Back in the 1970s, Aboriginal culture in Australia was seen predominantly through the lens of archaeology. Recognition was growing slowly, even then that, despite the best efforts of repressive government policy, Aboriginal culture was still living and vibrant. In that context it is an interesting decision by Australian author Trevor Shearston, for at least the majority of his new book The Beach Caves to go back to that time and to focus mainly on the archaeology and the archaeologists.
Annette Cooley is an archaeology student in Canberra in the early 1970s. Her specialisation is the identification of animal bones. She and her flatmate and fellow student Sue become part of a student crew helping a husband and wife team of archaeologists – Aled Wray and Marilyn Herr – at a dig site near a river on the NSW South Coast during the university holidays. After the seeming success of the first dig, they sign up again to be part of another excavation at a series of caves on the coast nearby. Along for the experience is another student, Brian Harpur, who has a history with the are as his family used to stay in the same beachside cabins that the team is using. Slowly Annette and Brian start to form a connection, a connection that is broken when Brian makes a remarkable discovery of a new site that he shares with Marylin and that causes both the camp and the lead couple to split. An apparent tragedy will drive the two further apart.
The Beach Caves is a kind of coming of age story for Annette who has to grow up quickly and make some serious decisions that are based on her imperfect understanding of the world and the power dynamic that she finds herself enmeshed in. Shearston carefully constructs Annette’s world view in a way that helps readers understand her and the decisions that she makes, flawed as they are. The final third of the book jumps forward 35 years where new discoveries push her to try and revisit those times and to try and find some sort of closure.
As noted above, the 1970s saw a shift in the broader understanding of Aboriginal culture and its continuity. But not by archaeologists like Aled Wrey, who does not pause at the unearthing of a burial site, and all but ignores the continued, living use of ancient beach fish traps. None of the academics come off well in this, even through the ambitious Annette’s worshipful eyes, but the book is not really interested in deeply interrogating this approach to Aboriginal culture and history. And the issue is not broached in the final section set in more contemporary times.
Shearston captures well the academic arrogance coupled with the naivete of the students of the time. He does this by not only creating a text that reflects its time but by being old fashioned in its approach to the subject matter that underlies and drives the plot. What The Beach Caves does well is to explore the very human dimensions of the archaeological endeavour of the time. To capture the intensity of obsession, both personal and professional, and the very real consequences when those obsessions are allowed to get out of control.