Teaching and Learning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Archaeology in Australia

Georgia L. Stannard[1], Keir Strickland[2], and Melissa Marshall[3]


This paper suggests a new, engaged approach to teaching and learning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander archaeology in Australia. Most Australians consider archaeology as something that is undertaken overseas, despite a very long and well resolved archaeological record and a well-developed cultural heritage management industry. This view is fostered within the primary and secondary school curricula, which have, until relatively recently, focused exclusively on the histories of the classical world. This paper considers the importance of deep time and contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage education within Australia, exploring issues and implications for the future development and sustainability of the discipline. Through these changes, we aim to foster the next generation of critical thinkers and advocates of both intangible and tangible Indigenous cultural heritage through truth-telling frameworks.

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Despite the existence of both a thriving professional heritage sector and a long archaeological record linked to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the dominant perceptions of heritage within the Australian public are those based in other countries and those postdating the 1788 invasion in Australia (Balme and Wilson 2004; Monks et al. 2023). Such perceptions have been promoted by the focus on both ‘Old World’ histories and Australian written history within the Australian Curriculum (Foundation – Year 10) (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2022). It has only been recently that Australia’s deep time record of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples before 1788, exemplified by both the oral traditions of contemporary Communities and the discipline of Australian archaeology, has become embedded within the Australian (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2022) and state curricula (e.g., Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority 2022; NSW Education Standards Authority 2022; Western Australia School Curriculum and Standards Authority 2022). This shift has been supported more broadly by an increasing interest from the public to better understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage.

Heritage is a broad term within Australia, extending from deep time to contemporary contexts. In this review, we focus exclusively on one aspect of national heritage education – the teaching and learning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander archaeology within the tertiary, or university, sector.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural connections to the greater Australian landmass extend back more than 65,000 years (Clarkson et al. 2017), and as a result archaeology plays an important role in understanding and appreciating these unique cultures. However, the public perception of archaeology is complicated, either regularly being confused with paleontology or considered something that is exclusively done overseas (Balme and Wilson 2004:19; Beale 2022; Monks et al. 2023). This limited public appreciation for Australian archaeology may also be influenced by the relatively young age of the discipline. It was arguably only with the pioneering work of Australian archaeologists such as John Mulvaney and Isabel McBride that the idea of an archaeological record extending into the past beyond a few thousand years was seriously considered (e.g., McBryde 1968, 1978; Mulvaney 1961, 1969; Mulvaney and Joyce 1965) let alone widely acknowledged. Moreover, the consulting archaeology and cultural heritage management professions that developed in Australia during the late 1960s and early 1970s were, and are, carried out almost exclusively by non-Indigenous archaeologists and use heavily influenced definitions of “heritage” from a colonial worldview (Greer 2010:47), something that we will explore fully in the section below.

Today, Australian archaeology encompasses a broad range of subdisciplines, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, historic (post-invasion period), maritime, and specialist fields within archaeological science. Many tertiary archaeology programs teach several, or all, of these areas, catering to both the broadening needs of the discipline and the interest of students.  

Defining Heritage in Australia

Heritage and heritage education within Australia encapsulate multiple forms. Indeed, the very concept of ‘heritage’ itself is complex.  To many, it is arguably dominated by legally enshrined and defined listings of built heritage relating to historic buildings or neighborhoods (conservation zones). In Australia these are ranked from Local to Global significance (via State and National levels) but are almost exclusively focused upon built structures or landscapes and are largely addressed and recognized from a planning perspective.  However, heritage in Australia also incorporates the tangible and intangible living heritage of many contemporary communities, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as places linked to Indigenous Communities of the past, a definition strictly linked to Indigenous archaeology. The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance – the Burra Charter – defines some of this complexity by linking places of cultural heritage to places of cultural significance (Australia ICOMOS 2013:pmbl.). While the ‘archaeological record’ is traditionally defined as beginning 75 years in the past (Parliament of Victoria 2017), Indigenous cultural connection to tangible archaeological materials and sites, and to tangible and intangible landscapes, is embedded within the present, creating a strong link to past and contemporary places of cultural significance. This is an important observation when we start to consider how Indigenous archaeology is recognized by the broader Australian community through public and school education programs and how we approach the education and training of future archaeological specialists (Stannard in press).

