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Ancient rock art.

Department of Archaeology

Examining and preserving the material remains of our human past
Our department offers teaching and research in archaeology, the study of the material remains of the past.

Our academics and researchers have a broad range of expertise in archaeological method and theory including key areas of archaeometry, digital technology, archaeozoology, lithics and ceramics analysis. 

They conduct fieldwork in regions around the world, including East and Southeast Asia (Angkor in Cambodia), the Caucasus, China, Central Asia (Uzbekistan), the Middle East (Iran, Jordan), Africa and the Mediterranean (Cyprus, Greece, Italy) and Sri Lanka. Our teaching program reflects these regional interests.  

Our study offering

Learn how to reconstruct ancient cultures from the material residues of their activities and how to interpret archaeological evidence to influence the present. Gain an understanding of the methods and thinking with which archaeologists interpret past lives. Answer the most crucial questions about prehistoric and historic societies, and experience a far-reaching focus on Australia, the broader Near East and classical Mediterranean societies.



*Available to all students studying the Bachelor of ArtsBachelor of Economics and Bachelor of Visual Arts, as well as all combined Bachelor of Advanced Studies degrees.  

Archaeology guide and planner


Postgraduate coursework

Museum and Heritage Studies will equip you with a contextual understanding of core historical and theoretical developments in museum and heritage studies. You will learn the frameworks for managing collections and sites and develop a practical understanding of the modes of interpretation used in the museum and heritage sector.

Postgraduate Research

The research programs involve independent research work and the preparation of a thesis under the supervision of the director of the program, and other academic staff in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Our research

Time, Space, Place and Transformation

The research conducted within the Department of Archaeology is internationally recognised, encompassing the breadth and diversity of the human past, from early members of our species in Africa to historical Sydney. We strive to understand people and their behaviours through their social lives, technology, and settlements, as well as tracking human responses to climate and environmental changes.

Our research falls within five main themes, highlighting transformations over the course of human history, and the relevance of our research to contemporary issues.

Of immediate relevance to issues playing out around the world now, our research strives to understand the connections between people and their environments. As such, our research addresses issues of bio-cultural interactions and transitions, the shift from foraging to farming, resilience, fragility and environmental degradation, and palaeoecology.

We undertake projects in Australia, the Pacific, China, Sri Lanka, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, East and West Asia, and Greece.

Key Researchers:
Alison Betts, Lesley Beaumont, Annie Clarke, Keith Dobney, Patrick Faulkner, Roland Fletcher, James Flexner, Joseph Lehner, Margaret Miller, Amy Way

Academic Contacts:
Patrick Faulkner | Alison Betts

Our research encompasses a wide range of elements of the social lives of people in the past and present, including Community Archaeology, art, iconography and symbolism, religious systems, and the social history of childhood.

Although operating at a global scale, we have specific projects in Australia, Greece, and Western Asia.

Key Researchers:
Alison Betts, Lesley Beaumont, Annie Clarke, James Flexner, Margaret Miller, Ted Robinson
Academic Contacts:
Lesley Beaumont | Annie Clarke

Bridging archaeology, museums and heritage, and public archaeology, within this research theme our staff undertake research focused on issues of colonialism and cross-cultural engagement, heritage and communities, and Museums and collections.

This work is collaborative, involving First Nations people and a range of cultural institutions across Australia, the Pacific and Greece.

Key Researchers:
Annie Clarke, Lesley Beaumont, Patrick Faulkner, James Flexner, Margaret Miller, Ted Robinson, Amy Way

Academic Contacts: James Flexner | Annie Clarke

Incorporating elements of technology, material culture and materials science, research projects undertaken by our staff focus on human evolution and the transformation of technological systems, form and variation in material culture, and materials analysis (e.g., residues).

Geographically, this theme covers areas of Australia, the Pacific, eastern Africa, Oman and West Asia, Southeast Asia, and Italy.

Key Researchers:
Patrick Faulkner, Roland Fletcher, James Flexner, Joseph Lehner, Ted Robinson, Amy Way

Academic Contacts: Joseph Lehner | Roland Fletcher

Within this theme we explore the roots and development of urban societies, the trajectories of settlement growth, and exploring the connections between emerging, economic, and social complexity across diverse environmental and cultural contexts.

Our current research focuses on Central Asia, Greece, Southeast Asia, and Eurasia.

Key Researchers:
Alison Betts, Lesley Beaumont, Patrick Faulkner, Roland Fletcher, James Flexner, Joseph Lehner

Academic Contacts:
Roland Fletcher | James Flexner

Research centres

Our people

Undergraduate coordinator
Dr Ted Robinson

Honours coordinator
Dr Lesley Beaumont

Higher Degree Research coordinator
Professor Roland Fletcher

Fieldwork safety officer
Dr Ted Robinson  

Academic advisor
Dr Ted Robinson  

  • Valerie Attenbrow
  • Lea Beness
  • Jean (Judy) Birmingham
  • Stephen Bourke
  • Steve Brown
  • Mary Casey
  • Gino Caspari
  • Marie-Laure Chambrade
  • Kathryn Da Costa
  • Jean-Paul Descoeudres
  • Trudy Doelman
  • Smadar Gabrieli
  • Martin Gibbs
  • Ian Gilligan
  • J. Richard Green
  • Nicola Harrington
  • Andrew Hazewinkel
  • Thomas Hikade
  • Thomas Hillard
  • Professor Barbara Helwing
  • Thomas Hikade
  • Monica Jackson
  • WeiMing Jia
  • Ina Kehrberg-Ostrasz
  • Melissa Kennedy
  • Michael Knight
  • Nina Kononenko
  • Bernadette McCall
  • Nimal Perera
  • Christophe Pottier
  • David Pritchard
  • Wendy Reade
  • James Specht
  • Miriam Stark
  • Hugh Thomas
  • John Tidmarsh
  • Robin Torrence
  • Peter Veth
  • Ruth Ward
  • Karyn Wesselingh
  • John Peter White
  • Yasmina Wicks
  • Richard Wright
  • Abdul Zahir Youssofzay


Department of Archaeology Seminar Series

The Department of Archaeology is home to a number of seminar series and events:

  • Archaeology, Museums, Heritage and Material Culture Seminar Series
  • Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens (AAIA)
  • Classical Archaeology Seminar Series
  • Near Eastern Seminar Series (NESS)

Details of our seminars can be found on the SOPHI Events site.

How to register for our seminars

Tom Austen Brown Lecture

This annual lecture is made possible through the generosity of University of Sydney graduate Tom Austen Brown (LLB ’46 BA ’74).

In his early professional life, Tom was a lawyer but had the heart of an archaeologist, often searching for Aboriginal artefacts in the sand dunes and desert flats around Broken Hill, where he lived. Without realising it, he put together one of the most significant – yet unofficial – collections of Aboriginal stone artefacts in Australia. He completed archaeology studies at the University in 1973.

During his life, Tom gave $1.6 million to the University, and on his passing in 2009, left a $6.9 million bequest to the Department of Archaeology. Tom’s bequest has already created the Chair of Australian Archaeology, the first endowed chair of archaeology in the country to include Australia in its brief. There is also the Tom Austen Brown Grants Program for Prehistory.

Tom has helped create a future for Australia’s past.

Excavating a tropical paradise: The archaeology of Southern Vanuatu

Dr James Flexner
The Department of Archaeology | University of Sydney

19 November 2020

When considering the state of archaeology in the present, it’s easy to believe that everything has been ‘dug to death’ when imagining how much fieldwork has been done over the past century or more. This is far from the case in the Pacific region, where many remote and hard to reach islands have yet to see even limited excavations. In this talk I present the results of four years of archaeological fieldwork among the small islands of southern Vanuatu.

This collaborative project brought together archaeologists from research institutions in Australia, France, and Vanuatu. Starting from a position of relatively little information of even basic site locations or chronologies, particularly for the ‘Polynesian Outliers’ of Futuna and Aniwa, we were able to piece together relatively comprehensive histories of Islander resource use, settlement patterns, and regional interactions for this area over the last 3000 years. I will also consider briefly the potential for future research in the area, as the archaeology of southern Vanuatu still has plenty of secrets to reveal.

Click here to watch the lecture

From the desert to the sea:  symbolic transformations in the human journey in Australia’s north- west

Jo McDonald
Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research + Management
at the University of Western Australia

August 7 2019

The last decade has seen a revolution in understanding how and when Australia was initially settled.  Occupation evidence in a number of Australian bioregions now exceeds 50,000 years ago; revolutions in genetics brings new understandings of the complexities in the human journey out-of-Africa; and the first direct dating of Pleistocene rock art in south-east Asia, Australia and Europe means that we can now re-envisage how and when humans first started making rock art; and how this may be reflected in Australia’s earliest evidence for symbolic behaviour.

Murujuga (the Dampier Archipelago) juts into the Indian Ocean on the Pilbara coast in Australia’s north-west.  When people first started using this region 50,000 years ago, the coastline was more than 160km away. Murujuga rock art reveals the long-distance hypermobility of arid zone peoples at different times during its long occupation as well as differing human responses to major environmental changes through time.  Recent archaeological work reveals that the period after the last Ice Age – as the sea level rose – was a period of intense human interactions, with hunter-gatherer villages and intensive rock art production being signs of increased social and population pressure.  The engraved rock art of Murujuga provides a visual record for the entire human occupation of Australia’s north-west, up until the arrival of European explorers and north-American whalers in the early-mid 19th Century, and the Flying Foam Massacre in 1865.

