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The race to protect the neglected hidden history that’s right at our doorstep


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The race to protect the neglected hidden history that’s right at our doorstep

Learning that Rio Tinto had destroyed two rock shelters containing dated evidence of habitation back to 46,000 years ago filled many Australians with horror and despair. But it is only a more obvious and violent example of the slow neglect and destruction of art and symbols left in the landscape across Australia by the First Australians.Over…

The race to protect the neglected hidden history that’s right at our doorstep

Learning that Rio Tinto had destroyed two rock shelters containing dated evidence of habitation back to 46,000 years ago filled many Australians with horror and despair. 

But it is only a more obvious and violent example of the slow neglect and destruction of art and symbols left in the landscape across Australia by the First Australians.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been privileged to spend some time in the Wollemi National Park and the Blue Mountains area visiting rock shelters, rock platforms, caves and walls decorated with lively figures, hands, implements and tools.

Some of the works are public knowledge if you know where to look; others are a closely guarded secret to protect their location.  

Some looks like it was done yesterday, some is old enough for the engraved lines of an emu track or the outline of a wallaby to have all but merged back into the surrounding stone.

‘More to be done, more to be found’

A man looks at rocks with Aboriginal carvings.

Wayne Brennan inspects rock carvings for damage following the January bushfires in the Blue Mountains of NSW.(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

Wayne Brennan, an archaeologist and rock art specialist with Gamilaroi ancestry, has spent 40 years walking the ridges and gullies of the mountains from the Wollemi in the north to the Kanangra Walls in the south. 

He worked for National Parks, fought fires and is now a fellow of the Australian Museum. 

“Myself and many others over the years have located sites, recorded them, but there is so much more to be done,” he says.

“There has been very little dating, nothing like enough research, and there is so much more to be found.”

A sandstone rockface with evidence of Indigenous art including hand stencils

The Shield Cave in the Blue Mountains with Indigenous rock art(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

Right now, across the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, literally thousands of sites of pigment art, stencils and engravings — some potentially tens of thousands of years old — lie neglected, barely cared for, unresearched, undated, unknown or known only to a handful of Indigenous people, bushwalkers and archaeologists.

“From governments there’s a spark of interest now and then. But right now, there’s a complex bureaucracy to be negotiated and no sense coming from any area of government that these sites are in anyway a priority,” says Brennan.

Trees growing in all directions out to the horizon

A view of an ancient Wollomi pine forest(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

Black Summer left its mark

There’s an immediacy to his complaint. The Black Summer fires tore through this area and burnt the bush hard.

On this trip, Wayne and Dr Amy Mosig Way — a scientific officer in archaeology at the Australian Museum and lecturer at the University of Sydney — were anxious to find out how the sites had survived.

Had they cracked open rocks, filled shelters with ash and soot, seared of pigments and paint?

“In some cases, they were intact and much as they’d seemed before,” Dr Way said.

Small green plant emerges from black burnt ground

New growth in the Blue Mountains in May after the January 2020 fires.(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

“In other cases, the fire has increased their vulnerability. The bush itself turns the trees and the grasses into a destructive force and who knows what might happen when it burns again?

“And what of those works more marginal than those we saw? Or works yet to be found?”

The call is already going out for fire services and those in charge of bush and national parks to work with local Indigenous people.

Our bush burns — but First Australians learnt to work with that, and not to fear it. Today, if we listen, we might all learn to do the same.

A man's hands writes and draws diagrams with a pencil on the pages of a book

Wayne Brennan takes notes.(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

Get it right, and then habitat is preserved, species saved, and deep history can remain intact. Get it wrong, and it will burn again and we will lose it all.

“The fact that some of these sites survive fires is further proof that the original artists knew what they were doing and understood how fire works in this landscape,” says Brennan.

Funding and research are desperately needed

But it’s not just the fires that pose a threat to sites that may be tens of thousands of years old.

Without ongoing funding, research, preservation and conservation remains sporadic and haphazard. Damage can occur long before the sites have been properly documented and understood.

Burnt bushland with a tall slender white plant in the foreground.

Burnt bushland in the Blue Mountains begins to regenerate.(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

At two well-known sites, right by major roads, the fire has stripped vegetation above and around the shelters.

This has changed the waterflow which is now washing sediment deposited on the shelter floor straight out the front of the shelter and down into the gully and creek below.

A sandstone rock has been cut to reveal a path

Thousands of years of history could be washed away.(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

This fills Dr Amy Way with deep concern.

“It’s not exaggerating to suggest that thousands of years of history have just been washed away,” he says.

“The deposits on the cave floors may contain irreplaceable artefacts and information.”

To the archaeologists, it’s clear that action is needed now.

Because of the fires, it is easier to move around through bush that previously was thick with growth.

Sites can be accessed, more sites discovered. Decisions can made about what needs to be done to ensure sites remain.

A lazy comparison?

Blackened tree trunks

The Blue Mountains National Park was badly burned during the January 2020 bushfires.(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

It’s so easy it’s almost lazy to make the comparison: we spend millions on football stadiums and art galleries. And just two hours’ drive from these modern temples to 21st century culture are works made by humans stretching over millennia.

On those we spend next to nothing at all.

Graham King, a Wiradjari/Nyampa man from Woodford and a member of the Wollemi research team says it’s wonderful what has survived and that they’re still used by the community.  

“In September, Muliyan Waters is doing ceremony in honour of passed elder Tex Skuthorpe and commemorating the crossing by the young men of the Wollemi,” he says.

A stone on the ground next to a measuring stick

Indigenous grinding stone found in the Blue Mountains after the January bushfires.(ABC News: Keith Saunders)

He worries though, that unless more is done now, his people —  and in particular younger generations — will lose contact with these places, their ancestors and the deep ancient traditions of this country.

While we mourn the loss of ancient knowledge in Western Australia, perhaps we should all take a look in the gully down the road.

If we don’t know what’s there and care for it, then all we doing is blowing them up slowly.

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