hunting for histories in the Kalahari’, in Barnard, A. (ed.), Hunter-gatherers in history, archaeology and anthropology, Berg, Oxford, UK.

Ucko, J., 1983, ‘Australian academic archaeology: Aboriginal transformation of its aims and practice’, Australian Archaeology, vol. 16, no. June, pp. 11-26.


2 thoughts on “Who Owns the Past?

  1. I’ll right away take hold of your rss feed as I can’t to find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Please allow me recognize in order that I could subscribe. Thanks.

  2. The short answer is: in my view, we all own the past. And we do various things with that ownership: cultivate, investigate, ignore or try to destroy the past.
    The next question is: which group do you belong to ?

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