Lack of marine policies place submerged Aboriginal heritage sites at risk

Submerged Indigenous heritage sites – called Sea Country by many First Nations peoples – are at risk of being lost because of blind spots in Australia’s environmental management policies, according to two new studies published in Australian Archaeology.

The first study, led by John McCarthy of Flinders University, highlighted that the waters north of Northern Territory and New Guinea, which were once part of a single landmass known as Sahul, were of special significance in the settlement of Australia, and contain some of the oldest dated archaeological evidence about how people came to Australia.

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North Gidley Island. Insets – (Top left) Large multiplatform core; (Top right) Quarried boulder in the intertidal zone; (Bottom left) Quarried boulder and artefact scatter; (Bottom right) Grinding patches and associated engravings within quarry site. Credit: Jerem Leach.

However, the researchers say that the marine management of submerged landscapes is not robust enough to protect them from climate change, mining and other industrial impacts.  

“Our Northern Territory study has highlighted a blind spot in marine management in this country,” says McCarthy.

“Submerged archaeological landscapes have not been included in nationally coordinated studies on marine biology and shipwreck heritage. With this study we provide a template for state-level baseline studies to extend the search for submerged landscapes nationally.”

The researchers suggest that marine management needs to be informed about the location of these heritage sites in order to write protective policies. While this requires further work to identify the sites, the authors assert that the pursuit holds promise.

“We concluded that submerged landscapes around Darwin and Bynoe Harbours provide varied and partially sheltered environments with maximum availability of facilities to support fieldwork,” says McCarthy.

“More remote areas attractive for prospection include the Tiwi Islands, the Wessel Islands and within the Gulf of Carpentaria, Groote Eylandt and the Sir Edward Pellew Islands, where the focused energy of currents and tides may provide windows of opportunity through erosion of sediments.”

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The second study, led by Jerem Leach of Flinders University, found a new intertidal stone quarry and stone-tool-manufacturing site, as well as coastal rock art and engravings, submerged around Murujaga sea country – across North Gidley Island in Western Australia. This suggests there may be other cultural heritage sites submerged around Australia.

The sites were discovered using aerial surveys in a partnership between Australian and UK universities, Airborne Research Australia and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. The tools were dated to around 7000 years ago, but the exact age of the site is yet to be determined.

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The islands of Murujuga, showing the location of the study area, and the extent of the sub-aerially exposed land. Credit: Leach et al in Australian Archaeology.

“We found evidence of a diverse range of cultural activities across North Gidley Island, including evidence of ancient seed processing, marine resource use, lithic quarrying and production, rock-art production and ceremonial activities,” says Leach.

“Dating this range of activities remains challenging, but there is some indication from engravings and submerged material that North Gidley Island was occupied at the terminal Pleistocene and into the Holocene.”

The researchers suggest that more sites could be identified along this coast, and so the area needs to be protected.

“The challenge we now face for Australian submerged heritage is to extend the discoveries made at Murujuga to other areas, both in the land and seascape around these sites, but also across the Australian continental shelf,” says Jonathan Benjamin, the maritime archaeology program coordinator at Flinders University.

“We need to better understand and manage this underwater cultural heritage through local and national approaches.”

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(Top left) Northwest North Gidley Island quarry and artefact scatter; (Top right) Flake from North Gidley Island quarry and artefact scatter; (Bottom left) Northwest North Gidley Island mobile sands aerial imagery from 2018; (Bottom right) Northwest North Gidley Island mobile sands drone imagery from 2019. Credit: Shaun Wright and Jonathan Benjamin.

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