By Helen Cronin, Master of Archaeology student. You can also read more of Helen’s work at her personal blog.
Portuguese archaeologist Leonor Medeiros’s contribution to the Day of Archaeology 2011 project was a lament.
I still feel tormented by the fact that, after you dig a site, and discover so much about it, that information is going to only a few people, and most of the sites are left to be destroyed or abandoned.
Her words echo my own feelings. The temporary exhibition I am working on as an intern will show Bendigo residents what was happening behind the fence two years ago before a new office building was constructed. But it is an unusual case. The archaeology associated with most development sites in Australia goes exactly the same way as Medeiros’s Portuguese sites. The consultant archaeologists write a report and hand it over to the developer or land owner. The artefacts disappear into a warehouse. The local paper might have carried a couple of stories about the excavation while it was happening, but that’s about it.
Archaeology for the sake of it
Why do we bother? It seems a pointless exercise to investigate archaeological sites simply for the sake of it. The Victorian Heritage Act 1995 (which does not apply to Aboriginal cultural heritage) only states that its purpose is:
to provide for the protection and conservation of places and objects of cultural heritage significance and the registration of such places and objects
It is not in the nature of legislation to question its own existence, but to what end are we protecting and conserving cultural heritage if no-one knows about it? Why excavate a site if the locals who would be most interested by dint of their connections to the place never hear the story of the site? What is the point of heritage if it doesn’t contribute to people’s sense of themselves as a part of a place because they know more of its history.
Contract archaeology is driven by funding imperatives. The developer funds the excavation reluctantly; the archaeologist must get the work done in a limited time frame and has no budget for the niceties of interpretation for a non-specialist audience. But just for a moment, put aside all those funding and resource constraints and imagine what archaeology with a purpose beyond fulfilling legislative requirements might look like.
Both kids and adults are fascinated by archaeology as the Port Arthur Kids Dig program demonstrates. Photo A. Kinsela
- There would be real community involvement.
Instead of peering through a cyclone wire fence as they walk past, people could volunteer to help – anyone from primary school kids to retirees. People are fascinated by archaeology. Getting your hands dirty is a great way to connect with your local history. And connecting with your local history generally means you’re more willing and interested in protecting and conserving it because it means something to you. (See the Council for British Archaeology, which welcomes volunteers, for example.)
- There would be broader and more direct communications.
Podcasts from the archaeologists, blog entries, Facebook pages, YouTube posts, Tweets, a display at the library or council offices. This would give a much better sense of how archaeology is done and how stories emerge and change as the work goes on.
- The reports would contain at least a summary targetted at a non-specialist audience and copies would be lodged with the local library. (See Tales of the Vasco, for example which was part of a final report and tells stories about the site based on the archaeological evidence.)
Yes, it’s probably fanciful. But nothing really changes if you don’t have a vision first, does it?
In mid-September I visited the South Australian Museum Archives to locate images that were to be used on the interpretive signage at Ngaut Ngaut. This aspect of the project was also approved by the Mannum Aboriginal Community Association Inc. (MACAI). Dr Amy Roberts had given me some ideas as to what to look for and I had a list of index numbers that corresponded to relevant archive collections. Throughout the process of content creation Amy had found a few images that she wanted to use on the signs. The problem was that these copies had very low resolutions. My archives visit was aimed at finding the original images and organising high-quality 600 dpi copies of the photographs and field book sketches.
I am half way through my practicum at the Department of Indigenous Affairs in Western Australia. Presently the department is going through an Act review. This is looking at the act and then seeing whether it applies or is utilised? The lawyer consults with all the members and understands what happens in the department according to the act.
One of the interesting aspects is how Western Australia separates objects and sites in its legislation of protection. One of the problems with this is that it is becoming difficult to understand the role of the DIA in its protection of objects and whether it has the resources to protect thousands of objects.
However the most interesting aspect is how university has prepared me for this type of environment. Mark Staniforth’s Maritime Archaeology unit consistently compared other acts, the positives and negatives and the AHA review meeting looked at various other state government acts. It showed the realities of tutorials at university are not separate from the everyday life that government departments around the country experience day-to-day.
The AHA review runs twice a week with different branches of heritage all getting their say for two hours. It would be good to see with this level of consultation that the Department of Indigenous Affairs legislation becomes all the stronger into the future on the community’s trust in the department to protect the sites and objects of the various indigenous groups around Western Australia.
So much is changing in Aboriginal cultural heritage protection and regulation in NSW it is little wonder I missed the date for my 3rd blog post. Apologies to all. The Omnibus bill went before the Upper house on Monday night. It was accepted with very minor changes. The amended version must go back before the Lower house but never the less is progressing towards applying in the not too distant future.
In the words of Director General in April this year:- “This Bill, introduced in Parliament on 25 February 2010, is the first phase of broad Aboriginal Cultural Heritage reform, It will implement Government’s decision to make changes to the National Parks and Wildlife Act and improve enforcement and operation of the regulatory provisions relating to Aboriginal cultural heritage.
Government has also committed to considering a stand along piece of Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation and a Working Party is being established to develop proposals over the next two years” (DECCW 2010).
The new reforms will provide for the imposing of much more appropriate penalties for impacts on Aboriginal cultural heritage in NSW.
I cannot help but wonder where the new changes will take us. It appears to me that many Aboriginal people have spent a lot of years attempting to move archaeological and scientific thinking towards a holistic understanding of our environment. Acknowledgement of the cultural landscape. The connection between the natural and the cultural and the evidence of that continuing relationship.
Separating the two values of Aboriginal life for protection and regulatory purposes: the natural resources and the cultural use of them may not be the step forward that many seek.
As I mentioned last post, for my directed study in Cultural Heritage Management I am working with Griffith University’s Indigenous Research Network to attempt to find answers to some of the many concerns and issues that arose as part of Griffith’s whole of university approach to the development and implementation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undergraduate curricula.
My current work with the New South Wales Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (NSW DECCW) in their Environmental Protection and Regulation Group (EPRG) based in Coffs Harbour has seen me back to witness the roll out of the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Consultation Requirements for Proponents – Part 6 National and Wildlife Act 1974, released for immediate implementation on the 12/04/2010. The consultation workshops as part of the review prior to the release of the new requirements was commenced in early 2008 during my last period of employment with the Department.
The new requirements came from a long process and included the release of interim guidelines in 2005 as well as the extensive consultation with Aboriginal stakeholders and others across the NSW. The purpose was to provide a level of legal regulation around the consultation expected with Aboriginal groups prior to proposed impact to Aboriginal objects or places.
The new guidelines which are available on the DECCW website provides only regulation of proposed development that may require an Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit (AHIP) it is not binding on the other planning process that have the potential to impact Aboriginal cultural heritage in NSW, though they are strongly recommended as a best practice procedure.
How well the new requirements will identify and engage with the appropriate people to speak for Country in any proposed development will have to be seen as times goes on.