Tag Archives: Indigenous Archaeology

Controversy and Ethical dilemmas of the rock art discovery at the Coalpac Invincible Colliery, NSW

Map of the area

Image: Map of the area

Since 1989 the company known as Coalpac has been operating in the Lithgow area of the central Blue Mountains, New South Wales. Over that time there have been some environmental issues with the Invincible Colliery. When Coalpac applied for a modification to its mining license to allow for an expansion in 2010, there arose a number of concerns amongst the local community. These concerns were of an environmental nature and the community began lobbying the NSW government to deny the application. Coalpac commissioned an environmental impact statement which satisfied the government requirements by early 2013 and it seemed likely that the application would be accepted (Coalpac 2014b). What happened next is an example of the ethical and professional dilemmas faced by archaeologists employed within the mining industry.

In 2010, Coalpac as part of the environmental impact statement conducted an archaeological survey of the area concerned. The survey was conducted by two archaeology consultants from a mining engineering firm, employed by Coalpac and three representatives of the Wiradjuri people, the local Indigenous community (Coalpac 2012:4-5). In April of 2014 members of the Lithgow Environment Group found a stencil of a handprint in a cave which had not been identified by the Coalpac survey. The presence of the hand stencil was raised with the NSW government as was the validity of the heritage assessment undertaken by Coalpac. The stencil was described as being ‘obvious’ and distinct from the rock face, so how did the survey team miss it? (Hepworth 2014).

Hand Stencil

Image: The hand stencil in question

The original consultants were called in again to have another look and they concluded that the hand stencil motif did not match with other rock art in the area. Furthermore since the rock wall was prone to cracking and flaking due to water flow the stencil could not be of ‘significant’ age. Coalpac declared the motif to be only 3½ years of age at most (drawn since the original survey in 2010) and went as far as declaring it to be a phony (Coalpac 2014a). It should be noted however, that if the stencil was real and the original team missed it the first time, why use them again? Coalpac appeared to acting based on an assumption that the stencil was fake before conducting the second survey. If that was the case was the survey team instructed or encouraged to find that the stencil was modern? Certainly the Australian mining website jumped onto the bandwagon and ran a series of articles immediately following the release of the second survey report, declaring the stencil to be a phony and suggesting that it was simply an attempt by self-serving environmentalists to block a project which would create hundreds of jobs for the community (Hagemann 2014a).

After the second survey the Blue Mountains Conservation Society commissioned an archaeological consulting firm to conduct a third survey of the rock art site. The third survey team found additional hand stencils in other parts of the cave wall as well as scatters of stone tools on the floor. Their conclusion was that the site was used by Indigenous peoples over a long period of time for shelter and that all the rock art in the cave including the ‘phony’ stencil were of considerable age (Blucher 2014). These results were subsequently verified by a representative of the Office of Environment and Heritage which has the final say on matters of Indigenous heritage. So how is it that the results of surveys both conducted by trained archaeologists could differ so radically?

Stone Tools

Image: Stone tools found on the cave floor in situ.

The environmental group opposing the expansion called into question the due diligence and competence of the original survey team. Furthermore perhaps their status as being ‘independent’ consultants should be questioned as well? In addition a representative of the Wiradjuri council claimed that the representatives involved in the original survey were not from the area of the mine and were not familiar with the Indigenous sites located there (Hagemann 2014b). If Coalpac had been serious about protecting Indigenous heritage and following due process surely they should have taken the time to consult with Indigenous people with proper levels of knowledge of the area?

So why did this happen? The answer perhaps lies in Coalpac’s financial situation, the company is currently insolvent and the two open cut mines including the Invincible Colliery are currently not in operation. Energy Australia has declared its willingness to buy Coalpac and re-open the open cuts if the expansion plan is greenlighted. It is entirely possible that Coalpac may have put the archaeological consultants they hired under pressure to produce results that would not cause problems for the expansion plans. Or they may have restricted their time and funding to such an extent that the consultants did not have the resources to conduct more than a preliminary survey of the hand stencil. If that was the case how was it possible that the NSW government was ready to approve the expansion plan, should they have not realized that the heritage assessment was lacking? The author will leave the reader to form their own opinion on the issues raised in this blog but it does highlight the ethical and professional dilemmas faced by archaeologists employed by the mining industry.

Reference List

Blucher, A. 2014 Mine’s Aboriginal ‘rock art’ found to be authentic. Retrieved 27 August 2014 from Mine’s Aboriginal ‘rock art’ found to be authentic – ABC Rural (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Coalpac 2014a Community Newsletter July 2014. Lithgow: CW Print on behalf of Coalpac Pty Ltd.

