Dating Aboriginal Scarred Trees in north eastern Australia

This week and next I’m back in Weipa (NE Australia) working on a research project with Alngith People — Traditional Owners of the western Weipa Peninsula — as well as Dr Kathryn Allen (Monash University), to collect cores from Aboriginal scarred trees in the region.  The work we’re doing involves applying dendrochronology, dendroecology and radiocarbon dating techniques to date Aboriginal scarred trees, understand growth rates on a particular species of tree and to collect new data about environmental change in the region over the past few centuries.  In this post I want to outline the context and primary focus of the project, with another to follow on the methods and approaches we’re using as well as some secondary issues that we’re exploring.

What are scarred trees?

‘Scarred trees’ are simply trees that have some evidence of scarring as a result of people in the past removing bark or wood, engraving designs or motifs or cutting into trees for various reasons, including to collect food. In Australia, scarred trees have typically been created by Indigenous peoples. South eastern Australia is well known for the often large and imposing canoe scars carefully carved into the trunks of majestic river gums, and which are a common sight near waterways and wetlands. However, it is less well known that scarred trees are found in many parts of Australia and indeed, in many other parts of the world including in North America and Europe.

Scarred trees are a physical reminder of how Indigenous peoples in the past lived and are often of high importance to Indigenous communities in Australia today: they provide a link to the past and are generally a type of heritage place that communities try to preserve and protect where possible. Scarred trees are highly vulnerable to destruction via natural decay and fire while development is also a major threat as mining, urban expansion and so on see widespread clearance of otherwise undisturbed areas of forest and woodland across the country. This is particularly the case in western Cape York Peninsula where mining has considerable impacts on the local environment and where the foreseeable future is one that is dominated by ongoing mine expansion.

Scarred trees on Western Cape York

Many thousands of scarred trees occur on Aboriginal lands around Weipa, with well over 1,500 recorded on the Weipa Peninsula alone (1, 2). They are regularly found by archaeologists and Traditional Owners completing assessments before mining clearances and are frequently cut down and moved to make way for mining development. In the past few years, some Traditional Owners have chosen scarred trees of special importance and have placed these into monuments in the local area, in part to prevent them from being destroyed by mining (3).

Scarred tree monument at Ruchook Cultural Ground, Weipa

According to local Elders, there are several different types of scar tree. Some scars were created by people cutting timber to make spear throwers or woomera as well as other  tools (4). The scar tree that is most commonly found in the Weipa area are ‘sugarbag’ scars which were created by people cutting into trees to collect the honey and wax of the stingless native bees. In the early days, a stone axe was used to create a small hole near a sugarbag hive and then a thin, spongy branch was inserted into this hole to soak up the honey. These holes would then be sealed up again so that people could come back at a later time to collect more of the honey or wax. We’ve recently suggested that this approach was a form of resource management or ‘domiculture’, or a set of economic practices and ethics that were — and still are — a major feature of Aboriginal cultural traditions in the region (5).

In the late 1800s Europeans bought iron hatchets and axes and these were also used in the collection of sugarbag right through the 1900s. Indeed, Napranum Elders who grew up in the Weipa Mission remember their parents collecting honey and exchanging this with the Missionaries who would place it into a tank beneath the Mission Superintendent’s house. It was mixed with water as a cordial-like drink, and was eaten on porridge and damper every day. Sugarbag is still collected regularly by local community members today, using similar methods to those used by their parents and grandparents.

How old are scar trees?

On western Cape York Peninsula, scars mostly occur on one species of tree — the Cooktown ironwood — which as the name suggests is a tree whose timber is extremely dense and hard and is well known to be quite difficult to cut. This tree is also quite slow growing, with one study suggesting that a tree that was about 35 cm in diameter at chest height had taken between 180 and 300 years to grow, with growth rates of about 0.12 cm each year (6). What this means is that average sized ironwoods are likely to be at least several hundred years old and that the very large trees with 60 cm or more in diameter may in fact be much older than we had previously thought. Scars have been recorded on ironwoods of all shapes and sizes, and even found on ironwoods that have long since died, so  it is likely that some scarred trees date to the period before Europeans arrived in the region.

