Lawrence Hargrave talk

Today I gave a talk to the ‘Tea Time talks’ for Woollahra Council [a local government area covering the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney] , which they hold monthly at the Council Chambers.  Originally last year I had approached the Woollahra Historical Society to see if they would be interested in a talk to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Lawrence Hargrave’s dig at Woollahra Point in July 1911.  The President, Peter Poland, suggested that the Tea Time talks got a bigger crowd and might be worth a try.

Peter was not wrong.  We had more than 90 people turn up – a record!  A good story in the local newspaper helped to drum up interest, and we were left with a standing room only crowd.  Can’t get better than that.

The talk itself was focussed on the archaeological dig that Hargrave persuaded the Australian Museum to conduct on a shell-midden in a rock shelter near his house on Wunulla Road, about a kilometre from the venue.  The dig was a small affair, run by C.C.Towle, who was the Curatorial Assistant in Ethnography.  This was probably his first dig and it neither showed great prospects for further rockshelter excavations or for answers being forthcoming on the big questions like the length of Aboriginal occupation, and whether there was a single or multiple waves of people.  The dig did find a heavily rusted iron spike, which vindicated [to some extent] Hargraves’ belief that the dig would reveal evidence of the Spanish occupation of Woollahra Point, part of his grand theory that the Spanish had been in Sydney Harbour nearly two centuries before the First Fleet.  As well as the rockshelter Hargrave identified many sites that he thought were evidence for his theory in the Woollahra / Double Bay / Rose Bay area.

The crowd asked lots of good questions.  If any of them were believers in either Spanish or Portuguese they didn’t let on.  Several had memories or stories of Aboriginal art sites that were sitting in peoples’ back yards in different suburbs.  I think they appreciated the bitterness that consumed Hargrave in his last decade, and while I was talking the penny dropped and I realised that he had been watching past history repeat itself.  For two decades he bore ridicule as a ‘crank’ for his aeronautical experiments, only to be vindicated with the Wright Brothers achievement of powered flight.  He did not get a lot of credit at the time – his contribution was not nearly as well understood as it could have been.  When he embarked on the quest for Lope de Vega and the lost Spanish ship his actions were clearly informed by his past experience.  This time he waited more than three years from the time of his ‘revelation’ before he went public with the story, hoping to have a water-tight and uncontestable argument prepared.  It proved not to be the case.  He still held on to the idea though that, even though he was being pilloried, he would eventually be vindicated.  It never came, and in the last years of his life his thoughts became darker and darker.  It was only in preparing the talk and stepping it out that I really saw the parallels between the aviation and Spanish phases so clearly.

Another good thing that came out of the talk is that although I have been a constant whinger about how archaeologists should present their findings back to the public, we seldom do it.  Now I can be just that little bit less hypocritical next time I complain about it, and the failings of my colleagues.  The audience were gagging to hear about archaeology, and we could so easily fill venues around the state and present factual interesting information to people who care, and vote and fund it all through their taxes.

As a final thing, the talk fell nicely on the World Archaeology Congress’s Day of Archaeology, which aims to document the range of work done by archaeologists around the world on a single day.  Look for the site here.  I’ll add something about my day soon.

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