The Importance of Heritage Education in Australia

For generations of Australians, the history of European Australia and Old-World histories have been included in multiple disciplinary curricula at all levels of learning. However, as noted, the scope of heritage education within the Australian Curriculum and various state curricula has been shifting over the last decade to be more inclusive of a balanced historical narrative, and archaeology has played a meaningful role within this. This shift is highly significant: the valuing of heritage must be elevated within the broader community to foster a drive for more inclusive heritage protection.

One area where heritage education plays a vital role is in the sharing of Australia’s long and complex history, contributing significantly to overdue truth-telling endeavors. Historical (European-written) accounts of the colonization of Australia by the British Empire contain biased accounts of interactions during initial contact, regionally varied from the 1700s to the 1900s. Whilst this has long been recognized and understood by generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the frontier violence and dispossession that occurred and shaped Australia as a nation has not been examined nor understood by most non-Indigenous people in Australia. Following decades of activism and calls for a truth-telling process to facilitate reconciliation, and to recognize and respect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Victorian Government is leading the way, establishing the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission in 2021 (https://www.firstpeoplesvic.org/our-work/truth-telling/). At a time when the referendum for an Indigenous Voice to the national parliament has recently failed (Baum and Mitchell 2024), the significant value of this body in facilitating truth-telling towards treaty[4] in Victoria is an essential step towards reconciliation.

Incorporating an Indigenous lens to heritage education, what it is and what it could be, will play a vital role in sharing, examining and strengthening this journey for all of Australia’s future generations – moving beyond lessons on Botany Bay, Ancient Egypt and the Parthenon. However, this requires a substantial shift in current pedagogy across all levels of education in Australia (Colley 2002).

Pedagogical Limitations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Archaeological Education in Australia

While recent amendments have seen an increase in the scope of archaeology in the Australian Curriculum (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2022) and state equivalents,  archaeology as a discipline is taught almost exclusively through the tertiary education sector. Within these tertiary cohorts, most (63.6%) students will enroll in an introductory first-year archaeology subject for interest only (Monks et al. 2023:36–37). The remaining students enroll as part of a dedicated archaeology degree or major in order to qualify as professional archaeologists. Anecdotally, this trend is also seen, though to a lesser extent, in second- and third-year elective subjects. An undergraduate qualification (that is a major or named degree) in archaeology (or a “closely related discipline”) to a minimum of Honors level or equivalent (Australian Quality Framework level 8) is required to practice as a registered Heritage Advisor (or “professional archaeologist) under individual state and territory legislation around the country (e.g., Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, Victoria, and Department of Planning and Community Development 2008; Office of Environment and Heritage 2011). This split student audience is exacerbated by university funding pressures which prioritize overall class sizes, or “full time student equivalent” (FTSE) numbers. 

The dichotomy of balancing professional needs against general interest is not unique to archaeology, however, it does present distinct pedagogical challenges. Not only do educators within archaeology programs need to meet legislative requirements, but they also need to maintain broad appeal and interest to keep their subjects viable. This is undoubtedly in part due to the framing of ‘archaeology’ in Australian tertiary education as a humanities subject, ranked alongside disciplines including philosophy, history, English literature – with no recognized links to employability or professional careers – despite both existing for several decades at this point. Consequently, it is perhaps surprising then that the creation and delivery of effective contemporary archaeological pedagogy is underdeveloped in Australia, with a handful of notable exceptions within the last 30 years (e.g. Beck and Head 1990; Burke and Smith 2007; Colley and Ulm 2005; Frankel 1980; Gibbs, Roe, and Gojak 2005; Pate 2005).