There have been no previous attempts to discover the age of scarred trees in the region and only one other study in Australia that has attempted to do so (7), though this was highly destructive and required that the tree be felled — which is not always an option when it comes to managing Indigenous heritage sites.

The presence or absence of iron axe marks does give us a general estimate of the age of a scar and it is likely that scars with sharp and distinct axe marks were made after the late 1880s. However, many scars do not have clear axe marks suggesting they might be older than this. The techniques we are using potentially allow us to place scarring events into a 5-10 year time bracket allowing both community members and us to place specific trees into a particular historical context.

There are a number of reasons we are interested in developing a technique to effectively date scarred trees:

  1. Having information about the probable age of a scarred tree will help to better manage these sites when difficult decisions about development are being made. For example, Traditional Owners may wish to manage scarred trees made in the 1960s, 1920s or 1850s in very different ways.
  2. It will provide historical information that can feed into a range of community heritage work including educational and interpretive projects.
  3. It will contribute to more academic research questions about the history of the region, particularly in terms of understanding what life was like for Indigenous people between the early 1800s and the mid 1900s and the ways in which the arrival of settler-invaders influenced Indigenous wellbeing.

So, this week we’re trying to relocate scarred trees on Alngith Country that have been recorded over the past 8-10 years. Next week, we’ll be selecting those trees that Alngith People want to core. Over the coming week I’ll post more information on the method we’re using and some images and video from the field.

Further reading:

I’m yet to upload my own publications here but if you are looking for a copy of something I’ve written just contact me and I’ll send it to you via express carrier pigeon.

1) Morrison, M.J., D.A. McNaughton and J. Shiner 2010 Mission-Based Indigenous Production at the Weipa Presbyterian Mission, Western Cape York Peninsula (1932–66). International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14(1), pp.86–111.

2) Shiner, J. and M.J. Morrison. 2009 The contribution of heritage surveys towards understanding the cultural landscape of the Weipa bauxite plateau. Australian Archaeology, 68, pp.52–55.

3) Barkley, R. et al. 2008 Collaboration and innovation in the management of cultural landscapes in mining contexts, western Cape York, far north Queensland. Historic Environment, 21(3).

4) Morrison, M.J. et al. 2012 New approaches to the archaeological investigation of culturally modified trees: a case study from western Cape York Peninsula. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, 35, pp.17–51.

5) Morrison, M.J. and Shepard, E. [Forthcoming] The archaeology of “sugarbag” production: post-contact Indigenous economic diversification within colonial intercultural settings in Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. Journal of Field Archaeology.

6) Cook, A.D. et al. 2005 Sustainable harvest rates of ironwood, Erythrophleum chlorostachys, in the Northern Territory, Australia. Australian Journal of Botany, 53, pp.821–826.

7) Long, A. et al. 2002 The origin and date of two scarred trees at Horsham Saleyards, Horsham, Western Victoria. A report to Horsham Rural City Council and Goolum Goolum Aboriginal Cooperative, Horsham.

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Fieldwork update, Weipa 2012 (and reflections on a decade of work)

I’ve just arrived in Weipa again for a few weeks of  work with the Anhatangaith and Alngith groups. It will likely be the most relaxed field trip I’ve had here for some time. I’m not planning to survey, record, dig or count. I’m here to listen, to catch up with old friends, to write, and maybe catch a fish or two along the way. I thought I might try and throw out a quick blog post or three while I’m here about what I’m generally up to. “What is that?”, you ask?

Last year my small research team and I completed a field survey program at Waypandan, an important place within the Country of the Anhatangaith people (via Weipa). The purpose of that work was to pull together  a ‘management plan’ to help conserve and look after this important place into the future. We’re all familiar with such reports; there are quite prescriptive guides on how to write them and every second heritage project you’ll read about mentions them. While I think they’re important and useful documents, my experience is that they are poor – and lazy – ways to finish projects that are supposed to be collaborative, inclusive and above all, useful for the communities that we all work with.

