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The Murray Islands archaeological project: results of recent archaeological analyses.

I report two significant advances in our knowledge of the human occupation of the Torres Strait: new radiocarbon estimates for the antiquity of settlement of the Murray Islands, eastern Torres Strait, and a description of the recovery and petrographic analysis of several earthenware pottery sherds, the first to be recovered from the Torres Strait Islands and the earliest evidence of pre-European trade links between the Torres Strait and New Guinea.

Radiocarbon determination

Previous results of radiocarbon analyses on excavated deposits from the Murray Islands established first human occupation of the eastern Torres Strait at around 2600 cal BP (Carter 2001). The date of deposition of a single earthenware pottery sherd recovered from the site of Sokoli on Dauar Island was established at around 700 calibrated years before the present (cal BP) (Carter 2001). Dating of more recently excavated deposits from Ormi on Dauar Island confirmed human occupation on the island by 2600 BP (Carter 2002).

Further radiocarbon data were obtained from the Ormi and Sokoli assemblages to establish a detailed age-depth sequence for the sites. The results are recorded in the table, including radiocarbon ages and the calibrated dates at two standard deviations. New data for the Sokoli site (Wk10164 and Wk10165) further establish the antiquity of the lower cultural assemblages, dating from 1800 cal BP, at approximately 125cm below surface. The results of radiocarbon dating at Ormi indicate more rapid deposition of the cultural assemblage at this site. It appears that over a metre-and-one-half of remains were deposited within a short period after 2000 BP. The deposition of the pottery sherds happened within this period, at about 2000 to 1800 BP.

The pottery and results of mineralogical analyses

The excavation at Ormi in 2000 uncovered three small pottery sherds from separate stratigraphic units within the upper section of the cultural strata. The sherds vary markedly in colour, thickness and texture of fabric, suggesting that they represent the remains of three different vessels. Based on the same criteria, the Sokoli sherd is also distinct from each of the Ormi artefacts. In 1999 a pottery sherd had also been uncovered on Mer Island by a local man during construction of a radio tower. This sherd is considerably larger and thicker than each of the excavated sherds and is comprised of a much coarser fabric.

The petrographic analysis of pottery is a common procedure in the examination of archaeological pottery assemblages (Dickinson and Shutler 1971; Rye 1976; Ambrose 1992). By identifying the mineralogical composition of pottery sherds it may be possible to deduce the geological origins of the mineral inclusions and to pinpoint the specific location of the source of the pottery materials (Rye 1976:107). The mineralogical analysis of the Murray Islands pottery sherds recently has been completed and will only be discussed briefly here. The Sokoli sherd was returned to the traditional owner of the site before the current mineralogical analyses were undertaken and is therefore excluded from the following discussion. Further details of the methods and results of the analyses are in preparation (Carter in prep).

The analysis revealed that each of the sherds contained a combination of volcanic and metamorphic inclusions, rich in basaltic andesite and quartz. Microprobe analysis of several plagioclase feldspar inclusions in each of the sherds revealed the presence of unusually high K-feldspars. These minerals are characteristic of high potassium volcanic rocks known as shoshonites (Joplin 1968). Shoshonitic volcanic suites are common in island arc volcanism and have been identified in the New Guinea Highlands (Mackenzie and Chappell 1972) and in Eastern New Guinea, including the offshore D'Entrecasteaux Island group (Jakes and Smith 1970; Smith 1972; Johnson et al.1973).

The chronology of the Murray Islands pottery sherds, dating from 2000 to 700 cal BP, is consistent with the production, movement and trade along the southern Papuan coast towards the Gulf established between 1900 and 850 BP (Bickler 1997:151). The production of eastern New Guinea wares and their movement along the southern coast has also been postulated for this period (Lauer 1971; Egloff 1979).


Further examination of the Murray Islands pottery, including statistical analysis and comparison with other pottery studies, is required before any firm statements concerning the origin of the artefacts can be firmly made. However, the preliminary results clearly have confirmed the antiquity of human presence in the Eastern Torres Strait from at least 2600 cal BP, and the presence of exotic pottery on the islands from at least 2000 cal BP. The suggestion that the Eastern Torres Strait was part of an extensive trade network associated with the production and dispersal of goods from eastern New Guinea provides both an exciting and challenging dimension to our understanding of the prehistory of this region.
Table 1 Radiocarbon determinations of samples taken
from Ormi and Sokoli assemblages

Site Lab No. SU Depth Sample Context

Sokoli Sq SE Wk 10164 10 125 Strombus Middle
(1, 21) luhuanus archaeological

Sokoli Sq SE Wk 10165 12A 170 Strombus Base of
(1, 21) luhuanus suspected

Ormi Sq 1 Wk 10161 1 15.2 Lambis Upper
 lambis archaeological

Ormi Sq 1 Wk 10162 6 99 Lambis Middle
 lambis archaeological

Ormi Sq 1 Wk 10163 12 178 Lambis Lower
 lambis archaeological

Site delta [sup.13]C [sup.14]C Age

Sokoli Sq SE 2.5 [+ or -] 0.2 1951 [+ or -] 43
(1, 21)

