Bennelong Papers

A Load of Old Rubbish

I first became aware of the Juukan Rock Shelter controversy when I read a piece in The Guardian in which (very) left-wing activist and, hence, grant- and prize-supported writer Jeff Sparrow called out conservatives who  criticized the smashing of statues as hypocrites for not equally deploring the destruction of this Aboriginal site by Rio Tinto.

Order your copy of Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest here

Sparrow says:

As the professional offence takers at News Corp and elsewhere bring themselves to repeated ragegasms over the vandalism of Captain Cook statues and the removal of Chris Lilley in blackface from streaming platforms, they ignore, more or less entirely, the incalculably more important obliteration of cultural heritage taking place in the Australian desert.

A few weeks ago Rio Tinto dynamited the Juukan rock shelters, destroying, in a few minutes, a site of human occupation dating back more than 40,000 years. Gone with the Wind remains available online (Google it!) despite HBO Max’s decision to (temporarily) drop it. But the caves – described as “staggering” by scientists who worked on them – have been ruined for all time.

This is the superficially plausible form of argument that I call ‘VanOnselenism’, named after its most  prolific exponent. Setting aside the hyperbole of his opening sentence, he makes a valid point, does he not?

Well, no.

The most obvious point of difference is that the destruction of statues and cancellation of ‘unacceptable’ cultural artefacts was done by screaming mobs and unelected woke gatekeepers of modern morality respectively.  The demolition of the Juukan site was done with the approval of the duly elected Western Australia Labor government and in the full knowledge of its Treasurer and Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Ben Wyatt, himself and Aboriginal man.  I had only just started to put pen to paper on this issue when, fortuitously, an article by Paul Garvey  in The Australian provided a much more balanced and comprehensive coverage of this issue than Sparrow’s.  This extract

Rio Tinto was given legal authority to destroy the caves through the section 18 mechanism under WA’s decades-old Aboriginal Heritage Act after an agreement signed by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people with Rio.

Hundreds of such section 18 exemptions have been signed off by successive Aboriginal affairs ministers during the past seven years, including Wyatt. Those ministers act on advice from the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee, comprising indigenous representatives, archaeologists and anthropologists who assess each application.

I should add that Minister Wyatt does not believe that the Section 18 mechanism, which precludes Aboriginal groups from changing their minds post-approval, is equitable and he is working to amend it.  Nonetheless, the actions of Rio Tinto were completely legal.

Garvey goes on to say:

The Juukan Gorge controversy has exposed a major weakness in the Aboriginal Heritage Act, namely the inability for traditional owners to appeal against a section 18 decision, even when new evidence about the significance of a site comes to hand.

Which brings me to my central point – the site’s significance or otherwise.

The term ‘significance’, of itself, has no meaning, as it provides no context. I would contend there are two types of significance at play in these matters – cultural significance to Aboriginal people and archaeological significance of interest chiefly to a specialised group of academics.  From my observations in researching my book Bitter Harvest, many, if not most of this latter group – particularly those specialising in Aboriginal archaeology – are activists who will happily exaggerate their findings to advance a political agenda and, of course, to embellish their own credentials. As an example of sites being gilded with imaginative and grandiose claims, let me refer the reader to Fauxboriginality: The Mount Elephant Myth.

It is clear that the Juukan site had no special cultural significance for the Pilbara Aborigines until a pre-demolition dig, conducted in good faith by Rio Tinto, uncovered some artefacts.  What did they uncover?  Again I defer to Paul Garvey:

The true historical significance of Juukan Gorge came to light only well after the native title agreement and the section 18 exemption were secured. In 2015, as part of Rio Tinto’s commitment to try to mitigate the impact of “unavoidable” destruction of heritage sites, the mining giant funded an archaeological dig and salvage operation at the caves. The dig unearthed about 7000 artefacts from up to 2m below the cave floor — mostly stones, sharpened pebbles and animal bones, as well as a fragment of a 4000-year-old hair belt. The significance of the site suddenly became far more apparent.

Since the locals were previously unaware of these artefacts, the cultural significance of the site could hardly have changed much.  Are they so spiritual that the discovery of some mundane artefacts, that have now actually been preserved, has so fundamentally altered their view of this site?  Did they think that the site would never have been used by their ancestors sometime in the past 46,000 years, even despite the absence of any rock paintings or carvings.  This site is, actually, little more than a midden, by the sound of it.  And are we to halt mining that enriches the country in general and local Aboriginal communities in particular, for every midden discovered? You can see an embryonic midden in almost every remote Aboriginal community in northern Australia.

As to the archaeological significance of the site, what further pieces of rubbish do the archaeologists expect to find and what further insights do they expect these artefacts to provide into Aboriginal culture that we don’t already know.  After all, isn’t it the ‘oldest culture on Earth’?

Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest can be ordered here

8 comments
  • Tony Tea

    “effectively boil down to the trading of land and cultural sites for mining industry money”

    Garvey makes that sound like a bad thing.

  • Peter Smith

    When you’re as woke as RIO you gotta protect every indigenous midden. Its failure on this occasion will lead me never to buy another RIO share; at least unless the price dips below $92, when my search for capital gain might temporarily outweigh my moral indignation.