I have recently been thinking a little about ways to relegate the management plan to the background, where it should be. A few days ago I found some field notes that I recorded in late 2007 during an informal meeting with a group of Elders who were instrumental in establishing the project. According to my notes, they mentioned that they would like to tell people about the “true history” of Weipa in a book. So for the next couple of weeks one of my tasks is to sit down and find out if a community oriented book might be a more useful way to finish this phase of the project. I’ll still need to prepare a supplementary report and management plan, but they will be brief and in the background. Our research has generated such a wonderful array of oral, historical and archaeological data that I think it would be unethical to exclusively present that in a dull report.

The other thing I need to do while I’m here is to help set up a heritage/caring for country program for the Alngith people. We finished a major project early last year that included, among other things, a ‘whole of Country’ heritage management plan to outline problems and issues that they face with regards to managing their Country. The next step – and the focus of this trip – is to form a heritage reference group to guide development of a program that can employ people and offer tangible outcomes. Growth of this idea has been very organic and slow (since 2008!) and for me at least, the path forward is still a confusing tangle of ideas: rangers, signage, rehabilitation, environmental management, eco-tourism, fencing, ethnobotany, mining, oral history, etc. But that’s often the case with this type of community work: it is complicated and – for outsiders at least – confusing. But it should be; if things don’t seem complicated then you’re probably not listening (or hearing) what people are saying.

In any case, a heritage reference group will help sort out those tangles and facilitate some focussed discussion.  I’ve recently been reading  a wonderful book by Annie Ross and colleagues, who propose an Indigenous Stewardship Model for such situations. I haven’t finished the volume yet, but their framework will be very helpful as we move forward.

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Not much of this counts in my discipline, at least for more traditionally minded archaeologists (though this is changing). For me though, I think it reflects a natural progression in how I see myself fitting in here. When I first bounced up the dusty road to Weipa in 2000 with my then boss Roger Cribb, I was fully focussed on counting and digging up middens and managing things: I was an ‘archaeological cowboy’, riding the wild frontier and cracking the whip of science. Perhaps I wasn’t that bad, but I certainly know that this approach is counter to everything I’ve since learnt here. I tend to shun conferences these days, because I see too many of these glorious cowfolk (and their students) with their pith helmets, leather boots, medals and tall tales. I have no problem with science, research or generating new knowledge, I just dislike the ‘cowfolk approach’. That will the subject of another post, though, and one that is best left unpublished for a while.

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Asking questions about heritage management in Australia

I sometimes wonder whether archaeology as a discipline in Australia has been bought.

When I began working towards a degree in archaeology in the mid 1990s it was a common view that there were  no jobs and that most of my fellow students and I were unlikely to find any form of employment as archaeologists.  Ten years later, the Australian economy expanded in part through mining and there was a boom in demand for archaeology graduates and experienced archaeologists to work in heritage management. Most employment for archaeologists now comes from the heritage sector and this growth manifests in other areas such as increased enrolments at Universities and new positions in (some) Government regulatory bodies. Development has been very good to archaeology in Australia, but has it been good for heritage management and our knowledge of the past? Maybe? I wonder.

CC Image by Ben Hoskings, http://www.hoskingindustries.com.au/

It’s not a question I can answer here, but what concerns me is that there are not many people asking questions. Consultant archaeologist Gary Vines, who works in Victoria, has a recent post  that I’ve just noticed. He bemoans the lack of strategic planning in cultural heritage management:

There are more Aboriginal archaeological sites being recorded than ever before.Nearly all are identified as part of predevelopment environmental approvals. Management entails salvaging some, leaving a few in reserves (very occasionally with some form of interpretation or on-going management but more often than not – not), of doing nothing – or next to nothing as the ‘contingency arrangements’ that rely on contractors and developers keeping an eye out.

