My Career in Archaeology and Genetic Links to the Deep Past

I have had interests in both archaeology and astronomy since childhood, and I now work on linking archaeology and astronomy (Campbell 2004, 2006, 2009, In Prep; see CV page). Although I obtained some training in archaeology and anthropology in the United States during studies for my first degree, as well as during two summers’ worth of paid field experience working on American Indian / Native American sites in the Great Plains of the Midwest, most of my archaeological training and experience was obtained at the University of Oxford in England, with further experience on excavations in southern France at Terra Amata, La grotte du Lazaret and Arago, directed by Henry de Lumley, and on the Channel Island of Jersey at La Cotte de St Brelade, directed by Charles McBurney. The latter excavation became ‘royal’ as Prince Charles joined us during the Easter break in 1968 (he was an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge at the time). My supervisor on my DPhil (Oxford’s PhD) was Derek Roe, who also trained at Cambridge. I had originally hoped to work on early sites in East Africa with Louis and Mary Leakey, to whom I was introduced before work with them became all the rage. However, my supervisor and his Cambridge supervisor, Charles McBurney, convinced me to stay in Britain and focus on the British Upper Palaeolithic, which was in desperate need of new research. They said I could work in Africa later (alas I have never done fieldwork in Africa). I directed eight excavations at cave-sites in England and Wales, as well as three seasons of excavations at the open-air site of Hengistbury Head on the south coast of England, as part of my DPhil fieldwork. After completing my DPhil, Oxford University Press invited me to publish it and even allowed me to enlarge an already large piece of work. The main title of that two-volume book was The Upper Palaeolithic of Britain (Campbell 1977; see CV).

In the early to mid 1970s I taught at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, the country of my main genetic origin in terms of archaeologically recent generations. My family had migrated at various stages to North America, with my mother’s side having been established there for far longer. My maternal great-great grandfather was William Henry Seward, Secretary of State under President Lincoln, and the man who negotiated buying Alaska from Czarist Russia (the press nicknamed it ‘Seward’s Folly’ and ‘Seward’s Icebox’, but his vision of its potential wealth proved true). He went on to become Ambassador to the Court of St James (i.e. London) and the first American Ambassador to the Imperial Court in Peking (now Beijing). I have a massive leather-bound published copy of his writings. Some left-wing western historians have blamed him for increased American involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. Their argument is that he was the first influential person to recommend most strongly the creation of an economic empire, with US Navy bases to be established encircling the Pacific. His goal was to ‘open-up’ what he perceived as the vast market of China. Some left-wing historians even blamed him in part for the Vietnam War some one hundred years later.

For someone born in the United States, I did the unthinkable and migrated back to Britain, carrying out eight years of study and research at Oxford and then taking up a permanent lectureship in archaeology at Edinburgh, with a view to becoming a British subject with full voting rights. However, I was not to remain permanently in Scotland. Australian friends in Britain convinced me to migrate downunder, and in June 1975 I became a senior lecturer at the then still very young James Cook University in Townsville. This was a remote or bush university that at the time was having trouble recruiting Australian staff for nearly any of its disciplines. It had been officially opened by the Queen and Prince Phillip in 1970. I was also in for a job at the University of Sydney, but James Cook University was much closer to the field area I wished to go into. Within a year I began co-work with Aboriginal elders in the Tully district, and over the years since I have worked with Aboriginal people and on Aboriginal sites in both wet and dry country in tropical North and Far North Queensland.

I introduced underwater archaeology in the early 1990s in Townsville, and in 1993 Peter Veth joined us from the University of Western Australia, as an archaeologist able to focus both on the archaeology of Aboriginal Australia and the maritime archaeology of Australia’s more recent history. Peter and I both undertook professional or commercial diver training, as had become required in Queensland for anyone paid to work underwater. Our marine or maritime archaeology subjects proved very popular with both Australian and overseas students. In 1990 I also introduced the BSc in archaeology, one of the very few science degrees in archaeology in Australia.

From 1995 to 2000, Alan Watchman and I successfully obtained very large funding from the Australian Research Council for direct dating of Aboriginal rock art and for further development of new laser-based sample extraction techniques for dating what we termed ‘rock surface accretions’. Contrary to common sense assumptions, although rock faces or cliffs do retreat at the macroscopic scale with bits of rock detaching and forming scree or hillside gravel slopes, at the microscopic scale cliff faces can actually grow with the accumulation of dust particles, charcoal particles from fires and seasonal growth of algae, bacteria etc. The combined effect is the growth of fine laminations. If the bedrock is limestone as at Chillagoe, then the rock surface accretion is a gypsum oxalate crust. If the bedrock is sandstone as in the Laura district of Cape York Peninsula then the rock surface accretion is a silica skin. Over time Aboriginal paintings and engravings can become incorporated or covered by the accretions, allowing their dating, at least to minimum ages.

In 1999 my family and I moved from Townsville some 350 km north to Cairns. The University had made it attractive to transfer to the younger campus in Smithfield, at the base of the coastal ranges just north of the Cairns International Airport and adjacent to the Northern Beaches of Trinity, Kewarra, Clifton and Palm Cove. There were and still are comparatively few senior staff on the Cairns Campus of James Cook University, though the campus has grown considerably in the time we have been here, with the new School of Dentistry opening just recently. At the beginning of 2010 I retired from full-time university teaching, but I was then hired on a casual basis to do all of the teaching in archaeology at Cairns in 2010. I am now only supervising some of my PhD students, as far as official paid work goes.

In October 2009 I became President of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA). In September 2010 I co-chaired with Robert Bednarik (founder of AURA and editor of our international refereed journal, Rock Art Research) a symposium on Pleistocene (Ice Age) art in Australia at the IFRAO (International Federation of Rock Art Organisations) World Congress on Pleistocene Art, which was held at Tarascon-sur-Ariège in France. I have focused on Indigenous heritage and the potential links between traditional knowledge and archaeological evidence in tropical Australia for many years. I support the unorthodox idea that there is Aboriginal and botanical evidence for the development of farming in Australia well before European colonisation (Ellwood et al. 2009; see Publication list in CV).

I am also continuing my involvement in astrobiology and the search for the origins of life. Amongst other activities I presented a poster paper on ‘Exoarchaeology and Evolution’ at Origins 2011 (International Joint Astrobiology Conference) in Montpellier, France, in July 2011. I continue, as well, to do forensic work for the Queensland Police Service and Queensland Indigenous communities.

Download John Campbell's Curriculum Vitae


John Campbell Arachnologist
Caption: John Campbell in lab GCMS RY.