Rock Art Threat Spurs State Investigation
By Debra JopsonJune 3, 2013
The New South Wales Government is close to completing a formal investigation, prompted by a March report in The Global Mail, into the desecration of two Blue Mountains caves rich in Aboriginal rock art.
The deadline for an assessment on how to conserve the caves is due “mid-year,” state Environment Minister Robyn Parker said last week.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service, which falls under Parker’s ministry, called in archaeologist Wayne Brennan to assist after The Global Mail aired his concerns about the condition of the “Twin Shelters” site at Clarence in the mountains behind Sydney. Brennan fears that evidence of ancient activity there, possibly dating back thousands of years, is being destroyed by tourists.
The two caves face each other across a cutting made by a mining company more than two decades ago. Their floors harbour ancient hearth deposits, and their walls are lined with fading paintings of goannas, the prints of children’s and adults’ hands, as well as stencils of a carrying bowl and digging stick – artworks made before colonisation pushed the Aboriginal inhabitants out.
These rock shelters are a haunting reminder of the people who once lived here, cooking meals together and teaching their children how to make hand stencils, on the eucalypt-forested slopes.
But the shelters’ dirt floors are being eroded by over-enthusiastic visitors who clamber up from the tarred road in the cutting, and over the remains of ancient fireplaces; and their walls and artworks are now covered in modern graffiti.
“By the week, by the month, by the year, we are losing valuable information about the site,” Brennan said in March.
However, Parker told The Global Mail last week that, “Investigations into this site are ongoing and assessment will be completed by mid-year. Protection of this site will be informed by the comprehensive inspection and assessment process.”
Brennan said that he and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) are investigating the property’s current lease status, as well as trying to discover the identity of the coal-mining company responsible for creating the cutting that began the damage in the 1980s.
“It would be great to see a contribution from the company,” he said.
The ancient cave-floor sediment, containing valuable deposits which could yield information about the people who made campfires over possibly thousands of years, has not yet been studied by archaeologists, but in the meantime continues to fall out of the rock shelters, to mingle with surrounding dust.
Brennan believes this erosion started when the mining company failed to remediate its roadworks by shoring up the sides of the cutting.
He does not know if the company has a legal responsibility to make amends for harm caused to this valuable heritage, but argues that it has at least a moral obligation.
Brennan has been reliably informed that, following publication of The Global Mail story, the Minister ordered the NPWS to clean graffiti from Emu Cave, another rock-art site right on the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains, which was also mentioned in the TGM coverage.
But Brennan believes work should also start immediately to protect the Twin Shelters sediments. And he wants the NSW Government to then draw on the Service’s Cultural Heritage Division, rock-art specialists and the Aborigines who have a stake in Twin Shelters, to create a conservation and management plan.
The benefits of preserving a cultural treasure in a World Heritage area can be far-reaching; for example, as part of the process, local Aborigines – including some who may be descended from the people who lit the hearths and left those marks on the rock in the first place – could be trained in conservation and site interpretation, Brennan suggests.
Twin Shelters provides a test of how committed the Government is to preserving this heritage.
“Rock art gets hardly any money in the NPWS Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) budget...The Cultural Heritage Division is under-resourced and understaffed in the field. There are some restructuring concerns at the moment in OEH and everybody is a little nervous,” says Brennan.
Parker has said that the OEH would spend more than $9 million on Aboriginal cultural heritage in the financial year 2012-13. But she did not say how much of that was going to the protection of rock art. And Australia still has no national inventory of its rock art heritage.