  • john.singer

    As the archeology of Australia has become virtually no existent due to the demanded return and probable destruction of all artifacts and remains. There is no way of knowing in advance what is where or its value.

    Compare this with the enormous advances in our knowledge (in less than 15 years) about Australia’s Dinosaurs of land and ancient waterways. This is because research is allowed to continue with encouragement and not prohibition and penalty.

  • Lawrie Ayres

    While digging the foundations for a shed I came across what could have been a fireplace about a metre down. What to do? Fill it with concrete as quickly as possible. My friend was building a weighbridge and had the local aborigines survey the site. They found axe heads which they presented to him as proof he was intending to build on sacred ground. He asked them to show him where the axe heads were found but they were unable to do so. The axe heads were obviously imported. Given the opportunity aborigines will claim every stone, tree or dip in the ground is sacred but strangely it can be unblessed, as it were, with a wad of money. We now know, courtesy of Bruce Pascoe, that there are cities out there just waiting to be rediscovered so why they are bothered with the dynamiting of a fire place is quite beyond me.

  • lhackett01

    Any mountain, creek, ravine, tree and stone can and is being declared ‘sacred’ by Aborigines and their followers if there is a possibility of their exerting control over ‘white’ man’s endevours. This is all part of the present push towards eventual sovereignty over much, if not all, of Australia. Where I live, on Macleay Island in Qld, the Aborigines living on Stradbroke Island must be involved in most excavations, including that of about 70mm depth to pour a concrete pad for a park seat. This, in case there might be an accumulation of shells indicating past Aboriginal activity. Of course the Aborigines have to be paid to attend. Aborigines are employed with the local City Council in studies of fuel-reduction burning and coastal erosion control. This is nonsense. Modern fire control techniques far outweigh anything the Aborigine did traditionally. Likewise, there is no evidence that Aborigines have traditional knowledge of coastal erosion control. These activities and others are occurring widely, mostly without the public being aware. Now, according to the Weekend Australian report,the Victorian government is threatening fines of up to $300,000 if people use an area of Mount Arapiles, that is a world-famous climbing destination, where rock art that is invisible to the human eye has been discovered using specialist equipment. These acts of government in kowtowing to Aborigines for the sake of ‘political correctness’ must stop. Certainly, sites that are assessed by experts to be unique or contain relics that reveal ancient customs and beliefs must be protected. However, this should not include every daub, scratch, or rubbish dump (midden). Likewise, places should not be closed to the public merely because some Aborigines claim their mythical creation spirits made the geological feature.

  • tbeath

    We really do live in a weird world of priorities.
    On one hand, we have dreamed, imagined, passed-on, Aunty said stories making headlines in the media.
    No one disputed claims in The Age that 800-year old “birthing trees” were under threat by a highway change. Then again, I did, but was ignored. As a forester, the trees in question were likely to be under 150 years. But NOOO, them waz 800 year old birfing trees, what our ancestors bled beneath.
    Reality check: How the hell did they county 800 years? How the hell did they hang around long enough for “Aunty” to implant this marvellous myth?
    I’ll stop, as the stupidity, gullibility of people really sends me to despair.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    Thanks Peter
    If one can get away with monetizing the atmosphere by putting a tax on carbon dioxide (412 parts per million) based on pseudoscience, then monetizing the spiritual realm based on “significance”- and other arguments – should not surprise us.
    Like the atmosphere, spirituality is pervasive. As lhackett01 notes above: “any mountain, creek, ravine, tree and stone can and is being declared ‘sacred’ by Aborigines and their followers if there is a possibility of their exerting control over ‘white’ man’s endeavors.”
    A 2009 “Spirituality Review” (Winnunga corporation) defined spirituality “as a dynamic, evolving, contemporary expression of Indigineity. Spirituality connects past, present and future. Spirituality emphasises people’s relationships with each other, the living (other entities—animals) and non-living (mating season, tides, wind and mythology) life forces premised by an understanding or experience of their place of origination.”
    Furthermore, “in recognition of the capacity of spiritual traditions to be used in supportive psychotherapy roles, spiritual traditions, which provide meaning and identity, assist in building resilience in those suffering mental health disorders.”
    It has another big advantage too: claims should be accepted without challenge from “a certain kind of Australian secularism”.
    As Hal Wooton QC explained in the 1992 Junction Waterhole case, lacking understanding of religion, people may pry where scrutiny is inappropriate, or ridicule things which should be taken seriously:
    “I have deliberately not tried to describe the relevant beliefs in any detail, much less to explain them … I feel a personal obligation to respect the confidentiality of the information given to me. Moreover, I would not wish my report to be the vehicle for the public trivialisation and ridicule of Aboriginal beliefs in the media by uncomprehending people, a situation which was such a shocking feature of the debate over Coronation Hill.”

    The concept of doing “spiritual harm” has become entrenched in legal arguments over land rights and native title for at least a couple of decades.

  • sirtony

    Surely the best place for these artefacts is on display in a museum where people can see and learn from them. What was Rio supposed to do, re-bury them 2m down and leave the cave as it found it? The cynic in me wonders if what was really wanted was a subsequent negotiation with further payments being required once the cave had slightly more prehistorical significance.

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