A few metres below the surface of the ocean, the world seems a different place. Perspectives shift and light changes in strange ways. But for Flinders’ Associate Professor Jonathan Benjamin, a specialist in the archaeology of submerged landscapes, the world below the water holds incredible insights into human history.
Born and raised amongst the Coastal Redwoods and Live Oaks of California, Jonathan spent his childhood in and around Monterey Bay, surfing, cycling, playing youth soccer and baseball and exploring his environment. At 18, he moved across the country to attend Boston University.
At University, I was drawn to language, culture and history, but also human origins. I was interested in the existential questions of human origins, the big philosophical questions - like who, as a species, are we?
While his dislike of Boston’s cold winters saw him head back to California to continue his study, first at Cabrillo College and then UCLA, Jonathan’s interest in human origins and archaeology continued to grow.
Archaeology, as a discipline can tell you a lot about the human past, even if you don't have written records, photographs, or other documentation. We need archaeology to understand deep time and the human story.
Jonathan undertook his PhD in Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. It was here that he combined archaeology with underwater field methods, which led to further studies of Neolithic and Mesolithic coastal sites. A new career opportunity beckoned, and in 2014 he moved to Adelaide to lecture at Flinders and continue his research.
I had never been to Australia but I knew about Flinders from its reputation. Maritime Archaeology at Flinders is elite. Internationally, in the archaeology community, people know about the maritime archaeology program at Flinders.
Australia’s maritime archaeology has been dominated by a European colonial narrative, but Jonathan’s fascination with deep time and appreciation of Indigenous archaeology has seen his project team significantly contribute to and expand our understanding of Australia’s past, and what may lie beneath the waves. This opens up an enormous new field of study in Australia.
But Indigenous maritime archaeology is under-represented. Why? In addition to the watercraft used by Indigenous people, what about the habitation sites that are now under water because of sea level rise? These are important questions that require the input of the maritime archaeology community.
Jonathan and colleagues, including the Deep History of Sea Country research project team have made some remarkable discoveries in areas that were once dry land but are now metres below water. DHSC has confirmed ancient underwater archaeological sites off the Murujuga coastline in north-western Australia, revealing Aboriginal artefacts that shine a fresh light on Australia’s early human history and improving the potential for the seabed to be studied by future generations of archaeologists.
We've done something that changes the dialogue. In Murujuga the Indigenous community have had their connection with Sea Country enhanced, which now includes perspectives of modern science and archeological practice.
For Jonathan, collaboration and team work are the keys to success. As divers and as archaeologists, no one works alone. It’s the strength and support of the entire team that has led the DHSC project to success.
It isn’t about one person. I have had the good fortune to work with an amazing team here at Flinders, overseas and on the DHSC project.
Jonathan’s team-based approach spills over into his teaching. He understands the benefits of collaboration, and the importance for students to build their own networks and connections as they progress in their studies.
Jonathan doesn’t see himself as fearless. But he is driven to understand where we came from and to give his students the tools to begin their own journey. His work, and the work of his team helps us better understand where we came from, and as the world’s climate changes, to understand what the future may hold.
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