The devaluing of the development of discipline-specific pedagogical outcomes within the tertiary education sector has been a persistent problem at a global scale, strongly linked to the rise of neoliberalism and the marketization of degree structures requiring teaching outcomes to be directly linked to cost-effective strategies in their delivery and assessment (Naidoo and Williams 2015; Wallis 2020; Zipin 2006). The problem is compounded by the fact that universities have traditionally provided relatively few incentives for academics to dedicate significant time or attention to the development of discipline-specific pedagogy, routinely valuing “substantive” research outputs above pedagogical excellence or indeed the scholarship of teaching and learning; Smith and Wilson (2020) have recently considered the enduring impact that this stance has had. Even the terminologies used in academia reflect this focus. Junior academics are commonly referred to as “Early Career Researchers”­ (ECRs), rather than lecturers or teachers. When those ECRs are applying for the scarce and hyper-competitive faculty positions, they will typically do so without a strong background in pedagogical training, but rather with peer-reviewed publications and funding potential, linked to the higher value placed on publications and grants in comparison to pedagogical experience or excellence that is largely stimulated by the Australian Research Council and federal funding requirements (Australian Research Council 2018). Similarly, Australia’s only national post-doctoral fellowship scheme is the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) – a scheme that prioritizes research ability and potential above all, even though receipt of a DECRA would typically form the beginning of a stable career in tertiary teaching and research; importantly, at no point in a DECRA application or review is teaching ability ever considered.

While new techniques are constantly being developed and applied in archaeological research contexts, and to a lesser degree in the day-to-day practice of professional archaeology, these advances have largely failed to transfer to how we approach the teaching and learning of the discipline. Recently, perception of this gap has led to a renewed focus on how archaeology is taught and integrated in university settings (Coaldrake 2000; Cobb and Croucher 2020). In Australia, the recognition of the ongoing impact that devaluing archaeological pedagogy is having on the discipline ultimately led to the formation of the Australian National Committee for Archaeology Teaching and Learning (ANCATL) within the Australian Archaeological Association in 2002. ANCATL is made up of academic and professional archaeologists and aims to provide a forum for discussion of archaeology teaching and learning and related issues. It also seeks to provide a conduit for involvement and input from different archaeological associations and interest groups in recognizing key issues and identifying strategies and resources to address these. Within the heritage sector, the national perception of the committee’s value has been growing within the last decade, leading to more open discussions of the greater need for archaeology-specific pedagogies within the Australian context.

Contemporary Archaeological Education

Strengthened by the formation of ANCATL, the Australian archaeological tertiary sector has been actively working towards excellence in education, linked to best practice and employment outcomes. Beginning in 2005, ANCATL has conducted five-yearly reviews of the skills needs of our industry (known as ‘Profiling the Profession;’ Mate et al. 2013; Ulm et al. 2005, 2016) and this data has in turn directly informed course design, continuing professional development sessions, and workshops run through professional associations. Through ANCATL, the Australian archaeological Community of Practice developed National Benchmarking Guidelines (Beck et al. 2020; Beck and Clarke 2008), which have provided a clear guide for both students and educators as to what general knowledge and specific skills should be expected of a graduate with a four-year Honors or postgraduate equivalent degree.

However, while improvements in teaching have been considered through national committees like ANCATL, efforts have been undermined by successive Federal governments who have failed to understand or support the role that the university sector plays in educating the next generation of professionals, practitioners and researchers. In 2020, the previous (Morrison) Australian Federal Government implemented the ‘Job-ready Graduates Package’, a strategy designed to redirect students away from Humanities and Social Science disciplines towards more “vocationally oriented” STEM fields. As part of this strategy, fees for ‘less strategic’ degrees were increased substantially; for example, those within the Humanities and Social Science increased by 113% (Lewis and Daly 2022; Ferguson 2020). However, rather than diverting students towards STEM, humanities students simply ended up with much higher student debt, with only 1.5% of students applying for alternate degrees (Young, Coelli and Kabatek 2023). The Australian Universities Accord Final Report (2024) has recommended that the package be replaced, noting that this will significantly contribute to the goal of increasing the tertiary education attainment rate to at least 80% by 2050 (Australian Universities Accord Final Report, 2024:2).

Ultimately, the changes highlighted the disconnect between government perceptions of the role of universities and their operating practices – systems that the government has contributed to creating and continues actively to promote. The same staff who are tasked with creating robust, job-ready graduates are expected to do so while working within a system that disincentivizes the development and learning of subject-specific pedagogies, including the development of personal skills to facilitate their effective implementation.