The discipline needs more of this. Critical reflection and open debate – outside of academic journals – about the difficulties, challenges and long-term problems that such a tremendous amount of development will pose for conserving and enhancing the heritage values of particular regions. One Aboriginal group I work with – the Alngith People at Weipa – have had approximately >70% of their country irreversibly damaged through mining. It’s been dug up, reshaped and left to the weeds by thirty years of mining. The situation is worse in cities as landscapes are cut up, and we ‘manage’ points on maps with the least amount of effort possible rather than – as Gary suggests – thinking about the wider landscapes within which they occur.

Government regulators and consultant archaeologists need to be more actively promoting heritage planning at a regional level, cutting across policy and tenure boundaries. Professional archaeology associations need to be leading the way by reviewing and enhancing our codes of ethics. Governments won’t lead, they’re only capable of following and are far too interested in royalites and re-election, consequently promoting an extractive, violent and naive approach to managing a country. It’s just one knee-jerk reaction after another, all terribly short-term thinking that is ultimately about maximising profits. History has lessons for us on such matters, but we’re not much interested in history.

Archaeologist of all persuasions have a  moral obligation to be talking about these issues in openly accessible forums. I know many who do, who submit opinion pieces to newspapers, who get involved in local council issues or heritage organisations. But we need more. Academic publications are fine, but they emerge from the review/publication process too slowly to make any significant influence on public debate in a 6 hour news cycle.

Anyway, I digress. I actually just wanted to suggest you should go and read Gary’s post:

Australian Archaeology: Where is CRM archaeology going?.

 

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Into the field…

In several days my small research team and I will be beginning the long drive from Townsville to Weipa where we’ll be based for a month long research trip investigating the history, archaeology and cultural significance of a former Aboriginal mission site.

This is a community based project that Anhatangaith Elders requested that we undertake about 5 years ago. We’ve been working on it only when we’ve had funding and time and this trip will be the first field trip since 2008 when we mapped out the mission site and produced the site plan below. This is just a quick screen grab from my GIS but illustrates the layout of the site.

Preliminary plan of the mission site

We’re doing the research in order to understand the history of Aboriginal people at the mission site. Historic records from the area are far from abundant, in part because prior to World War Two Weipa was very remote and accessed only by sea: so visitors were infrequent. Furthermore, as is often the case, the historic records are written by non-Indigenous people and focussed on the lives of missionaries.

The main aim of the trip is to complete full documentation of the surface record at the site. We’re not excavating, principally because we don’t need to in order to address the research questions we’re pursuing. The surface record at the site is very rich, with many high density artefact deposits including glass, ceramic, stone arteacts, marine shell metal items and so on. These are found around well preserved features such as fences, building remains, retaining walls, earthen mounds, quarries and historic vegetation such as well established mango and tamarind trees.

The second purpose of the trip is to find new sites in areas well away from the main mission site. Research on other mission sites in Australia suggests that Aboriginal people were often very mobile, regularly travelling well away from the mission to collect food, visit family and for ceremony. To fully understand the history of the Aboriginal community associated with the site we therefore need to identify and document places away from the mission that they visited or used. In this regard, we’re attempting to sample the entire catchment of the creek that the mission was established on. We’ve dived it into landscape units based on proximity to water, vegetation types and landforms. The image below is a screengrab from the GIS that highlights the coarse landscape units we’re sampling.

Landscape classification for surveying the mission site and surrounds

I’ll try to get some posts up whilst we are away, but given that we’re camping in a non phone/no net area using petrol generators my access to the web will be quite limited. I’ve purchased a new EOS600D camera with some very fine macro and wide angle lenses, so hopefully we should have some good imagery!

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Fieldwork beckons

I’m glad to report that after a seven month stint here in Adelaide I’m finally able to get back up to north Queensland to do some fieldwork. Teaching and University life is wonderful, however I do not recall a time in the past ten years where I have not had a field trip for seven months. So this is long overdue and I’m very much looking forward to the trip.

This is a quick 10 day trip to Weipa on western Cape York. It is not what most would consider to be archaeological fieldwork but instead a community liaison trip with anthropologist Dr Darlene McNaughton, who is also my partner. We’re both tying up some loose ends on the Alngith Heritage Project and laying the groundwork for a 4-6 week field trip to a place known as Waypa in June-July with the Anhatangaith people.

