Tag Archives: Rock art

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#

Fieldwork: keeping it real

By Tegan Burton, Grad Dip in Archaeology

As the Directed Study assessment due date draws ever nearer I return again and again to numerous journal papers, book chapters and web sites. Such is the nature of a literature review project. But it is fieldwork that truly keeps me alive.

No matter where, no matter when, no matter what the activity, no matter what the weather, fieldwork is always one of my favourite things. But the most inspirational fieldwork of all is Indigenous archaeology or cultural heritage management alongside Indigenous youth.

Since 2010 I’ve been in the fortunate position of coordinating what has evolved in to a ‘Connecting to Culture’ project in northern Sydney, engaging urban Indigenous youth in Aboriginal site recording and management within National Parks. Each year has been a little different, but a persistent gap has been the involvement of women. Well, no longer, with the first tangible steps towards a young Indigenous women’s group now under way!

Our first day out together was spent visiting some Sydney rock art sites with strong connections to women. We began at the sign-posted America Bay Track engraving site where a passionate and ‘say it like it is’ Indigenous mentor introduced the idea of women’s business. We also talked about threats facing the engraving site, and whether there were simple things we could do to reduce those threats.


Young Indigenous women’s mentoring group visiting a Sydney rock engraving site

Our next stop was the Great Mackerel Rockshelter featured in Jo McDonald’s doctoral research, Dreamtime Superhighway (McDonald 2008). McDonald describes both cultural remains in a midden layer and a recent art phase as indicators of the presence of women at this site, perhaps as a semi-permanent living site for a smaller group in the last 500 years (McDonald 1992).

One the one hand I imagined looking at the art on the wall of the shelter through the eyes of an Anglo woman archaeologist. In doing so I was guided by what I could recall of Jo McDonald’s writing.

On the other hand I imagined looking at the art through the eyes of a young Indigenous woman, raised in the heart of the city and reconnecting with different elements of culture. For this perspective I was guided by the conversation of those around me.

Bringing these two perspectives together, archaeologist and Indigenous person, made real the question of Indigenous community perceptions of archaeologists, and of the discipline of archaeology overall.


Young Indigenous women’s mentoring group visiting a Sydney rock art shelter site

Our second day together came a few weeks later, returning to the America Bay Track rock engraving site. Two main threats to the site were identified during our previous visit.

1) Burnt vegetation from a wildfire a few years earlier had fallen on the rock surface, providing fuel which could damage the rock in future wildfires, and promoting the accumulation of organic material across the rock surface.

2) Poor drainage along the walking track resulting in water flows and sediment deposition on the rock surface.

A small crew with simple hand tools over a couple of hours was able to make great head way in the amelioration of both of these threats.


Clearing burnt and fallen vegetation from around a rock engraving site


The Connecting to Culture women’s mentoring group

Coming from a conservation land management background I find it hard to know where to draw the line between archaeology and cultural heritage management. Advice has been not to get too concerned, the line is often blurry.


McDonald, J. 1992 The Great Mackerel Rock Shelter excavation: Women in the archaeological record? Australian Archaeology 35:32-50

McDonald, J. 2008 Dreamtime Superhighway: Sydney Basin Rock Art and Prehistoric Information Exchange. Canberra: ANU E Press – Terra Australis 27.

Yourambulla Caves Rock Art Trail: Natural vs. Human Intervention

The Yourambulla Caves are an Indigenous rock art site located 13 kilometres south-west from the town of Hawker within the southern Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Yourambulla is a name that is derived from the words ‘yura bila’, which means two men in the language of the Andyamathana people, the traditional owners of this region. The cave paintings are made from manganese, charcoal, red ochre and white ochre. Figures include animal tracks (emu and kangaroo), hand stencils, human figures, camps and ceremonial depictions (FIGURE ONE).

FIGURE ONE: Rock art at Yourambulla Cave One. Photo by Daniel Petraccaro.

The Yourambulla caves are one of the most accessible rock art sites within the Flinders Ranges, attracting hundreds of tourists every year. The Yourambulla Caves trail was constructed in 1995 by member of the Iga Warta Aboriginal Corporation and the Bungala Aboriginal Corporation. The project was funded by the Department of State Aboriginal Affairs, Environment Australia, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and from Commercial Minerals. The Yourambulla cave trail encompasses three rock shelter sites within a radius of one kilometre. A path has been carved allowing access, while interpretation signs are also present to enhance the visitor’s experience.

There are a number of natural processes affecting the rock art at the Yourambulla caves. The rock art at Yourambulla Cave One is suffering from water damage (see FIGURE ONE). Water is seeping through a crack in the overhang and trickling over the art. The area of rock art affected by the water exposure is significantly faded compared to the rest of the site. There is also are a number of old wasp nests on the rock face at all three overhang sites. The wasp nests appear to have been destroyed but not completely removed.

The barriers around the rock shelter sites were established to protect the sites from animals and human interferences (FIGURE TWO). The barrier around Yourambulla Cave Three, in particular, is in very poor condition. The base is eroding out of the sediment (FIGURE THREE) and the top bars have been intentionally bent back. While the barriers have been successful in keeping feral goats and kangaroos out of the shelter, it has not prevented humans from drawing graffiti on the site. Graffiti is present at all three rock shelter sites. The graffiti is either in the form of imitation Aboriginal art or in the form of human figures (FIGURE FOUR). The graffiti is drawn with white chalk or scratched on the rock surface. The staircase leading to Yourambulla Cave One has some nails missing and there are cracks in the wooden planks. It is recommended that visitors are not to use the staircase until repairs have been done.

FIGURE TWO: Eroded fence post at Yourambulla Cave Three. Photo by Daniel Petraccaro

FIGURE THREE: Fence cage at Yourambulla Cave Three. Photo by Daniel Petraccaro.

FIGURE FOUR: Graffiti at Yourambulla Cave Two. Photo by Daniel Petraccaro.

There has been no management plan established for the Yourambulla Caves determining who is responsible for the long term management of the site. Pastoral leases and tourism companies develop rock art trails in the Flinders Ranges for financial gain. However, neither party really understands about the long term management and conservation issues of these sites. Neither the land owners nor the tourist groups contribute to the management of the site.

The failure of site management has resulted in a number of conservation and liability issues. The graffiti needs to be removed to prevent encouragement from the public to vandalise the site. The barrier around Yourambulla Cave Three also requires significant repair. Further, this site needs to be monitored in another few years to determine whether the area of water damage over Yourambulla Cave One is expanding or receding. The Yourambulla Caves should have a management plan detailing relevant stakeholders who should be contributing funding to the management of the site.

By Daniel Petraccaro (Masters in Archaeology Student)