The Australian Archaeology Skills Passport

In considering many of these challenges, ANCATL launched The Australian Archaeology Skills Passport (AASP) in 2019 (ANCATL 2021; 2019), building on knowledge gathered through the National Benchmarking document (Beck and Balme 2005; Beck and Clarke 2008) and Profiling the Profession Surveys ( Mate and Ulm 2016; Ulm et al. 2005, 2013). The AASP is a national program aimed at clarifying and streamlining skills training and development within the discipline. The program has been adapted from the highly successful UK Archaeology Skills Passport, developed by David Connolly and Hannah Cobb (Cobb and Croucher 2020:80) and designed to support both employability and training pathways within a tertiary learning ecosystem. In the UK this Skills Passport has been widely adopted by both employers and tertiary archaeology programs.

Like its UK counterpart, the AASP sets out a series of practical skills essential to the practice of Australian archaeology, including ‘cultural competency,’ ‘awareness of site types and their distribution,’ ‘site safety,’ ‘artefact recovery, cataloguing and storage,’ and ‘working knowledge of relevant legislation.’ Each skill requires multiple signoffs from competent volunteer assessors over a five-year period, demonstrating skill progression. As a result, the passport provides a longitudinal, unbiased record of skills acquisition, replacing the often-unrealistic self-assessment presented in many employment applications.   

For archaeology students and early career professionals, the AASP provides greater transparency on the requirements of entry into the workforce and what professional development opportunities should be focused on to fill those persistent knowledge gaps within the discipline (Stannard and Marshall in press). The AASP also provides greater clarity on what Australian archaeology is, specifically targeted at the promotion of archaeological stories to publics who relate to that archaeology. The program acknowledges that the professional practice of archaeology is not wholly centered in practically based skills and that universities play a critical role in providing their students with a robust grounding in the theory of archaeological practice. What the AASP presents is an opportunity for further skills-based knowledge to be delivered, while providing a structured avenue by which senior practitioners within the archaeological community can meaningfully contribute to learning outcomes through a community-wide collaboration. Addressing a clear gap, this is one tool that is increasingly used to improve heritage education nationally.

The AASP is further designed to provide formal recognition of the knowledge and skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practitioners, including heritage officers and site rangers, who have long been involved in the heritage industry. In providing a formal way for Indigenous heritage officers to record knowledge and capabilities, the passport encourages the recentering and equal weighting of experience gained through life and study. ANCATL further envisages the passport becoming a basis for alternate entry methods into tertiary study, supporting applications for pathways into programs such as the Certificate IV in Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Management, Bachelor degrees and Graduate Certificate courses, while providing a robust record of skills experience when applying for heritage jobs. These goals have thus far been supported through the significant use of the passport by many Aboriginal corporations and ranger teams either directly through ANCATL or through collaborative research and cultural heritage management partnerships (Ahoy 2021; Stannard et al. in prep).

Building on this work, ANCATL released a second edition of the passport in early 2021. Connecting with Indigenous archaeologists across Australia, improvements were made to three of the skills, including the requirement that signoffs for all of the Cultural Competency skills experience be completed by either an Indigenous person or organization, along with a minimum of 50% Indigenous approvals for the Stakeholder Engagement, and the Collaboration skills and experience. Through this, ANCATL aims both to emphasize to students the critical importance of collaborative archaeological practice with Indigenous colleagues and to give agency to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage officers and rangers as educators.

Transitioning to the Future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Archaeological Education in Australia

Though national benchmarks for archaeology Honors degrees have recently been revised (Beck et al. 2020), there are currently no pedagogical frameworks on how to achieve them. While the AASP contributes to the identification of essential practical skills and the documentation of their acquisition, the program relies on the users finding their own learning opportunities. Therefore, there is an urgent need to construct a national pedagogical framework to accompany the benchmarks, a living system that can evolve through time as pedagogical techniques are developed and improved.

The last decade has seen renewed interest in pursuing issues around teaching, and, learning and to this end, ANCATL has been developing a national learning framework for the teaching, learning, and training of archaeology within a broad range of contexts. The approach is broad-scale, integrated, and discipline-wide, underpinned by three strategies: the continued monitoring and assessment of skills requirements and deficits within our field, the benchmarking of archaeology Honors degrees to standardize the learning outcomes of graduates entering the profession, and the Australian Archaeology Skills Passport. Through integrating these skills tools, students can not only see what will be expected of them upon entry into the workforce, but employers can clearly see what they should expect in a recent graduate. Educators are therefore provided with a clear guide as to what outcomes are required, where their programs currently meet this need, and where amendments can be made to fill in the gaps. It is here that pedagogy will play a critical role in ensuring that these outcomes are met, perhaps providing the necessary foundation from which to justify their development – the enviable act of attracting more students from a likely shrinking pool given the recent changes to fee structures.