Coalpac 2014b Company Website. Retrieved 26 August 2014 from http://cetresources.com/

Coalpac 2012 Environmental Impact Statement. Retrieved 26 August 2014 from https://majorprojects.affinitylive.com/public/637aed249f70dea6ec7b53b2235ef77e/10.%20Coalpac%20Consolidation%20Project%20EA%20-%20Main%20Report.pdf

Hagemann, B. 2014a “Aboriginal” art stopping coal expansion found to be phony. Retrieved 27 August 2014 from “Aboriginal” art stopping coal expansion found to be phony | Mining Australia

Hagemann, B. 2014b Coalpac’s claims about age of Aboriginal hand stencil in dispute. Retrieved 27 August 2014 from http://www.miningaustralia.com.au/news/coalpac-s-claims-about-age-of-ben-bullen-hand-sten

Hepworth, A. 2014 Mine’s ‘rock art’ just 3½ years old. Retrieved 1 September from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/mines-rock-art-just-3-years-old/story-e6frg9df-1226964358502#

A Timely Discovery

By Tegan Burton, Grad Dip in Archaeology

The semester has well and truly begun and research is underway. My topic is clear (Connecting Indigenous youth to culture through rock art recording and conservation) and my industry partner is on board (NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service Aboriginal Co-Management Unit).

Work commenced by identifying underlying elements and questions (e.g. Indigenous perceptions of archaeology, and archaeologists. Where are the Indigenous archaeologists? Is this ‘community archaeology’? Is it true that art in particular is more applicable than other aspects of archaeology? What’s so important about connecting with culture?) and hunting around the literature for relevant references.

Then, while searching the office for an old report, a timely discovery was made, a small book called Revival, Renewal & and Return: Ray Kelly and the NSW Sites of Significance Survey (Kijas 2005).


Ray ‘Tiger’ Kelly was the first Aboriginal employee in the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS), engaged as a Research Officer in 1973. With Harry Creamer, and under the supervision of archaeologist Sharon Sullivan, Kelly commenced what was to become the decade long NSW Sites of Significance Survey.

The Survey commenced at a time when Australia was shifting from the eras of protection and assimilation to self-determination and reconciliation (Kijas 2005; Smith 2004). The process and results of running the Survey radically changed thinking in NSW, demonstrating that NSW Aboriginal people had not lost contact with sites nor culture, as had been the general belief.

Just two years after commencement, Kelly submitted a report titled ‘A revival of the Aboriginal culture: We, the Aboriginal people, need this to achieve our identity’. His passion for cultural revival, inspired by the Survey, exuded from every sentence. ‘Now that some of us are aware of what we have lost, there seems to be an urgent need to restore whatever is left of our culture. To do this successfully we must involve many more Aborigines in the recording and protection programme’ (Kelly 1975, in Kijas 2005:14).

Around the same period, Kelly identified some challenges to reviving Aboriginal culture in NSW. One of these was the need ‘to encourage white anthropologists, archaeologists and linguists in their ivory towers to give direct feedback to the people they have obtained their material from’, while another was to overcome ‘the white education system, which has not accepted the need for Aboriginal kids to be educated in their own history’ (Kelly 1975:16).

That was 1975. Where do things stand now, in 2014? How much have things changed, in NSW, bureaucratically, and in reality?

In 2005 Kelly concluded that ‘the future of Aboriginal cultural heritage is bright. However, there is still a long way to go’ and ‘we need Aboriginal land managers, Aboriginal rangers and educators to guide our communities, and play a key role in the cultural understanding of our land’ (Kijas 2005:119).

I’m not Aboriginal, Indigenous, or a First Nations person. But I have had the privilege of working with some incredibly inspirational people who are, and I look forward to expanding that work within the world of archaeology.


Kelly, R. 1975 From the “Keeparra” to the “Cultural Bind”: An analysis of the Aboriginal situation. Australian Archaeology 2:13-17.

Kijas, J. 2005 Revival, Renewal and Return: Ray Kelly and the NSW Sites of Significance Survey. Hurstville: Department of Environment & Conservation (NSW).

Smith, C. 2004 Country, Kin and Culture: Survival of an Australian Aboriginal Community. Kent Town: Wakefield Press.

Who Gets a Tan in Alaska?

Celeste Jordan

I write to you from the depths of Western Alaska, along the Bering Sea in the large (by Alaskan standards) village of Quinhagak. It is a coastal community of about 700 people (City-Data 2011) that has a long and rich history.

