Ngarrindjeri man Chris Wilson becomes first Aboriginal person to earn PhD in archaeology

Down to earth: Chris Wilson works on a dig site near Murray Bridge in 2008. Photo: Supplied.
Down to earth: Chris Wilson works on a dig site near Murray Bridge in 2008. Photo: Supplied.

A Ngarrindjeri man has become the first Aboriginal Australian to earn a PhD in archaeology – and he did it by studying the history of his own people.

Chris Wilson has spent the past 10 years researching the history of the lower Murray floodplains by digging up shell middens, remnants of places where Ngarrindjeri congregated before Europeans arrived.

Other archaeologists had looked at Aboriginal sites, but few had done so through Aboriginal eyes, a perspective he said was strengthening the discipline.

"Often sites and objects are disconnected from people," he said.

"That's the scientific approach, to objectify things: take a site, excavate, tell a story.

"Often archaeologists tell a story based on their own training; an Indigenous person might tell a different narrative about that object and have different ideas about its use or why it has been left the way it has been left.

"Indigenous people (know) those objects and places are connected to the present."

He guessed only 20 or so Aboriginal people had trained in archaeology since the 1950s, perhaps because health and education had been more pressing areas of need.

But a different generation was now coming through, he said, one which realised the importance of protecting cultural history.

Mr Wilson romanticised archaeology like any other child, imagining ancient Rome and Greece, and became the first person in his family to go to university when he went on to study it.

He also became more interested in his own culture and identity as he grew older.

In 2007, a call from the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee gave him an opportunity to combine both passions.

His research led him to seek evidence of human habitation over the last 10,000 years between Mypolonga and Monteith.

A particular focus was Pomberuk, one of the last Ngarrindjeri encampments, now known as Hume Reserve.

"There's a lot of history to be shared there ... a lot of friendships and other relationships formed in those places, and that's not always spoken about in the historical or archaeological record," he said.

"It's got contemporary relevance as well for people who've got memories of that, who lived some of that themselves."

He chose dig sites by analysing geology, the environment and historical records, and took guidance from Ngarrindjeri elders past and present.

He found fish bones, evidence of a traditional diet; pieces of clear quartz not found in the area, indicating groups of Aboriginal people had traded with each other; stone artefacts; and even human remains.

Pomberuk proved to be the oldest site, about 4500 years, which was what he expected considering how sea levels and the course of the river had changed over time.

But evidence of the past 1000 years or so was missing, which posed a problem as he sought to develop a complete histroy of the area.

He theorised that environmental events and colonial practices like farming would have removed the top layer of the middens – after all, they were only just below the surface.

As well as teaching at Flinders University and consulting on various projects, including the repatriation of Aboriginal remains held in foreign museums, Mr Wilson hopes to write a book about his research.