The Need to Decolonize National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Archaeology Curricula

At a global scale, archaeology within the classroom largely continues to be taught within a Western knowledge system. A review of the discussion surrounding the reframing of Indigenous archaeological pedagogy suggests that there remains significant need for this type of scholarship of teaching and learning. Three major themes stand out within the current body of literature: (1) the colonial nature of archaeology and the Western worldview inherent in most archaeological examinations and interpretations (Augustus 2015; Nicholas 2008; Smith and Jackson 2006); (2) collaborative archaeological theory (Gonzalez and Edwards 2020; May et al. 2017); and (3) the recentering of Indigenous voices in archaeological teaching, learning and practice (Atalay 2006; Marshall in press; Supernant 2020).

Authors from colonial countries, including Canada, the United States, and Australia, have described the pervasiveness of colonial pedagogy within heritage studies (Hamilakis 2004; Hutchings and La Salle 2014; Trigger 1984), particularly in relation to the teaching and learning of Indigenous histories and archaeologies ( Augustus 2015; Cobb and Croucher 2020; Ferguson 1996; Nicholas 2008; Smith and Jackson 2006). Each of these colonial contexts privileges Western concepts of the scientific method over the ‘spiritual, experiential and unquantifiable’ aspects of the archaeological record (Atalay 2006:280; Gorring et al 2015; Hamilakis 2004). In this, we see a clear connection between the pervasiveness of colonial pedagogy and the need to recenter archaeological pedagogies towards a more balanced representation of perspectives and voices. We have clearly seen the dominance of the scientific narrative within heritage since the 1960s (Gonzalez and Edwards 2020). This removal of the ‘human’ from the practice of archaeology actively contributes to the exclusion of Indigenous world views from the interpretation of cultural material, both denying Indigenous voices and preventing meaningful collaborations between the Indigenous communities and archaeologists. To move towards a decolonized profession, it is essential that this context be foregrounded in training the next generation of archaeologists, actively challenged through longitudinal changes to archaeological pedagogy (Hunter 2008; Supernant 2020). We need to ensure that truth-telling is at the heart of our approach to archaeological pedagogy and practice (Tehrani and Riede 2008), as is the reintegration of people into archaeological practice. It is in this respect that both collaborative archaeological theory and the recentering of Indigenous voices play critical roles in moving towards decolonizing archaeology – particularly in relation to Indigenous heritage.

One area in whichcollaborative archaeological theory is already firmly embedded within Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander archaeology is in its day-to-day practice reflecting both a shift in the broader discipline and the training of new archaeologists over the last two decades (Colley 2002). The centering of Indigenous voices lies at the heart of collaborative archaeological theory – one cannot collaborate equally between partners unless equal recognition and value is placed upon the worldview of each party. Collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and colleagues is now commonplace within archaeological research (both academic and professional) across Australia (e.g., David et al., 2021; Marshall et al. 2020; McDonald 2020; Roberts et al., 2020; Smith et al. 2019). While cultural heritage management contexts also now encourage moving beyond just consultation, this approach has been framed more within discussions of ethical and legislative considerations than necessarily a desire to recenter Indigenous knowledges (May et al. 2017).

It is within this context that a reframing of classroom archaeological pedagogy must intersect more strongly with recognizing the colonial nature of the discipline, both in terms of its heritage and practice. It is imperative that new generations of archaeologists begin (and continue) their training and experience within the mindset of equal validation and representation of interpretative perspectives. Significant progress is being made in this regard in Australia with the redesigning of classroom content and teaching approaches ( Beck et al. 2020; Fairbairn 2020), practically supported by the AASP, which, as noted, requires specific skills to be signed off on by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander colleagues and/or organizations.

