July 2014: Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area

Visiting the excavations at the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area and seeing fish middens, burnt hearth sediment and sun setting over the dunes of Lake Mungo. To learn more visit the My Mungo webpage.

 

Coniston Massacres

After a screening of Les Miserables (on Broadway), I got home and watched Pawmedia’s documentary on the Coniston Massacres. If you have access to ABC IView, it’s online for another 12 days.

Survivors and descendants of the massacres tell their stories through interviews and re-enactment. The documentary provides eye witness accounts and family stories of events that many records of the massacres leave out. The wikipedia entry for the Coniston massacre as of today mentions only briefly one survivor and instead leans heavily on accounts from the various trials and official records of the time. It’s in need of an update to include the well documented oral history accounts of the massacre.

Further references on the Coniston massacres can be found at http://coniston.pawmedia.com.au/background/key-references. Also the journal of Aboriginal History.

Limpets

There are ubiquitous limpets in the sea and in my collection. Initially when I started writing this post, I had a negligible level of interest in limpets. I liked their stripes and sometimes their shape but otherwise they were just one of those shells I collected hundreds of as an eight-year old. But then I saw this dude and I thought, hey, he’s kinda neat.

Patelloida from Des Beechey’s Seashells of New South Wales (Beechey 2012)

Unsurprisingly limpets were exploited by Aboriginal people all along the eastern coastline of Australia and are often found in shell middens. A summary of common shellfish found in the middens of coastal Sydney can be read on the Australian Museum Website. For a more specific example, limpets were excavated from shell middens in the Royal National Park (Attenbrow 2010).

I think most of the limpets in my collection belong to the following classification:

Species: tramoserica
Genus: Cellana
Family: Nacellidae
Order: Patellogastropoda
Phylum: Mollusca

For all the gastropod glory, I don’t think I’ll bother too much with cleaning the limpets unless I am inspired to undertake shell craft.  Not so long ago I was in the Powerhouse museum and saw some of the delightfully kitsch shell craft harbour bridges made by Lola Ryan. Here’s the accompanying paper discussing shell craft by Aboriginal women at La Perouse and the shell craft economy.

Mining History

Another “Primefact” from the Department of Primary Industries in NSW:

‘Mining by Aboriginies – Australia’s first miners.’

Informative, politically curious.

Frontier and Land Ownership

Gym and housework provided the opportunity to listen to the next two lectures of Professor Broome’s Australian Aboriginal History course: “The Nature of Frontier” and “Aboriginal and European Meanings of Land.” The example of the enclosure of British common land to private ownership demonstrated the wide ranging consequences of changing land ownership; from economic and social re-organisation to radicalisation of dispossessed people and changing identities. I imagine this sets up the next lecture “Possessing Australia.” The narratives around changing land use and economic and social reo-organisation continue to play out in NSW cultural heritage management. I’ve worked with a range of Aboriginal individuals and organisations who have different structures for engaging with cultural heritage and development. Groups are also employing different strategies to achieve community aims in response to development such as using the consultation process to gain community-led results for cultural heritage and education, funds to acquire land so that it can be managed in a more culturally appropriate manner and/or using funds to improve community facilities and capacities and much more. Often these strategies have directly financial impact on their community members. Similarly heritage consultancies and developers have their own structures and strategies to achieving their agendas. I see an essay on power structure, economic and social interaction coming on….

Continuing with the theme of frontiers, I read the first chapter of Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America” and watched another Western. All this studying calls for cake.

Australian Aboriginal History – Episode 1

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It is not uncommon in cultural heritage management to find yourself walking into the middle of a conflict. It’s usually a conflict that stems from misbalancing communication, time, money and stakeholder interest. Sometimes it is a conflict that is deeply rooted and resolving that conflict seems beyond the constraints of that commercial project. So, I’m going to go back to basics and try and be a bit more reflective about my practices at work. Hopefully this approach will help me improve my consultation and reporting skills, highlight some gaps in my knowledge and increase my engagement with archaeology, history and cultural heritage management.

So, back to basics. Lectures from Professor Richard Broome’s Australian Aboriginal History course at La Trobe’s University have been placed on ITunes so I had a listen to the first episode while sorting out my clothes closet. The lecture provided an introduction and overview of how Australia’s Aboriginal history has been told over the last two hundred years, touching on themes and theories such as the noble and doomed savage, paternalism, colonialism, political activism, the History Wars, cultural engagement and collaboration. Professor Broome emphasised the importance of thinking about how writing history can have a strong and wide influence on people’s identity and also our understanding of other people.

In a perfect world, a consultant archaeological and/or cultural heritage assessment report in NSW would capture all or most of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage values across time so that the stories behind these values can be told and impacts assessed. But how often does this happen as well as it could? Archaeological reports written by consultants often emphasise material evidence – the presence or absence of artefacts and sites – and written accessible evidence as it relates to specific parcels of land. This emphasis helps consultants identify the potential impacts to tangible values and hints at potential intangible values. One of the follow-on effects of this focus is perhaps a less comprehensive narrative of Aboriginal history after the 1900s and potentially a narrative that is unholistic – one that runs the risk of appearing to deny the identities and narratives of individuals who have a connection to that place. It’s not that consultants don’t have a framework for incorporating this information into their assessments and it’s not like there aren’t many excellent examples where multiple narratives have been brought together to work holistically. I think it would be rare to find a heritage consultant who didn’t have a genuine interest and desire in understanding people and place better. Consultants aim to look at the cultural landscape but pragmatism can sometimes constrain that goal. Sometimes I think when information is missing from an assessment it’s because of a lack of access to that information or that there were time and monetary contraints to chasing every lead in a place’s narrative. It’s why consultation with local Aboriginal communities is such an important part of the environmental impact/ cultural heritage impact assessment process. Consultants rely on local Aboriginal communities engaging in the consultation process and giving voice to the stories and connection to place. They rely on local input to provide local knowledge, local experience and to provide checks and balances to the pressures of the consultant industry.

It’s not a perfect system. There are numerous spots along the way where a cultural heritage assessment can fall apart and affect the quality of the history being told to its audience. It can fall apart because of a lack of research, experience and skillsets of a consultant, from a lack of communication or commitment between all of the involved parties and sometimes a lack of capacity (eg. Lack of funding, lack of support to provide those important check and balances). This is all before we get to questions of politics and who has the right to know what or be where, before we get to questions of working with individual and group identities, which change and grow with life’s experiences, before we think about managing conflicting agendas and before we even look at the other systems and models for undertaking cultural heritage assessment and management.

In summary, it is important to think about how my words can affect groups of people and my responsibility to write history in a collaborative, inclusive way. I think it would be good to understand the advantages and disadvantages of other models of cultural heritage assessment – do other models provide better opportunities for cultural knowledge holders to effectively manage heritage values in a place? Do other models result in better quality, more consistently inclusive historical narratives?