CAR Seminar series

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences and ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

Dynamic Landscapes, Sea-Level Change and a 'New' World Prehistory

Something is seriously amiss with the conceptual foundations that underwrite currently popular narratives of world prehistory. Simplifying proxies of doubtful validity, some of them corrupted by transmission across inter-disciplinary boundaries, have been harnessed to a notion of human progress, punctuated by various revolutions and climatic crises, 'human', 'modern human', 'postglacial', 'agricultural' as the case may be. The underlying assumptions involved are at best questionable, in some cases demonstrably wrong, difficult to calibrate - by definition - against modern or ancient control data, and rarely submitted to the ultimate test - critical evaluation against archaeological field data.

These difficulties are compounded by the fact that most of the relevant field evidence is lost below sea level because of the Pleistocene sea-level cycle. Only since 6000 years ago, when postglacial sea-level stopped rising, do we have anything like a complete picture of the coastal and maritime factor in human affairs. Given that most populations, whether hunter-gatherer, farmer or urban, are concentrated in coastal lowlands for most of the time, it must follow that we are missing most of the record of human development and dispersal, and that the surviving archaeological record as we know it is a truncated and feeble fragment of Stone Age reality. 

The classic models that inform concepts of world prehistory are dominated by Old World and northern hemisphere archaeological records and intellectual traditions, and no longer work, or work only some of the time. The resulting intellectual edifice is slowly crumbling, though it is far from clear what will take its place. The Australian record offers a distinctive perspective on these problems. In examining them, I will draw on recent work on coastal prehistory and submerged landscapes in various parts of the world with a particular emphasis on the Arabian Peninsula and the southern Red Sea.

Geoff Bailey is Anniversary Professor of Archaeology (Emeritus) in the University of York and Professor of Archaeology at Flinders University. He took his BA and PhD in the University of Cambridge and has held Faculty appointments at Cambridge, where he was also College Fellow and Senior Tutor of Clare Hall, and the Chair of Archaeology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

His research interests are in coastal prehistory and submerged landscapes, Quaternary landscape change, and the archaeology of time. He has field experience in many parts of the world, and engagement with major projects in Australia, Greece, Saudi Arabia and the UK. He is Chairman of the EU COST programme 'Submerged Prehistoric Archaeology and Landscapes of the Continental Shelf' (SPLASHCOS), and Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded DISPERSE project (Dynamic Landscapes, Coastal Environments and Human Dispersal).