The Quinhagak archaeological site is located right on the coast, about 6.5km from the village itself. The site is under serious threat from coastal erosion and lead investigator, Dr Rick Knecht, says that it all could slide into the Bering Sea with one major storm (Rick Knecht, pers. comm. 2013).

Quinhagak, Alaska. (City-Data 2011)

Quinhagak, Alaska. (City-Data 2011)

With 3 excavation seasons in the last 4 years, the site has produced some amazing artefacts and yielded unexpected information. The site was occupied between 1350 AD and 1630 AD, pre-contact (1820’s for Quinhagak) (Knecht 2012:21). The 1630 AD occupation period ended abruptly when the village was attacked by a neighbouring village in what is known as The Bow and Arrow War (Knecht 2012:23).

(White tent marks the site locale. Knecht 2012:34)

(White tent marks the site locale. Knecht 2012:34)

Over the last 10 days, 19 people from Scotland, the US, Canada, Lithuania and Australia have been working on two separate areas of the site: area A and area B.  Samples of fur, hair and seeds are being taken in most contexts. Below the tundra sod level, broken pottery, animal bones, mask fragments, labrets (cheek and lip plugs), broken shafts, dolls of various sizes, a toy bow and arrow, and lance and harpoon points are being excavated regularly.

De-sodding the site. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

De-sodding the site. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

The focus of my Directed Study is to understand the maritime subsistence and settlement pattern of Yup’ik culture through artefact study from in situ remains, and site and material culture analyses. This will help not only in my understanding of Yup’ik culture but also, with further investigation, the Quinhagak community in understanding their heritage as well.

So far, last Saturday has been the most exciting day. After many days of removing sod, beautiful artefacts emerged including:

  • An entire and complete bowl
  • A decorated labret
  • A carved ulu handle with what looks like 2 Palraiyuks either end
  • Several dolls
  • A fish and seal mask attachments
  • Mask fragments

These artefacts are a good indication that we are now truly down into the cultural layers—Finally!

Today was beautiful and sunny. Most of us worked in t-shirts, except when the mosquitoes (that are the size of small semi-trailers) and ‘no-see-ums’ (midges) forced us to wear sleeves. I’m anticipating coming home with a tan! We mainly focused on moving through the contextual layers with carefully excavating and screening.

A glorious day on site. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

A glorious day on site. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Only the north part of area A produced anything of note today and boy did it produce! In quick succession this is what was excavated:

  • A small wooden box
  • A big wooden transformation doll – female to wolf
  • A labret
  • An almost complete mask
  • Snow goggles
  • Fur
Snow goggles in use by excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Colleen Lazenby 2013

Snow goggles in use by excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Colleen Lazenby 2013

Transformation doll with excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Transformation doll with excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Transformation doll with excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Transformation doll with excavator Chas Bello. Photo: Celeste Jordan 2013

Other artefacts were recovered today, but nothing like what was excavated in north area A by Chas Bello, one of our most experienced archaeologists. We still have 11 days left of excavation. Who knows what amazing artefacts still await us in the dirt?

There are blog posts everyday at http://nunalleq.wordpress.com


City-Data 2011 Quinhagak, Alaska. Retrieved 8 August 2013 from <http://www.city-data.com/city/Quinhagak-Alaska.html>

Knecht, Rick 2012 Introduction to the Nunalleq Site. Presentation given to field crew, Quinhagak, Alaska

Rippin’ Report

Hey guys, for the next couple of weeks I’ll be writing blog posts about a research report for my University degree, but before I go into too much detail I better introduce myself for those who don’t known me. Hi, my name is Nicole Monk and I’m currently undertaking a Directed Studies topic in my Graduate Diploma of Archaeology at Flinders University (this topic gives students the chance to complete research to better prepare themselves for the workforce and to work with industry partners). After looking through a list of potential areas to study, provided by the department, I decided on researching Highbury’s Torrens Linear Park, a location that I had never been to or heard about.

A few days after confirming my choice I received an email providing me with contact details of my industry partner and a template for my research, which would involve an archival study of Highbury’s Torrens Linear Park to determine the significance of the local area and the rockshelters located within the park.

After a few more days I eagerly drove the 40 minutes to meet my industry partner, Lea Crosby, at the Florey Reconciliation Task Force to find out what was expected from the research and to seek out any information that was held in the office. The information that I was given at the office was minimal, as many would know in the archaeological field, information regarding Indigenous people is often limited, and having too much information would have made the study pointless. At the conclusion of the meeting Lea and I organised to go on a tour of the Park so that I could have an understanding of the overall shape and scope of the study, which will be in my next post.

Following this meeting I was rushed out the door because it was a Friday, and let’s face it who doesn’t want to leave early on a Friday?

