This paper examines how the past of desert landscapes has been interpreted since European explorers and scientists first encountered them. It charts the research that created the conceptual space within which archaeologists and Quaternarists now work. Studies from the 1840s–1960s created the notion of a ‘Great Australian Arid Period'. The 1960s studies of Lake Mungo and the Willandra Lakes by Jim Bowler revealed the cyclical nature of palaeolakes, that changed with climate changes in the Pleistocene, and the complexity of desert pasts. SLEADS and other researchers in the 1980s used thermoluminescence techniques that showed further complexities in desert lands beyond the Willandra particularly through new studies in the Strzelecki and Simpson Dunefields, Lake Eyre, Lake Woods and Lake Gregory. Australian deserts are varied and have very different histories. Far from ‘timeless lands', they have carried detailed information about long-term climate changes on continental scales.