Grassroots archaeology in northern Australia

Northern Australia has two seasons – the Wet and the Dry. By July the Dry season is in full swing, the skies are blue and clear, the grass is turning yellow, the days are cooler; this is the field work season. I work at the grassroots level, employed mostly by Aboriginal corporations to work with Traditional Owners identifying, documenting and managing their significant heritage places. Documenting knowledge from the Elders and training younger Traditional Owners is a big part of my job.

Last night I returned from a four day trip working on an Aboriginal owned property in the Gulf savannah. I have been going out on country (‘country’ is the term Aboriginal people use to describe their particular cultural estate) with these Cultural Heritage Officers and rangers a few of times a year since the Cultural Heritage Officers started in 2012. This trip we were setting up a site management system, marking sites that had been found on topographic maps and encouraging the rangers to use site forms and collect detailed information on the cultural sites they find.

Many Aboriginal people from this area were forcibly removed from their country to government reserves and missions when white pastoralists moved in in the 1870’s. While some men and women stayed and worked for the white pastoralists as stockmen and housemaids, other families were moved away and have never had the opportunity to reconnect with their traditional land. For the rangers and Cultural Heritage Officers recording archaeological sites and cultural heritage is an opportunity to reconnect to the culture of their ancestors.

Today I am putting together a poster about what the Cultural Heritage Officers do and what archaeological sites they have found on the property. It will be displayed in their office to show other community members. I like making posters because I find them a great way to communicate visually to a broad audience.

Today is also a planning day for the next field trip, recording rock art shelters with another team of Traditional Owners and university volunteers, for my PhD research. It has taken months to get to this stage of the project, building a relationship with Traditional Owners through meetings and reconnaissance trips. The recording will include digital enhancement of rock imagery and video interviews of Elders talking about the traditional stories embedded in the landscape. I’m very excited about this upcoming trip, but today I must stay focussed on booking vehicles, confirming land access, downloading data and checking budgets.