Ground Orchid, Weipa

The Alngith work is nearing completion. For the past two years we have been working with Alngith elders using a range of methods (oral history, archaeology, historical research) to identify places of cultural significance on their country, which is the western portion of the Weipa Peninsula. We’ve compiled information about 300 or so places and in this trip our focus is on checking that we’ve ‘got it right’, particularly for story places. It’s easy to think about these places as points on a map however one of the exciting things we’ve been able to document are some of the linkages between these places and the movement of ancestral beings (animals) through Alngith country. It’s not appropriate to go into detail, however it’s been a tremendously enjoyable and worthwhile project and it’ll be interesting to see the responses of Alngith elders when we throw up a draft ‘map’ of their country onto a projector. There will be quite a few visits to key places as well as some survey work that I need to finish off as well.

The second project is a continuation of the Weipa mission project that was funded by AIATSIS back in 2007. The Indigenous Heritage Program have provided additional funds to finish site documentation work which we plan to complete in June-July. I expect we’ll only manage a one day trip to the site, probably by boat, and the purpose of this will be to get a good photographic record of the place during the early wet season. The big priority though is to catch up with the Anhatangaith elders and discuss with them the project and how they want to go about it in terms of logistics and timing. The major field trip is some way off yet, however I’ve often found that in order to do ‘capital A’ archaeology, one needs to first do the ‘capital C’ consultation and community liaison. That’s not to say that the latter ends when the former begins; but that it’s good to begin the conversation about the project well before the fieldwork plans are set in stone, which I’ve blogged about recently.

I’ll try and get a few blog posts and photos up while we’re up there, so stay tuned!

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Community heritage databases: an open approach

Databases for storing archaeological or cultural heritage information are not something that one hears spoken about too often despite the fact that they are the backbone of many a project. A good database can improve data accuracy and reduce data entry times, keep the results of your hard work organised and also allow you to analyse or present these results in an efficient way. They’re quite critical in the process of managing heritage information as well, whether that be information about places and objects, documents, oral histories or cultural information. Quite some time ago I promised a post about a heritage database I am developing for an Indigenous community organisation I work with at Weipa in Cape York Peninsula. In this post I thought I would touch on some of the issues that underpin our approach to this as well as why a carefully considered open source approach is in fact fundamental to the ethos of community based management. I’m also seeking collaborators to help advance these ideas.

Community based databases

To my mind, Indigenous community based heritage management sets out to help empower and support communities in managing their heritage places in ways that they see fit, particularly with respect to local decision making processes, priorities and management approaches. This includes the full range of activities involved in heritage projects including:

  • project development,
  • identification and documentation of tangible and intangible heritage
  • significance assessment
  • planning
  • information management (including interpretation).

A well designed heritage database has potential as a tool for community organisations. They can help with making planning decisions and allow people to make greater use of their heritage information for purposes such as community education, tourism, research and so on. The approaches, methods and priorities of communities may vary depending upon specific cultural, historical, economic or social circumstances, however the underlying motive of a community based heritage database is community control, community ownership and self-determination.

Technology can help to empower Indigenous communities who are seeking to take control of their heritage information and to care for and use this information in ways that they consider to be important. However, there are some significant issues that need to be considered and here I list some of those that are at the forefront of my mind at present. I’m sure there are issues that I’m yet to confront and, as always, I’m very happy for further comments and ideas.

1) Appropriate access controls

I am a great advocate of open access in relation to publishing research and disseminating data however there are significant ethical issues with this. In Australia, it is generally acknowledged that access to information relating to Indigenous heritage should be controlled and restricted only to those who have appropriate permissions to access such information. It is critical that cultural protocols surrounding access to information are not only recognised in principal, but built into the fabric of the database itself.

Hence, a community heritage database needs to ensure that access to heritage information is controlled in a way that is culturally appropriate. At the very least, it needs to ensure that access is not open to one and all and, ideally, allow community organisations to decide upon and enable tiered access for different kinds of users.

2) Data integrity

This is a simple point, but an important one. A community heritage database needs to ensure that novice users can not accidentally delete or alter records. In other words, the integrity of the information needs to be maintained.

I once worked for a large (non-Indigenous) corporation whose idea of a heritage database was a spreadsheet accessed across the company intranet. Through user error, a large portion of the spreadsheet was accidentally deleted and it took substantial efforts for this data to be restored. Suffice to say, spreadsheets are not generally the best method of managing large amounts of heritage information.

So in summary, any system that allows data to be accidentally modified is a problem. The tiered access protocols mentioned above would ideally not only control what users can see, but also, who can make changes to records.

3) Simple and low cost

With some  exceptions, Indigenous community organisations are often very poorly resourced. They have limited staff, few specialised staff, high workloads, limited cash and generally limited or no IT support. In short, an expensive or highly technical heritage database is not an ideal option.

To my mind, simplicity means a system that is sufficiently intuitive that it can be quickly grasped by someone who can  use a computer to access email, browse the web or write basic documents. Simplicity is not a one day training workshop; it is a well designed, intuitive system that can be picked up in a few hours.

Cost effectiveness is another issue. ArcGIS, for all it’s merits, is ridiculously expensive (and doesn’t meet the simplicity clause); a custom designed database is likely to be equally expensive to develop, test and implement. In my view, cost-effectiveness means that costs for development and operation can be easily buried in the budget for a typical heritage project. By making the source code for such a database open source, a developer can be employed to improve and refine it in the knowledge that others will benefit from the work.

In other words, open source shoud be seen as central to the design of a community based heritage database.

4) Open formats

Open formats means that the data are not stored in a format that are only readible by proprietry software. At worst, the system needs to be able to be easily able to export heritage data without any loss of detail.

There are very few software formats these days that I routinely deal with that are not readable by other kinds of software. Even ESRI shapefiles, which were once notoriously difficult to use outside of an ESRI software application (such as ArcView), have emerged as a standard in at least some open source GIS applications.

Nevertheless, it is important that the database does not turn into a silo that locks heritage information into one piece of editing or viewing software.

5) Data Insurance

The database needs to be backed up and fully replicable should something nasty happen, like a fire or theft. One colleague recently suggested a database running on a PC with a network backup would be the ‘safest’ means of providing access to community heritage data. It was proposed that this ‘backed up’ option would be protected from theft, spilled coffee and so on by being physically locked in a back office of a community organisation.

I entirely disagree with this approach from the perspective of data insurance. One PC is easily broken; networks go down and can be very difficult to reestablish for non IT savvy people. External hard drives are notorious for the ease with which they can be dropped. Any system that solely relies upon on site data storage is risky, particularly when in a community organisation where access to computers may not be tightly controlled.

Hosting data on servers that are regularly backed up offsite while providing end user access via a website is the safest option. This also allows for an administrator to be based off site so that maintenance or updates can be made without expensive trips to the community.

6) Community input

One of the critical elements of shaping a community heritage database is that it needs to be able to have new information added by users. This may range from adding annotations to photos, uploading photos and GPS tracks, new site records or management observations. This kind of interaction may be restricted to specific kinds of users, such as community rangers or heritage officers, however the ability to add new information is critical if it is to be useful on a day to day basis for community members.

Seeking collaborations

So there are some of the issues that one needs to get their head around when developing a community heritage database. As I noted, there are likely many more issues that I’m yet to come to grips with and certainly, there will be complexities to each of these points that I’m not yet aware of. Regardless, I think this issue is relevant to many community groups around the world who may benefit by having their own heritage databases.

At this stage, I’m developing these ideas in a very rudimentary form using two different options.

For heritage places, I’m simply using google sites/maps and network hosted KML files. It’s far from an ideal solution and doesn’t meet some of the requirements I’ve outlined here. For example, at this stage users will not be able to add new information and access is controlled by a single password.  It does, however, get ‘safe’ information out there for the community group I’m working with, which is a start. The place information is edited and managed in an ESRI geodatabase that I maintain.

Photos, documents and oral histories are being managed by Zotero. At this stage, we’re still adding content and haven’t yet moved a group library to a community workstation. Zotero itself doesn’t allow tiered access, however as I understand it, Omeka does allow this through defined user groups and this may be the way forward for this kind of information. The advantage of Zotero is that students and collaborators can edit and add to the library, which makes lighter work of what is a very slow process.

Ideally, both kinds of heritage information would reside in one system however I suspect the simplest way to achieve this in the short term is a single website with Omeka and some kind of mapping interface. I think if Omeka were able to handle KML files and custom fields (i.e. to suit heritage places) we would have a solution that would resolve many of these issues.

I am very interested to find people who may be interested in collaborating on developing a community based heritage database system that can meet these needs. If you are interested, or know someone who is, please drop me a line using my contact form or via twitter @mickmorrison. I think it would be necessary to obtain funds to develop this further, that is, in order to pay for development time on an open source project.

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Heritage and the Aboriginal philosophy of country

The past few years has seen a proliferation in the breadth and scope of academic literature surrounding theory and method in heritage studies. In this post, I want to consider some of the similarities in recent approaches to the idea of heritage in relation to Aboriginal notions of country. It’s possibly an overly ambitious idea for what is my first contribution to the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival, but challenges are what make life interesting. In some ways this is also a continuation on from an earlier post about natural versus cultural heritage. Consider it all part of an idea in progress.

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Mapping cultural landscapes: the Alngith Cultural Heritage Project

Over the past half year or so I have been working on a project documenting the cultural heritage of the Alngith People (pronounced Al-ngit where ‘ng’ is the same as in ‘ping’) , an Aboriginal group whose lands include the Weipa area and surrounds on western Cape York Peninsula, north eastern Australia. It is a fascinating and enjoyable project that has thrown up a number of unique challenges and opportunities in regards to cultural heritage management. The project is funded by the Indigenous Heritage Program via the Malaruch Aboriginal Corporation, representative body for the Alngith group.

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AAA conference 2008: the land and sea session

A few months back I posted about a session that Daryl Guse, Cameo Dalley and I had proposed for the Australian Archaeological Association conference in Noosa this year. You can read that post here, but in short, the session was looking for papers about the way in which cultural heritage management is undertaken in the context of Indigenous Land and Sea Management programs in Australia. At the time we proposed the session we wondered whether it would attract much interest, however it seems it has. We had 14 papers proposed and have accepted 12 of those to go into the program. They cover a broad range of geographic areas with presenters coming along to discuss work in the Torres Strait, Mornington Island, eastern and western Arnhem Land, the Pilbara coast in north west Australia, several papers from southern Western Australia, another from the lower Murray area near Adelaide, western Victoria, western New South Wales and finally, several papers from the Wet Tropics area around Cairns. We are quite excited by the level of interest, particularly given that the session is not really about traditional archaeology (it is an archaeology conference after all).

My own paper is a joint presentation with Darlene McNaughton – my partner and an anthropologist at James Cook University. Our abstract is:

A foot in the door: mining, cultural heritage and Indigenous cultural and social values around land management

This paper explores the issue of managing indigenous cultural and social values around land and sea management in the context of large-scale mining related development in western Cape York Peninsula. There is little question of the important role that Land and Sea Centres play in managing these values: an emerging problem however is how to ensure these values are identified and managed in contexts where viable Indigenous land and sea management programs do not exist. This is a particular concern in the context of large scale mining related developments where existing Indigenous land management regimes may not be able to effectively deal with the scale and extent of land management issues bought on by mining. Without early identification it arguably becomes more difficult for Traditional Owners to have cultural and social values around a range of land and sea management issues incorporated into environmental management strategies of mining companies. Here we argue that cultural heritage management frameworks can support Indigenous land management regimes in such contexts by providing an opportunity for the early identification of social and cultural values around land and sea management.

The paper will be a little more heritage-centric than this abstract reads however we think it highlights some important issues that are often not discussed in the context of cutlural heritage management.

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