DHSC Project Team: Chief Investigators Jo McDonald and Sean Ulm

This is part of our on-going series on the DHSC project team. In this post we feature two of the project’s Chief Investigators, Prof Jo McDonald (University of Western Australia) and Prof Sean Ulm (James Cook University).

DHSC CI Prof Jo McDonald 

I first started working on the Murujuga rock art (petroglyphs) when helping to write the scientific values report for the National Heritage Listing in 2005.  Since moving to UWA in 2012, I have worked more intensively on the rock art and archaeology in this inscribed landscape. I have taught undergraduates annually at the RioTinto/MAC/UWA rock art field school, and was the Lead CI on the recently completed Murujuga: Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Linkage project (MLP). My role on DHSC has been to continue the collaboration with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), and to assist in the interpretation of cultural landscapes, coastal sites and any intertidal and submerged archaeology, by providing the terrestrial context from nearby and adjacent islands.


Prof Jo McDonald during DHSC fieldwork (Photo: E. Beckett)

Working on DHSC has been great because it has provided boat access to potential submerged landscapes across the entire Archipelago.  This has been a welcome change to the systematic intensive recording and excavation programme, which involved slogging across islands on foot, fighting our way through dense un-burnt spinifex and camping-out for extended periods.  Some of the outer islands have been important to visit, as they have provided an extraordinary counter-point to some of the bigger islands with different geology and quite different archaeological records.


Prof Jo McDonald during DHSC fieldwork (Photo: E. Beckett)

Our investigation of coastal stone features – combined with the LIDAR data, geomorphology, radiocarbon dating and diver surveys made this a plum area of potential – which has borne remarkable fruit.  So far, we have found limited hard rock – the matrix for region’s significant petroglyphs – extending into the intertidal and submerged waters.  We have, however, found numerous intertidal features (like Aboriginal quarries and fish traps), as well as documenting some amazing coastal platform petroglyph sites. This amazing cultural landscape involves both land and sea: we are looking forward to finding out more about the interface between the two domains.

Prof Jo McDonald during DHSC fieldwork


DHSC CI Prof Sean Ulm

My core expertise is in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander coastal and island archaeology. Over the last 20 years I have led a large collaborative network of Quaternary scientists (geomorphology, chemistry, geology, ecology, palynology, palaeoclimatology, oceanography and zooarchaeology) and Indigenous communities to recast our understandings of coastal occupation models from the Holocene (the last 10,000 years) by integrating accurate climate models with detailed analyses of coastal archaeological sites. These studies articulate an integrated programme of research to increase confidence in data resolution underpinning models of past human behaviour. I consider continental shelf archaeology and underwater cultural heritage management to be of critical importance to both archaeologists and Indigenous communities. Working on the DHSC project has seen the realisation of an ambitious goal to fully integrate a team of archaeologists, geoscientists and Traditional Owner community members working seamlessly on land and below the sea.


Prof Sean Ulm during DHSC fieldwork

My research focuses on persistent problems in the archaeology of northern Australia and the western Pacific where understanding the relationships between environmental change and cultural change using advanced studies of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental sequences are central to constructions of the human past. My priority has been to develop new tools to investigate and articulate co-variability and co-development of human and natural systems. These studies are part of a broader concern with increasing confidence in and resolution of the data used to develop models of past human behaviour. My research expands the methodological toolkit of archaeology by developing novel applications to refine the chronologies and resolution of data from coastal sites, including refining radiocarbon dating of marine materials; use of geospatial analysis to examine large-scale Aboriginal population and mobility changes; use of remote sensing to map Aboriginal intertidal structures; the development foraminifera and bivalve conjoin analyses to disentangle natural and anthropogenic marine shell deposits; and the use of stable isotope analyses to discriminate shellfish habitat. Understanding site formation processes and chronology-building are fundamental building-blocks of archaeological research.

Prof Sean Ulm working in the shallow waters off QLD

The DHSC project has been a natural extension of my interests and expertise and represents an exciting new strand of Australian archaeology. Managing, investigating and understanding the archaeology of the Australian continental shelf in partnership with Indigenous Traditional Owners and custodians is one of the last frontiers in Australian archaeology. The results of the DHSC project will present some of the first steps in this journey of discovery, and confirming the archaeological potential of Australia’s continental shelves, and in beginning to fill what has remained until now a major gap in the human history of the continent.


Author: Deep History of Sea Country: Climate, Sea Level and Culture

This is our official project blog for the Deep History of Sea Country: Climate, Sea Level and Culture. Our project is funded by the Australian Research Council (DP170100812) and our official webpage is: http://www.flinders.edu.au/ehl/archaeology/seacountry.cfm Submerged landscape archaeology is an under-researched field in Australia and represents a major opportunity to address knowledge gaps in world prehistory such as early human migrations, the archaeology of land bridges and coastal-hinterland cultural exchange.

%d bloggers like this: