Indigenous Archaeologies: Australian Perspective

  • Christopher WilsonEmail author
  • Kelly D. Wiltshire
Living reference work entry


Indigenous archaeologies are a methodological approach that not only emphasizes collaboration with Indigenous peoples at every stage of research but also seeks to privilege Indigenous philosophies and knowledges in order to decolonize archaeological research and practice. Within the Australian context, the foundations of Indigenous archaeologies emerged in response to historical inequalities and continuing colonial nature of traditional archaeological research, which were at the forefront of debates within the discipline in the 1980s. The resulting emergence of “community-based archaeologies” in the 1990s coupled with the influence of postcolonial critiques of archaeological practice within international literature provided the basis for Indigenous archaeologies in Australian to establish its roots. Some of the critical issues that have been debated under the rhetoric of Indigenous archaeologies within Australia include repatriation of human remains and cultural objects; culturally appropriate archaeological methods; ethical standards and codes of ethics; intellectual and cultural property rights; cultural heritage management and legislative frameworks; as well as the impact of development and mining on cultural and archaeological sites of significance. Today, Indigenous archaeologies form a large subfield of Australian archaeology where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledge, interests, and concerns are considered crucial to the broader archaeological inquiry, despite the still developing nature of the theoretical framework within an Australia context.


Indigenous archaeologies are not archaeological practice about Indigenous peoples but rather practice that “is informed by Indigenous values and agendas” (Smith and Wobst 2005: 15). Indigenous archaeologies emphasize a number of key objectives that seek to challenge, reconceptualize, and transform traditional archaeological practices, including archaeological research that is initiated and controlled by Indigenous people while privileging Indigenous philosophies, interests, aspirations, agendas, and concerns (see Atalay 2007, 2008; Nicholas 2008, 2010; Nicholas and Andrews 1997; Smith and Wobst 2005; Watkins 2000). As a result, Indigenous archaeologies are considered to be a “change in mindset” (Smith and Wobst 2005: 7) toward Western forms of archaeological practices that can only emerge by undertaking collaborative or community-initiated research. In doing so, Indigenous archaeologies are considered a tool for engaging in the broader “decolonization project” in Indigenous research that has global significance for the recognition of Indigenous rights (Nicholas 2010).

Similar to gender, feminist, and queer archaeologies, Indigenous archaeologies are distinguished from other types of traditional archaeological practice both in terms of its ideological and methodological approach, which continues to broaden both theoretically and practically as Indigenous peoples progressively engage and thus transform archaeological theory and methods. Nicholas (2008: 1660) presents the broad scope of Indigenous archaeology in the following way:

Indigenous archaeology is an expression of archaeological theory and practice in which the discipline intersects with Indigenous values, knowledge, practices, ethics, sensibilities, and through collaborative and community-originated or community-directed projects related critical perspectives. Indigenous archaeology seeks to (1) make archaeology more representative of, responsible to, and relevant for Indigenous communities; (2) redress real and perceived inequalities in the practice of archaeology; and (3) inform and broaden the understanding and interpretation of the archaeological record through the incorporation of Aboriginal worldviews, histories, and science. In its broadest sense, Indigenous archaeology may be defined as any one or more of the following: (1) the active participation or consultation of Indigenous peoples in archaeology; (2) a political statement concerned with issues of Aboriginal self-government, sovereignty, land rights, identity, and heritage; (3) a postcolonial enterprise designed to decolonize the discipline; (4) a manifestation of Indigenous epistemologies; (5) the basis for alternative models of cultural heritage management or stewardship; (6) the product of choices and actions made by individual archaeologists; (7) a means of empowerment and cultural revitalization or political resistance; and (8) an extension, evaluation, critique, or application of current archaeological theory.

Indigenous archaeology is more than just an investigation of the past by archaeologists. It is a social, cultural, and political movement that can be a powerful tool for Indigenous peoples in redressing wrongs of the past; reclaiming cultural identity, cultural reaffirmation, and cultural revitalization; and maintaining heritage. As described by Piikani Nation archaeologist Eldon Yellowhorn (2006: 137), internalist archaeology has reconceptualized archaeological practice from an Indigenous perspective which reclaims the archaeological record and connections to land through oral narratives in the local archaeological record.
In Australia, archaeological research done under the auspices of Indigenous archaeologies may seek to utilize creation knowledge, oral histories, lived experiences, and understandings to complement the knowledge derived from archaeological traces and interpretations of the past. Indigenous archaeologies in Australia will also draw upon non-Indigenous written texts from various disciplines including anthropology, history, linguistics, politics, sociology, and cultural studies to form a more comprehensive version about the past that privileges Indigenous philosophies, knowledges, and understandings.
Fig. 1

Ngarrindjeri archaeologist Chris Wilson excavating shell middens at Murrurundi, South Australia. (Photo courtesy of Duncan Wright)

Historical Background

While Indigenous peoples have never been passive bystanders to archaeology, archaeologists, and the closely related collecting activities of nonprofessional amateurs, the formative years of Australian professional archaeology are characterized by research that was mostly undertaken on and about rather than “with, for, and by” (Nicholas and Andrews 1997: 3) Australian Aboriginal people; however, some exceptions exists. During her regional field surveys of the New England area of northeast New South Wales during the 1960s, pioneering Australian archaeologist Isabel McBryde sought out and interviewed local Aboriginal community members, “with the belief that a conversation over a cup a tea could yield as much historical insight as a week in the field” (Griffiths 2018: 44). McBryde would later go on to strongly advocate for Aboriginal people’s involvement in site protection as a means to control their own heritage. McBryde, however, considers her proudest achievement is the number of Aboriginal students she helped to become archaeologists, including Robyn Bancroft, Mark Dugay-Grist, and Dave Johnson (Griffiths 2018: 49; see Fig. 2). In the early 1990s, while head of the Department of Archaeology at ANU, McBryde hosted the first major cohort (approximately 10) of Indigenous students undertaking archaeology (Kellie Pollard 2010 pers. comm.). Many of these students completed their undergraduate degrees and constituted the largest group of Indigenous Australians to receive academic training as archaeologists.
Fig. 2

Indigenous archaeologists Dave Johnson, Mark Dugay-Grist, Robyn Bancroft, Ricky Mullet, Ron Heron, and Sam Wickman with Isabel McBryde at the Australian National University, May 2001. (Photo courtesy of Dave Johnson)

During the 1960s when Australian professional archaeology was still in its infancy, Indigenous peoples were strongly advocating for basic human rights and were officially recognized in the Australian constitution during the 1967 Referendum (the 1967 Referendum meant that laws could be made [for the better or detriment] on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that they could be counted in the census). Although this was a symbolic gesture, ideologies about the “extinction” of “traditional” Indigenous people were still prevalent. In the following year, Australian geomorphologist Jim Bowler discovered Mungo Lady’s eroding burial at Lake Mungo in western New South Wales, which triggered further archaeological investigations in the area that continue today. In the mid-1970s, radiocarbon dates at Lake Mungo pushed the human occupation of Australian back to 36,000 BP, receiving international media coverage and garnering great public interest in Australia’s Aboriginal heritage. With the changing political landscape within Australia during the 1960s and 1970s, including increased Aboriginal political movements to reassert and regain control over their heritage, culture, and identity, archaeological investigations at Lake Mungo became a focal point for debates around “who owns the past.” In the decades that followed, the fate of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man’s ancestral remains were also at the center of repatriation debates, culminating in their eventual return to the Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi, and Ngiyampaa Aboriginal communities in 1992 and 2017.

In the early 1980s, the Australian archaeological profession experienced a watershed moment in the form of a speech entitled “Our Heritage, Your Playground” delivered by Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Rosaline Langford (1983) at the Australian Archaeological Association meeting in Hobart. In delivering this speech, Langford held archaeologists accountable for their past practices by arguing:

The issue is control. You seek to say that as scientists you have a right to obtain and study information of our culture. You seek to say that because you are Australians you have a right to study and explore our heritage because it is a heritage to be shared by all Australians, white and black. From our point of view we say you have come as invaders, you have tried to destroy our culture, you have built your fortunes upon the lands and bodies of our people and now, having said sorry, want a share in picking out the bones of what you regard as a dead past. We say that it is our past, our culture and heritage, and forms part of our present life. As such it is ours to control and it is ours to share on our terms. That is the Central Issue in this debate. (Langford 1983: 2)

This speech and the growing sentiment surrounding it promoted further debates and discussion around “who owns the past,” laying the groundwork for forging relationships between archaeologists and Indigenous peoples. As pointed out by anthropologist Gary Jackson and Australian archaeologist Claire Jackson and Smith (2005), significant changes emerged at this time contributing to the early stages of Indigenous archaeologies. These were identified as obtaining permission for fieldwork from Indigenous communities, involvement of Indigenous colleagues, access to sites and knowledge, control over publications, and dissemination of knowledge. Several key organizations and documents were also produced including the Australian Archaeological Association’s (AAA) Code of Ethics in 1991, which was drafted by Indigenous archaeologist Dave Johnson following the adoption of a similar code internationally by the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in 1990 and began to shape archaeological research and “best practice.” In response to the continuing colonial nature of archaeological practice, important postcolonial critiques of archaeological and related practices also emerged. As Australian archaeologist Shelley Greer (2010: 48) points out, “the community-based response was to turn away from universalist archaeological concerns to documenting local Indigenous interests in heritage. Archaeology was put in the service of local Indigenous heritage, often engaging with anthropology in order to better understand and appreciate Indigenous practice.” While community-based archaeologies provided the basis for Indigenous archaeologies to establish its roots, the influence of emerging international literature, particularly from the United States (see Nicholas and Andrews 1997; Watkins 2000), allowed Indigenous archaeologies within an Australian context to flourish. Given the similarities that exist between Indigenous archaeologies and community-based archaeologies, these terms are often used interchangeably to refer to the same approach; however, Choctaw Nation archaeologist Dorothy Lippert (2016) maintains Indigenous archaeologies that is distinct from community-based archaeology due to its efforts to decolonize the discipline as well as work collaboratively with Indigenous communities.

Key Issues/Current Debates

While Indigenous archaeologies exist as a subfield within Australian archaeology, many would argue the principles of Indigenous archaeologies are today integrated as part of standard archaeological practice; however, the current debates that emerge from contemporary practice are still focused on primary issues including “who owns the past,” demonstrating ongoing engagement with Indigenous peoples and the approaches of Indigenous archaeologies is still required to further decolonize the discipline. In other words, simply working collaboratively with Indigenous peoples does not necessarily result in archaeological practice that is decolonized; reflexivity is the key to ensure archaeological practice is ethically, politically, and socially engaged with Indigenous interests, aspirations, and agendas. As Gabrieliño (Tongva) Nation archaeologist Desireé Reneé Martinez (2014: 3776) points out, “an archaeologist cannot speak ethically about a community’s past if they do not engage its present and understand their role in it.”

Consequently, Greek archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis (2007: 23–25) argues archaeologists have ceased to engage in the ethical or political implications of archaeology, with politically engaged archaeology now absent from the discipline. Recent critiques regarding the ethical and political nature of archaeology claim the adoption of ethical codes and best practice doctrines by the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA), and other organizations has effectively “closed-off” or sanctioned the politics of archaeological practice from further consideration (Hamilakis 2007). Hamilakis (2007: 23) refers to ethical codes as a “decoy” used to avoid the political nature of archaeology. Furthermore, he interprets ethical codes:

…as a tool, as a purely technical device, that can be used to achieve something else, most commonly to continue doing archaeology as normal, to declare that it is ‘business as usual’, now with the additional advantage of a clear ethical consciousness. (Hamilakis 2007: 24)

In many respects, the same argument could be made in regard to the adoption of the collaborative approach of Indigenous archaeologies, which also allows archaeology to carry on “business as usual” under the assumption that archaeological practice is universally beneficial to those with whom one is collaborating (cf. Hamilakis 2007: 24). In line with this argument, adopting a collaborative approach does not necessarily guarantee research is ethically, politically, and socially engaged with the concerns of collaborative partners.

Others argue a reflexive approach is essential to consider the ways in which positivist assumptions influence archaeological practice, in order to address the marginalization of Indigenous philosophies and interests (Giddings 2006: 200). A reflexive approach also allows for consideration of the asymmetrical power structures and unethical tendencies that are maintained by positivism, including the privileged position of a researcher to produce knowledges that may marginalize Indigenous philosophies and interests despite a collaborative approach (cf. Smith 1999: 176). Without such, positivism can remain the dominant paradigm through which the results of collaborative archaeological practice are interpreted. In doing so, the collaborative approach of Indigenous archaeologies is no more than “positivism dressed in drag,” where positivism is simply given a “new guise” in order for research to proceed (Giddings 2006: 198, 200). That being said, researchers occupy a unique position in knowledge production with the capacity to engage with the ethical and political nature of their research and to undertake research that is ethically and politically responsible in order to challenge this marginalization (Hemming et al. 2010: 101). According to Hemming et al. (2010: 96–97), research that seeks to challenge the marginalization of Indigenous rights, responsibilities, and interests is the basis for research that is ethical, politically, and socially engaged. The combination of collaborative and reflexive approaches is essential in order to undertake ethical and politically engaged research. Without a reflexive approach, we pat ourselves on the back for being progressive and fail to engage with ongoing ethical and political nature of our research. Therefore, collaborative and reflexive approaches go hand in hand to ensure an ethically, politically, and socially engaged archaeology is ethically, politically, and socially responsible archaeology.

In addition to this, the politics of representation and the relationships between archaeologists and Indigenous peoples has been explored (see Davidson et al. 1995). This relationship which began as early as the 1930s with Indigenous peoples as “informants” and slowly progressed to involving Indigenous peoples throughout all aspects of the research process including the research design, consultation, ethics, fieldwork, and dissemination of information. It is this relationship and its development that continues to be a topical issue. Smith et al. (1994: 13) suggest that the traditional strength of Australian archaeology has been the analysis of sociopolitical issues including the relationships between archaeologists and Indigenous peoples and the change in power and control Indigenous communities have reclaimed over their cultural heritage. This type of Indigenous archaeology which has also been termed “community-based archaeology” (Greer et al. 2002) began to shape much of the standard of archaeological research within Australia. During the 1980s and 1990s, debates related to ethics and the repatriation of “Old Peoples” remains placed pressure on disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology to become more culturally inclusive with research practices and ethics which included the deconstruction of past processual practices and decolonizing archaeology itself (see Smith 1999; Smith and Wobst 2005). Some of the key issues that continue to be debated include:
  • The repatriation of human remains and cultural objects from collecting institutions

  • The process of archaeological research, practices, and ethical standards

  • Intellectual and cultural property rights

  • Cultural heritage management and legislative frameworks

  • The impact of mining, industrial waste and natural resource management, and housing development on cultural and archaeological sites of significance

International Perspectives

Internationally Indigenous archaeologies were first defined by American and Canadian archaeologists George Nicholas and Thomas D. Andrews (1997: 3) as archaeological practice undertaken “with, for, and by Indigenous peoples.” Indigenous archaeologies were later popularized by the publication of Indigenous Archaeology: American Indian Values and Scientific Practice (2000) by Choctaw Nation archaeologist Joe Watkins. The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) has also played a significant role in the development of Indigenous Archaeologies, with WAC conferences providing an international forum to discuss ideas and opportunities for Indigenous archaeologists (i.e., archaeologists who identify as Indigenous) to share their experiences. During the 2016 WAC conference in Kyoto, Japan, Choctaw Nation archaeologist Dorothy Lippert expressed the importance of WAC in her personal and professional development due to these international networking opportunities (Lippert 2016).

As the pluralized nature of Indigenous archaeologies suggests, there are varying ways to undertake Indigenous archaeologies that reflect the dynamic experiences, knowledges, and cultures of Indigenous peoples globally this approach seeks to privilege (Atalay 2008: 30). Despite this, the experiences within Australia are similar to those internationally; the approaches utilized in Indigenous archaeologies are often developed using models from Indigenous researchers, such as Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Maori academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999), as well as Indigenous archaeologists themselves (i.e., Indigenous peoples who are formally trained in archaeology). Specifically, the Indigenous research agenda described by Maori academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999: 116–117) has helped inform the way in which many Indigenous peoples are approaching archaeology in Australia. Smith’s (1999) “Indigenous Research Agenda” privileges Indigenous epistemologies and acknowledges that Indigenous researchers also have a responsibility to ensure that research is conducted in culturally appropriate ways. Such an agenda ensures that elders or senior leaders are not simply entering into a process of “negotiation” but rather have complete control over the research process including the proposals, development, methodology, interpretations, and dissemination of information back to the community in a culturally appropriate and comprehensive manner. This approach considers complex issues relating to power imbalances and thus draws upon critical theory, postcolonial theory, standpoint theory, and decolonization of research practice (Atalay 2007, 2008; Smith 1999; Smith and Wobst 2005; Watkins 2000). Therefore, it is an Indigenist framework developed for and by Indigenous peoples that is theoretically situated within post-processual and interpretative archaeologies – which ultimately reject a positivist view of science in search of new meanings and interpretations of the past. The issues that “Indigenous archaeologists” encounter in the research process are experiences discussed by many North American archaeologists (i.e., Nicholas 2010; Watkins 2000) and are critical for understanding relationships between the researcher and the “subject” in any research project involving Indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, Anishinaabe kwe Nation archaeologist Sonya Atalay (2007) has discussed the use of Indigenous archaeologies for broader contexts. She highlighted the importance of “community-based participatory research” in Turkey, which involved archaeologists working closely with local people in understanding their cultural heritage. Atalay (2007: 253) argues that Indigenous archaeology is on the periphery of mainstream archaeological practices and is essentially a “practice that foregrounds knowledge and experiences of Indigenous peoples to inform and influence Western archaeologies as part of the decolonisation of the discipline.” It is an approach that has global implications and can extend beyond Indigenous communities (i.e., local communities) – such as how it was applied by Atalay at Catalhoyuk, Turkey. It is evident through her research that some key components of this approach include identifying her privileged position, foregrounding local knowledge and experiences, practicing of socially just research that has positive effects on contemporary communities, collaborative archaeology and the incorporation of worldviews, positive processes of decolonization, long-term goals and programs, working with communities to develop research questions based on community needs, using local knowledge about the best way to conduct research, and a flexible research plan and strategy. All these components are key to any research project regardless of ethnicity and therefore challenge the concept of “Indigenous archaeology.”

Future Directions

While Indigenous archaeologies as a methodological approach have progressed since it developed in the 1990s, some maintain Indigenous archaeologies is still developing. Choctaw Nation archaeologist Dorothy Lippert (2016) argues Indigenous archaeologies “is not widespread...[and] we need to think about how Indigenous archaeology draws in and addresses colonial legacies and seeks to dismantle power structures that prevent Indigenous people from fully participating in sciences.” In the article “Theoretical challenges of Indigenous archaeology: setting the agenda,” Australian archaeologist Ian McNiven (2016) points out that Indigenous archaeologies have focused on collaborative aspects of archaeological practice and the move toward decolonization. As a result, the theoretical framework for Indigenous archaeologies is still yet to be defined and remain mostly aspiration (also see Atalay 2008: 29). In addition to this, the contribution of Indigenous archaeologies to archaeological interpretation also remains underdeveloped, with Western archaeological knowledges maintaining an overall privileged position in the interpretation of archaeological materials. In order to address this lack of theorization as well as the privileged position archaeological knowledges maintain, McNiven (2016) argues addressing the dichotomies that lie at the heart of Western archaeological practice is key for producing understandings that privilege Indigenous philosophies and understandings.

Despite this, the exact constituents forming Indigenous Australian archaeologies are still in a process of discussion, debate, and transformation as more Indigenous peoples became actively involved in education, training, and research in archaeology and cultural heritage. With these arguments in mind, the full potential of Indigenous archaeologies in Australia has yet to be realized, partly due to the underrepresentation of Indigenous people within the discipline. For the most part, Indigenous archaeologies within an Australian context mostly refer to collaboration between non-Indigenous archaeologists and Indigenous community, rather than Indigenous archaeologists working for Indigenous communities (McNiven 2016: 28). This observation is supported by a decade-long survey undertaken by the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA), which reports the participation of Indigenous Australians in professional archaeology is low with Indigenous archaeologists (i.e., archaeologists who identify as Indigenous) comprising 2.3% of respondents in 2005 compared to 2.8% of respondents in 2015 (Mate and Ulm 2016: 171); however, this low percentage seems to reflect the low participation rates in the survey rather than being an accurate reflection of the archaeological profession, where it is estimated more than 20 archaeologists who identify as Indigenous are active in Australia (Mate and Ulm 2016: 172). Overall the survey concludes “the continued low participation rates of professionally qualified Indigenous archaeologists remain a challenge for the discipline” (Mate and Ulm 2016: 181).

In order to support and increase the number of Indigenous people participating in the archaeological profession, the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA) funds an Indigenous subsidy scheme for attendance to its annual conference, includes Indigenous Liaison Officer positions on its national executive committee, and it is currently drafting a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP); however, the AAA does not offer study scholarships equivalent to the Society of American Archaeology’s (SAA) Native American Scholarships Fund, which was established in 1998 to support Indigenous peoples of America, Alaska, and Hawaii in their undergraduate and graduate archaeology education. In 2010 the Australian Indigenous Archaeologists Association (AIAA) was established with the support from the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA) in hopes of promoting the active engagement of Indigenous people in archaeology and increase the number working as professional archaeologists; however, the impact this organization has had on increasing participation rates of Indigenous people within the archaeological profession is hard to measure. Despite this, the current AIAA chair and Indigenous archaeologist Dave Johnson has organized a number of sessions at the AAA’s annual conference specifically to showcase archaeological practice and research undertaken by Indigenous peoples across Australia.

In recent years a small number of Indigenous Australians have either embarked upon and completed PhDs in archaeology; however, comparing this to US situation where at least 20 Indigenous people have PhDs in archaeology (Lippert 2016), the small number of Indigenous peoples who have completed formal degrees in archaeology continues to be evident. Although the reasons for this have not been clearly identified and there have been no studies to address the issues to date, there are several reasons including the immediate employment of Indigenous graduates in government agencies and other organizations, the attractiveness of private consulting, and the commitment that Indigenous people already have in regard to caring for country as well as the fact that there may be few opportunities to leave current cultural and family obligations to undertake full-time studies. What is evident is that Indigenous people engaging in the research, management, and protection of cultural heritage within their communities do not have the time or resources to leave the community to pursue academic scholarship – particularly the sustained study that is required for a doctoral thesis. Increasing participation and retention of Indigenous peoples in archaeology, cultural heritage management, and environmental sciences is therefore of critical importance. The representation of Indigenous archaeologists across all year levels (undergraduate through to research higher degree) must occur, as well as in all sectors that involve care, management, protection of Indigenous cultural heritage, as well as intellectual engagement through academic and community-driven research projects. What is required is a stronger commitment to training cultural heritage “caretakers” through the implementation of archaeology and cultural heritage scholarships, cadetships, and research awards that plan for success across all degree programs from undergraduate to doctorate level.

In summary, Indigenous archaeologies within Australia have undergone significant change and transformation, since the initial development of Australian archaeology as a discipline in the 1950s; however, there is still a gross underrepresentation of Indigenous peoples participating in the discipline despite archaeology being professionally practiced in Australia for over 50 years. Although there is greater public awareness of the importance of Indigenous people, culture, and knowledge in Australia, mining exploration and urban development continue to impact on Indigenous cultural heritage and archaeological places of importance to our shared history. The complexities of these issues continue to be discussed and debated, and what becomes apparent is the continuous struggle for Indigenous recognition in a period of great political uncertainty for Indigenous communities who continue to feel the impact of colonialism. There will continue to be challenges for Indigenous archaeologies in Australia until issues of nationalism and representation of Indigenous peoples as a First Nation are negotiated. In short, it would seem that Australia is yet to realize the full potential of undertaking archaeology “with, for, and by” Indigenous peoples.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Humanities Arts and Social SciencesFlinders UniversityAdelaideAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anke Hein
    • 1
  1. 1.School of ArchaeologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK