IN THE FIELD: Archaeologist Professor Bryce Barker, from USQ, on the dig at Arnhem Land where he uncovered some of the earliest evidence of painting in the world.
IN THE FIELD: Archaeologist Professor Bryce Barker, from USQ, on the dig at Arnhem Land where he uncovered some of the earliest evidence of painting in the world.

Toowoomba's Indiana Jones digs up a confronting past

HE HAS helicoptered into remote and otherwise inaccessible destinations, lived for months with traditional native societies, sleeping on the ground with no electricity or mod cons, and held rock art dating back up to 28,000 years.

Yes, there's a lot of the exotic in this archaeologist's life, but Professor Bryce Barker from USQ says that's where the comparisons with Indiana Jones end.

But there's something else Bryce and Indiana have in common - the quest to tell the truth about history - whether people like it or not.

While he has carried out more modern historical work around Toowoomba, Bryce's speciality is Australian pre-European Aboriginal archaeology.

In 2012, as part of a Monash University/Jaweon Association-led project, he and his fellow USQ partner, Dr Lara Lamb, found the oldest rock art known in the country, and some of the earliest evidence of painting in the world, after excavating at an Arnhem Land site called Narwala Gabarnmang.

"It changed what we know about our past," he said of the little piece of charcoal-marked rock.

He currently has another project in its infancy, in which he hopes to uncover some of the thousands of pieces of rock art on the remote Cape York Peninsular, again only accessible by helicopter, which he believes have the potential to be some of the nation's oldest.

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He said both here and during his past work in isolated areas of Papua New Guinea, the people often questioned why their past was significant to the rest of the world.

"It all tells us something about our lives as humans on this planet, and helps us to understand where we've come from," Bryce said.

But this is community-based archaeology, with a strong moral and ethical perspective, so not only will the team solely go to sites where they are welcome but their work cannot be one-sided and has to have a practical community outcome.

It always involves at least a five-year commitment, allowing the researchers to consult and develop long-term and meaningful relationships with the local communities.

They often work closely with ranger groups, training them in rock art conservation and preservation and provide practical outcomes for communities, such as helping some of their children to attend school or university.

For his USQ students, he said, it was good to know that their lecturers were more than just classroom teachers, but were in the field carrying out cutting-edge research and actually written about in the textbooks they used.

He's currently involved in a major project tracing the history of the Queensland mounted police and the conflict that occurred with the Aborigines in the 19th century as European settlement moved north and west.

His team has so far recorded over 200 native police camps across the state, covering a period of 56 years up to 1901, uncovering the remains of barracks, gun parts, ordinance, police buttons, handcuffs, shackles and more.

If the Aborigines didn't resist occupation, he questions, why was this paramilitary force, which historical records show was not permitted to act against the white population, needed?

"We want to tell the true story of what happened in Queensland," he said. "It's not always what people want to hear, but we can't ignore the scientific, archaeological evidence. It's not about guilt ... but what we can do is acknowledge what happened."

Bryce said while there were similar colonial experiences throughout the world, Australia was one of the few countries never to really acknowledge that land had been forcibly taken from the Aborigines.

He firmly believes we need to teach far more about Aboriginal history in our schools - with Aboriginal people having successfully exploited the country's harshest conditions from desert to ice sheets, for some 65,000 years compared to white settlement's beginnings just 230 years ago.

"That's the real history of this continent and it's an extraordinary story," Bryce said.

Bryce last month presented the first of USQ's series of 'Did You Know' talks, taking research to the community.

Future talks are Professor of Astrophysics Jonti Horner discussing his Search for Life Elsewhere on July 24 and Dr Jeremy Patrick on How Religion and Religious Freedom is Evolving on October 17.

For details, search USQ 'Did You Know' talks or email