The surface archaeological record in arid Australia: Geomorphic controls on preservation, exposure, and visibility

Patricia C. Fanning*, Simon J. Holdaway, Ed J. Rhodes, Tessa G. Bryant

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Citations (Scopus)


The conventional approach to assessing the archaeological record in most parts of the world involves a combination of excavation of stratified deposits and extensive survey of surface deposits. Although widely applied in Australia, in both research-based and management archaeology, the method does not conform well to the nature of the surface archaeological record here. Over much of semi-arid and arid Australia, archaeological "sites" are, in fact, accretion phenomena that are not easily interpreted as the outcome of short-term behavioral events. Using results from twelve years of geoarchaeological research in western New South Wales, we demonstrate that there is considerable variability in landsurface age, and hence the "availability" of archaeological surfaces, over relatively short distances. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that stone artifact deposits, for example, that appear to be similar in character are of similar age. Data are also presented that demonstrate that the presence of artifacts on the surface, their apparent absence in sediments buried beneath the surface, and the apparent recent ubiquity of the archaeological record are all a function of geomorphic processes that, at the same time, expose some artifact deposits at the surface and erode and bury others amid large volumes of sediment. Interpreting the surface artifact record within a spatial and temporal geomorphic framework is crucial to understanding the past human behavior that the artifact deposits represent.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-146
Number of pages26
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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