The application of collaborative archaeological theory is also reflected in the increasing number of archaeological field schools running within Australia (e.g. May et al., 2017; Smith et al., 2020) and abroad (e.g. Cipolla & Quinn, 2016; Gonzalez & Edwards, 2020) that directly involve and center Indigenous communities. What is clearly missing from this mix is a scholarship of teaching and learning discussion on the application of collaborative archaeological theory to classroom pedagogies. This is particularly important due to the breadth of subject matter taught within classrooms, the longevity of classroom-based education compared to the length of a field school, and the dominance of classroom-based teaching and learning. A significant proportion of Australian archaeology students will complete their undergraduate degree without ever completing a field school, and, even where they do have the opportunity to undertake a field school, it will typically comprise just a few weeks of their three-year undergraduate studies. Largely, the absence of regular field schools stems from a dire lack of funding for such teaching opportunities, directly linked to the lack of recognition of archaeology as a practical subject and the resulting underfunding from government (Fairbairn 2020:297). Embedding collaborative archaeological theory within each archaeological course emphasizes to students that this is not simply a topic that is applicable to an individual course or assignment; it foregrounds this approach as being central to the learning and everyday practice of archaeology.

As discussed, the length of time spent within the classroom setting creates an effective opportunity for the active inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, knowledges and perspectives within Indigenous archaeology and archaeology more broadly. This needs to involve the foregrounding of truth-telling within the curricula – a sustained and embedded acknowledgment that we live, learn, and practice archaeology on Country. The centrality of Indigenous voices within archaeology will by necessity require the decentering of science as the ‘right’ way of interpreting and understanding the past (Hamilakis 2004). What we look to here is the development of pedagogies that value both Western scientific and Indigenous perspectives equally, promoting critical reflection in which students can acknowledge that the narrative of the past should be written by many voices (Atalay 2006; Cobb and Croucher 2016; Nicholas 2008; Supernant 2020). It is also important to emphasize that Indigenous narratives and histories do not require the validation of science (Edinborough et al. 2017). There are numerous examples within Australia where the deep time narrative of science has simply replicated what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge has described, but it is only within the scientific context that it is given appropriate recognition (e.g. Clarkson et al. 2017; Damm, 2005). Another aspect of foregrounding Indigenous voices actively to promote Indigenous writings within coursework readings and, perhaps more importantly, to invite Indigenous scholars and community members into the classrooms – whether physically or via pre-recorded formats (Atalay 2006; Supernant 2020). These are ideal examples of how collaborative archaeological theory can be applied to Indigenous archaeological pedagogy within the classroom. With the development and standardization of digital technologies within our teaching repertoires during the COVID-19 lockdown period, the potential for greater inclusivity of remote voices is greater than ever before (Peuramaki-Brown et al. 2020).

Consideration of Tangible and Intangible in Heritage Education

Another essential component in the development of discipline-specific pedagogical approaches will be revaluating the Australian archaeological record beyond the age of sites and objects. With age directly linked to the perceived value of heritage, this has contributed to a prominence in the classroom of lessons associated with the tangible physical fabric of sites and associated cultural material, exemplified by the Eurocentric notion of civilization. Slowly, understanding of the depth of humanity’s mark on the world has been incorporated from site-specific examples such as Blombos Cave in South Africa, within which the oldest evidence of ochre processing was uncovered (Henshilwood et al. 2001), to global studies that have identified widescale human transformations of landscape and environment from at least 10,000 years ago (Stephens 2019). In Australia, this focus has been on archaeological sites such as the Willandra Lakes (e.g. Allen 1998; Gillespie 1997; Webb et al. 2006), Carpenters Gap (O’Connor 1995) and Madjedbebe (Clarkson et al. 2017; Roberts and Smith 1990), prior to fast-forwarding to the arrival of Cook’s voyage in 1770 (Parkes 2007). The inclusion of lessons relating to Aboriginal people and culture during the interceding periods have been limited, as have those relating to earlier visitors to Australian shores. While influenced by government policies over the last century that give primacy of significance to the physical evidence provided by archaeological material, this has left a challenging legacy for educators to address.

Adding to these challenges is the historical nature of heritage protection both nationally and internationally ascribed in legislation, which in recent decades inadvertently gave primacy to the importance of the tangible physical site fabric and associated cultural material. With the premise given to the tangible over the intangible as influenced by colonial frameworks, Nicholas (2017:215–16) notes that “… significant tensions persist between the dominant society and Indigenous peoples within settler countries … this reflects … the limited congruence between legislation designed explicitly to protect the material dimensions of heritage, and international conventions … seeking to acknowledge and protect intangible heritage.”