Sokoli Sq SE 2.4 [+ or -] 0.2 2044 [+ or -] 51
(1, 21)

Ormi Sq 1 1.4 [+ or -] 0.2 2074 [+ or -] 48

Ormi Sq 1 1.4 [+ or -] 0.2 2148 [+ or -] 48

Ormi Sq 1 1.5 [+ or -] 0.2 2435 [+ or -] 48

Site delta Cal. (2[sigma])
 R range

Sokoli Sq SE 11 [+ or -] 5 1590 (1500) 1380
(1, 21)

Sokoli Sq SE 11 [+ or -] 5 1720 (1570) 1470
(1, 21)

Ormi Sq 1 11 [+ or -] 5 1750 (1613) 1510

Ormi Sq 1 11 [+ or -] 5 1840 (1736) 1590

Ormi Sq 1 11 [+ or -] 5 2180 (2048) 1920

Note: Dates on all marine samples were calibrated using the marine
calibration model data set of Stuiver et al. (1998). Conventional
radiocarbon ages ([sup.14]C Ages) were converted to calendar years
using the OxCal (Version 3.4) computer program (Bronk Ramsey 2000)
with an AR correction factor for NE Australia of 11 [+ or -] 5
applied (Stuiver et al. 1998).


The radiocarbon dating and mineralogical analyses of pottery discussed in this paper was funded by a research grant (G2001/6541) from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. I acknowledge Chairman Ron Day and Lloyd Maza of the Mer Island Community Council for the continued support of the Meriam Islands Archaeological Project; and Sam Wailu of the Council of Elders for support and assistance during our stay on the Murray Islands. Traditional landowners of the sites discussed in this paper receive extra thanks, particularly Andrew Passi, George Kaddy and Alan Kaddy. Sunny Passi and Aris Kaddy provided invaluable assistance during fieldwork.


Ambrose, W. 1992 'Analysis of pottery clays from Manus', Poterie Lapita et Peuplement, J.C. Galipaud (ed.), ORSTOM, Noumea, pp.169-76.

Bickler, S.H. 1997 'Early pottery exchange along the south coast of Papua New Guinea', Archaeology in Oceania 32:151-62.

Bronk Ramsey, C. 2000 OxCal Program v.3.5, Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, Research Laboratory for Archaeology, Oxford, accessed November 2002, < oxcal.htm>.

Carter, M. 2001 'New evidence for the earliest human occupation of Torres Strait, northeastern Australia', Australian Archaeology 52:50-2.

Carter, M. 2002 'Recent results of excavations on the Murray Islands, Eastern Torres Strait and Implications for early links with New Guinea: Bridge and Barrier Revisited', Barriers, Borders and Boundaries. Proceedings of the 2001 Australian Archaeological Association Annual Conference, S. Ulm, C. Westcott, J. Reid, A. Ross, I. Lilley, J. Pragnell and L. Kirkwood (eds), Anthropology Museum, University of Queensland, St Lucia (Tempus 7), pp.1-10.

Carter, M. in prep. 'A long way from home? Results of mineralogical analysis of the Murray Islands pottery sherds'. Dickinson, W.R. and R. Shutler. 1971 'Temper Sands in Prehistoric Pottery of the Pacific Islands', Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 6:191-203.

Egloff, B. 1979 Recent Prehistory in Southeast Papua, Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra (Terra Australis 4).

Jakes, P. and I.E. Smith. 1970. Structure of the Melanesian arcs and correlation with distribution of magma types. Tectonophysics 8:223-236

Johnson, R.W., D.E. Mackenzie, I.E. Smith and G.A.M. Taylor. 1973 'Distribution and Petrology of Late Cenozoic Volcanoes in Papua New Guinea'The Western Pacific: Island arcs, marginal seas, geochemistry, P.J. Coleman (ed.), University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, pp.523-41.

Joplin, C.A. 1968 'The Shoshonitic Association: a review', Geological Society of Australia 15:274-5.

Lauer, P. 1971 'Changing patterns of pottery trade to the Trobriand Islands', World Archaeology 3:197-209.

Mackenzie, D.E. and B.W. Chappell. 1972 'Shoshonitic and Calcalkaline lavas from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea', Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology 35:50-62.

Rye, O.S. 1976 'Keeping your temper under control: Materials and the manufacture of Papuan pottery', Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 11:106-37.

Smith, I.E. 1972 'High K-Intrusives from south-east Papua', Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology 34:167-76.

Stuiver, M., P.J. Reimer, E. Bard, J.W. Beck, G.S. Burr, K.A. Hughen, B. Kromer, G. McCormac, J. van der Plicht and M. Spurk. 1998 'INTCAI98 radiocarbon age calibration, 24,000-0 cal BP', Radiocarbon 40:1041-83.

Melissa Carter Doctoral candidate, School of Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology, James Cook University, Townsville <>
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Title Annotation:Research Reports
Author:Carter, Melissa
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2002
Previous Article:Torres Strait rock-art: an enhanced perspective.
Next Article:Indigenous Futures: Choice and development for Aboriginal and Islander Australia.

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