Murujuga is on Australia’s National Heritage List because of its significant cultural and scientific value to the nation.  The Dampier Archipelago is also home to a major Pilbara industrial focus with iron ore and natural gas contributing significantly to Australia’s economy. Collaboration between researchers, Aboriginal community and industry is increasing our understanding of this Place’s cultural significance and contributing to its appropriate management in the face of development pressure.  Working with the Aboriginal community we are developing the case for this Place to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, to ensure that its values are protected for future generations of all Australians.  This lecture highlights how science and indigenous knowledge contributes to a better understanding of heritage values generally, and showcases recent findings from Murujuga: Dynamics of the Dreaming.

Jo McDonald is the Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research + Management at the University of Western Australia and holds the Rio Tinto Chair of Rock Art. Her PhD research in the Sydney Basin contextualized rock art production in the sandstone country while  her consultancy practice here developed better understandings of large- scale open-area sites working in western Sydney. She has studied the rock art of the Western Desert and Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga) for the last two decades, completing an ARC Future Fellowship focused on arid zone rock art in Australia and the USA. Jo has recently been the Lead Chief Investigator (CI) for the Murujuga: Dynamics of the Dreaming ARC Linkage Project, and is a CI on the Deep History of Sea Country ARC Project. She is currently working on rock art dating across the arid zone, and is developing a project with Aboriginal communities from the Western Desert and Pilbara coast on inter-generational and cross-cultural knowledge exchange.

Comparative ethnology and archaeology

3 August 2018

Dr Mark Collard, Canada Research Chair and Professor, Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Click here for the podcast

Comparative ethnology is the practice of comparing and contrasting the features of large samples of human societies. Also known as cross-cultural analysis, it has a long association with archaeology. For example, the pioneering archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers was also an exponent of comparative ethnology. Similarly, the career-capping book of the most influential archaeologist of the second half of the 20th century, Lewis Binford, is a work of comparative ethnology. However, comparative ethnology has never been considered a key archaeological tool. In this talk, I will argue that it should be. Drawing on my own work and that of colleagues, I will show that there are both theoretical and practical reasons for archaeologists to enthusiastically embrace comparative ethnology. Adding it to the techniques that we expect archaeology undergraduate students to know will enable the discipline to make faster progress with the task of making sense of the patterns in the archaeological record.

Sentient seascapes: the archaeology of ritual engagements with the marine realm

11 August 2017

Professor Ian J McNiven, Monash University

There is an old saying in archaeology that if you find something that is behaviourally odd or out-of-the-ordinary then label it ritual. Yet for Australian Indigenous societies, ritual practices, especially those of a socio-religious nature, are anything but out-of-the-ordinary. 

Ritual practices are fundamental to how Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders direct their lives and relate to each other, to the spiritual realm, and to the broader world. As such, understanding the nature and long-term development of past rituals and ceremonial practices provides enormous scope for archaeologists to create historical narratives that express human and spiritual agency and intentionality that resonate with Indigenous worldviews. 

In this paper, I explore the history of Torres Strait Islander ritual practices over the past 1000 years from an ethnographically informed archaeological perspective. We will start with the materiality of ritual practices as known ethnographically through historical texts, museum objects, and contemporary Islander views. Critically, many ritual practices also involved shrines comprising objects such as shells, bones, artefacts, and stone figures that can be studied archaeologically and radiocarbon dated. Results reveal successive use of shrines expressed through constant additions of objects over hundreds of years. 

These chronologies not only define the temporal limits of ethnographically known practices back in time, but also position shrines as historically dynamic and ever-emergent works-in-progress. The ever-changing materiality of shrines was an expression of ritual constancy and historical continuity in the socio-religious lives of Torres Strait Islanders.

Environmental conservation and archaeology

8 August 2016

Dr Steve Wolverton, University of North Texas 

Archaeologists contribute data and perspectives to conservation biology, restoration ecology and environmental science. Although zooarchaeology, and to a lesser extent archaeobotany, have led the way, what archaeology truly has to offer stems from the unique nature of the discipline. Archaeology is the only field of study that offers a long-term record of human-environmental interactions. There are two major contributions that archaeologists provide conservationists, one philosophical and one empirical. The value of archaeology in environmental conservation is easily demonstrated through exemplary case studies.

Fellowship opportunities

This program funds an annual fellowship for one of the centre's collaborators (the Department of Classics and Ancient History, the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, the Department of Archaeology and the Near Eastern Archaeology Foundation). The Apollo Fellowship encourages collaboration between international and local scholars.

The fellowship is open to young scholars from any country outside Australia within three years after the award of their PhD. Students in the final stages of the writing of their PhD thesis may also apply, if they can demonstrate the benefit of consulting academic expertise at the University of Sydney for the completion of their doctorate.

Applications are closed

The Apollo Program offers a short‐term Visiting Fellowship at the Centre for Classical and Near Eastern Studies of Australia (CCANESA) at The University of Sydney, for tenure during the Australian academic year.

Banner image: Aboriginal rock art at Yankee Hat in Namadgi National Park, ACT. Photo by James Flexner.

Department Chair

Professor Annie Clarke

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