With heritage legislation established in the context of scholars examining what was argued were ‘the last vestiges of a dying people’ (Petrie 1954, 2011) or ‘forgotten time’, Aboriginal people themselves raised their voices against these viewpoints in Australia with Elders such as Bates (1993), Mowaljarlai (and Malnic 2001) and Woolagoodja (and Blundell 2005) sharing their knowledge of the intrinsic value that exists in the unison of the intangible cultural values, knowledges, and meaning with the tangible, as a way to advance the Western thinking around heritage. Although this message was heard and shared further by scholars such as Lewis and Rose (1988) and others decades on (Byrne 2008; Kearney 2008; Kim 2011; Nicholas 2017; Smith and Akagawa 2008), recognition and understanding of the value of intangible heritage has been a relatively recent advance that is still primarily absent within legislated contexts across Australia. This realization is also reflected in the UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), which, in turn, has influenced amendments in Australia (see Australia ICOMOS 2016 for a historical perspective). The dominance of the tangible and colonial contexts has heretofore framed the teachings associated with heritage and archaeology, placing emphasis on the material records available.

Change is occurring somewhat in response to shifting perspectives and shared knowledges, but it still has some way to go. As Kearney (2008:209) notes, “… fundamental shifts in epistemologies surrounding intangible and tangible cultural heritage must occur, highlighting the extent to which knowledge and heritage inform group and individual cultural identity, and mark cultural autonomy and distinctiveness.” To integrate this within archaeological teaching and learning pedagogy, embracing decolonizing methodologies, will be fundamental to the transformation required in the future of Australian archaeology.

As our teachings reflect our practice, we are increasingly reliant on improvements to influence our lesson planning with advances to methodological frameworks facilitating the integration of decolonizing frameworks into archaeology and heritage ( Andrews and Buggey 2008; Atalay 2006; Chirikure and Pwiti 2008; Damm 2005; Evans et al. 2009; Marshall et al. 2020; Peregrine 2009; Smith and Peregrine 2011). Learning from Indigenous Elders such as Mangolomara et al. (2018), there is a greater understanding now of the intangible (which underpins cultural connection, narrative, and language) that increasingly outweighs the tangible by ascribing meaning, value, and significance to the extant cultural material. Facilitating inclusion of cultural knowledges to inform teaching practitioners is vital, and a shift is needed away from the individualized nature of archaeological pedagogy to one that provides a range of material and perspectives on both tangible and intangible heritage to improve greater understanding and inform the next generations.


Taught through archaeology, the value and scope of cultural heritage teaching and learning in Australia at all levels of education has been demonstrated to have both strengths and weaknesses in its application. The definition and discussion of the latter are increasingly being used to inform and overcome these challenges in ways that will ultimately produce the next generation of critical thinkers and advocates of both intangible and tangible Indigenous cultural heritage through truth-telling frameworks. Whilst government policies linked to, and attempting to manipulate, the tertiary sector in particular have shifted, improvements and advancements to archaeological pedagogy practically applied within classrooms are still required.

As articulated here, changes that seek to attribute value to the development and implementation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander archaeological education cannot be achieved by teachers alone; doing so significantly reduces the resilience of Australian archaeology in a world where tertiary teaching resources and staff numbers are under increasing pressure. The archaeological community is highly diverse, made up of a range of specialties and employment sectors, and has enormous capacity to create a robust and sustainable discipline. Building on the initiatives described here, what is now required is a systematic and sustained drive by the Australian archaeological Community of Practice to ensure the continued resilience of nationally inclusive archaeology teaching and learning.

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[1] Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia g.stannard@latrobe.edu.au.

[2] Department of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia; k.strickland@latrobe.edu.au.

[3] Nulungu Research Institute, The University of Notre Dame Australia, Broome, Western Australia, Australia; melissa.marshall@nd.edu.au.

[4] “Treaty” embodies Aboriginal self-determination, describing an agreement between states, nations or governments. In Victoria, there will be one overarching Statewide Treaty and multiple local Treaties with individual Traditional Owner groups, covering matters as diverse as political representation, land and water, and economic development (First Peoples State Relations, State Government of Victoria, 2023). For additional information on the Treaty process occurring in Victoria, please refer to https://www.firstpeoplesrelations.vic.gov.au/treaty