Uncommissioned, Commissioned and Official: a different approach to contemporary graffiti

Distinguishing ‘legal’ public art from ‘illegal’ urban art, or ‘graffiti’, was a major theme that I addressed in my Honours thesis, Convenient Canvasses: an archaeology of social identity and contemporary graffiti in Jawoyn country, Northern Territory, Australia, which I submitted a few weeks ago. I have noticed a recent increase in the number of posts on this blog, including those of fellow students Susan Arthure and Daniel Petraccaro, which discuss ‘graffiti’ and its place in heritage and archaeology. I thought I would join in.

Throughout my research I approached graffiti as a vital artefact in the understanding of social identity and its capacity as a vehicle for protest against governmental policy, such as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007. Essentially, I treated the contemporary graffiti of Jawoyn country as ancient landscape-markings, and the graffiti supports as though they were rock shelters. I did not want to approach the graffiti as though they were a manifestation of anti-social behaviour.

I treated these corrugated iron shelters, which featured between 52 and 205 uncommissioned graffiti motifs, as though they were ancient landscape-marking shelters.

My research took place in Jawoyn country in the Northern Territory, where landscape-marking, or ‘rock-art’ has been practiced as a form of communication for thousands of years*. This landscape-marking tradition continues today in Jawoyn country, however we refer to it as ‘graffiti’. My research focused on a particular type of graffiti: the seemingly illegal, opportunistic markings that individuals scribbled, scratched, sprayed, or wrote on surfaces in the natural and built landscapes; however I encountered several other graffiti types as well.

The superimposition of discriminatory uncommissioned graffiti over commissioned graffiti.

During the data collection, while examining a mural in the Barunga community, I began to think about the definition of graffiti and I asked myself: is this really a commissioned mural, or has someone painted it there without permission? Is it graffiti? My understanding of the term ‘graffiti’ evolved over the next few months to include ‘street art’, public art and regulatory signage, such as the example above. There is a whole section in my thesis dedicated to defining graffiti and the justification of that definition, which you can find by downloading a copy here. In the context of my research, graffiti is defined as a form of visual communication and intended human-made marking that occurs publicly on any fixed surface in the natural and built landscapes. Regardless of form, material, technique, legality and social and cultural acceptances, graffiti is communication through landscape-marking be it ‘uncommissioned’, ‘commissioned’ or ‘official’ graffiti.  The difference between these graffiti categories is in the authorship.

Uncommissioned graffiti: markings that do not have appropriate permissions. These are the uncensored and uninstitutionalised markings made by individuals as intra-group (within a group) and inter-group (between groups) messages, often in the form of, but in no way limited to, the ‘tags’ one would find spray-painted on a wall or train. Much of the graffiti in this classification can be construed as vandalism. Practitioners of this landscape-marking behaviour do so to associate and communicate with other members of a group, to propagate personal ideals or even to demarcate boundaries and eternalise their presence.

Commissioned graffiti: public art and advertising such as authorised murals, sculptures, statues, billboards and posters. This is a negotiated community action involving intra-group and inter-group messaging. Prior permission is sought for commissioned graffiti in the form of verbal or written contracts, often with an exchange of capital. There is a fine line between what constitutes commissioned and uncommissioned graffiti. The two classifications are so closely linked that authors, styles, forms, materials, techniques and messages of commissioned graffiti are frequently interchangeable with those of uncommissioned graffiti.

Commissioned graffiti: a mural in Barunga

Official graffiti: markings made to govern, inform, instruct and control. Institutions including businesses, local councils, government departments and other organisations predominantly author these inter-group messages in the form of official graffiti. Official graffiti includes everything from the white lines and arrows painted on road surfaces to geodetic survey markers to traffic signs.

Official graffiti, featuring uncommissioned graffiti

These classifications are based on authorship of contemporary landscape-markings as well as the permissions, or lack thereof, that legalise, or indeed criminalise the practice, rather than the core social attitudes that are attached to it. The diagram below shows that these categories are separate, yet they overlap in some instances.

Graffiti categories according to authorship

My research demonstrates that all communication through landscape-marking can be referred to as graffiti. My definition, which is less concerned with any legal and social issues, situates uncommissioned graffiti as being of equal importance in a network of visual cultures that includes murals and regulatory signs.

Jordan Ralph

This is the first of a series of blogs about my graffiti research. You can also find out more about my research via my blog or by following me on twitter: @JordsRalph

*I prefer to use the term landscape-marking over rock-art because I want to emphasise the relationship that these visual cultures have with the landscape and while I realise that rock-art is the conventional term, I believe that it relies too heavily on a single method and surface type.