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Pilbara heritage site under threat
Monday 15 June 2020

An article by Emma Young on theage.com.au - 'Default setting stuck on destroy': FMG's plan to blast 60,000-year-old site - reports on the fate of a 60,000-year-old Pilbara heritage site in Western Australia.

Pilbara heritage site Western Australia Fortescue Metals Group rock shelters campsites rock paintings engravings
Eastern Guruma traditional owner Kelvin Hughes undertaking excavation within one of the rock shelters. CREDIT:WINTAWARI GURUMA ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

As demonstrators gather on Tuesday at Rio Tinto's Perth headquarters to protest against the blasting of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site, a neighbouring Aboriginal corporation anxiously awaits a decision from WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt on another older site sitting squarely in the path of a mine.

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Fortescue Metals Group's planned Queens mine expansion, part of the Solomon project, has a footprint covering more than 70 heritage sites, including rock shelters, campsites and rock paintings and engravings – the 60,000-year-old rock shelter among them.

Pilbara heritage site Western Australia Fortescue Metals Group rock shelters campsites rock paintings engravings
Eastern Guruma traditional owners Darren Hicks and Warwick Mourambine undertaking analysis of the excavated material at one of the rock shelters. Artefacts then underwent testing at Australian universities. CREDIT:WINTAWARI GURUMA ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

The Eastern Guruma gained permission to excavate and investigate to demonstrate the sites' cultural value, explains archaeologist Kathryn Przywolnik, who is heritage manager at Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation which represents the Eastern Guruma people.

However, before this work could commence, FMG sought a Section 18 consent from Mr Wyatt to destroy the first batch of sites. So the Aboriginal corporation rushed out at the end of last year and completed brief and urgent excavations at two of the sites. The sites ran even deeper than anticipated.

Pilbara heritage site Western Australia Fortescue Metals Group rock shelters campsites rock paintings engravings
Traditional owners July Hicks, Dennis Hicks Senior and Jocelyn Hicks on country. CREDIT:WINTAWARI GURUMA ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

“When you have a cave that people were living in 40,000-50,000 years ago, over those years the deposits built up slowly and ground surface rises,” Dr Przywolnik said. “So as we excavate the younger stuff is at the top and the older stuff is at the bottom. A shallow deposit suggests a lesser age and a deeper deposit can indicate a much older age.”

Optically stimulated luminescence testing of stone tools and other matter, uncovered more than a metre below the surface, showed the first two rock shelters’ use and occupation by humans dated back 47,800 years ago in one, and approximately 60,000 years in the second.

A third site contained rock engravings on a series of five stone panels that depicted animal and human figures, animal tracks and geometric motifs that traditional owners described as “sacred texts”, because figures representing the major Dreaming narratives in the area were all contained within the same site. She pointed out that there were only a handful of sites of comparable significance in Australia. “When you find sites that are more than 40,000 years old you are getting into a very unique part of the Australian Aboriginal story. What we understand about people 60,000 years ago has evolved a lot.”

The archaeologists and the Eastern Guruma people both made submissions to the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee which will advise the Minister on his decision. They asked the Minister to protect 30 of the sites in the mine expansion footprint, at least until further excavation and sampling could be done. They made these submissions in early February.

Dr Przywolnik went on to say “Finding incredible sites like this requires mining companies to budget sufficient time to find them, and this is only half the battle. It is then up to the Aboriginal corporations to convince the Minister and his advisory body the ACMC that the sites are worth saving. For an administration tasked with preserving sites, the default setting seems stuck on destroy. While Minister Wyatt may be relieved he was not the minister who originally agreed to the destruction of Juukan Gorge without knowing its true importance, he is the only person who can decide whether state-sanctioned destruction like this happens again.”

Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said the company worked closely with traditional owners with a primary objective to “work on a cultural heritage ‘avoidance’ basis”. The company’s seven Native Title land access agreements and dozens of Aboriginal heritage agreements established detailed processes for the conduct of heritage surveys, consultation, project planning, impact mitigation and negotiation. “Final decisions to grant Section 18 consent rest with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and we understand that the WA Government recognises the importance of making appropriately balanced decisions to protect significant heritage sites while facilitating local jobs and economic growth. Ordinarily the Minister accepts the advice from that statutory committee whose role it is to provide formal advice to the Minister on these matters.”

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