Two ancient pieces of Aboriginal rock art are making their way back to Tasmania’s north-west after a long campaign to have them returned to the rugged coastline from where they were stolen in the 1960s.
- The Indigenous rock carvings are estimated to be 14,000 years old
- They were taken from the state’s remote north-west to museums five decades ago
- They will be placed in their natural environment where they are likely to be covered by sand
After more than five decades, three institutional apologies and painstaking preservation work, the petroglyphs are being loaded onto trucks, headed hundreds of kilometers away to their home in a remote corner of the state.
It marks the end of a hard-fought battle to return the petroglyphs to preminghana* from the state’s two oldest museums — the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in Hobart and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) in Launceston.
Today, the sacred 14,000-year-old petroglyphs will start the final leg of their journey with a smoking ceremony at each museum before they head to their final resting place over the next week.
Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania manager Rebecca Digney said it was a “momentous” day that many First Nations Tasmanians had waited more than 50 years for.
“These discussions about why these beautiful items were held in glass in a museum were being had around kitchen tables and in the lounge rooms of palawa people for decades, and eventually they began to grow,” she said.
“Now in 2022, we’re now seeing those sacred items returned to their proper place on country, so it’s been a long time coming.
“It’s all happening and there’s a real buzz in the air because everyone’s just so excited — this is reconciliation in action.”
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre’s Andry Sculthorpe addressed the ceremony at TMAG’s Rosny storage facility on Hobart’s eastern shore.
He thanked members of the Aboriginal community for tirelessly campaigning to have the carvings returned.
“For probably 20, 30 years I can remember people talking about this, so to see it happen now is a wonderful thing,” he said.
Zoe Rimmer from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Heritage Council used to work at TMAG when the carvings were still on display.
She said it was “amazing” to be there to farewell them from the building.
“It was part of my job then to give tours through that gallery and awkwardly explain to visitors why that exhibition was so offensive to our community,” she said.
“It is a huge milestone in the significant shift that has been taking place at this institution over the last three decades.”
Aboriginal Land Council chairman Michael Mansell told the Launceston crowd the artworks were like puzzle pieces; They don’t make sense on their own, but when put back in place, they tell a story.
“If you look along all the rock carvings along the West Coast of Tasmania, our ancestors left a record for us 15,000 years ago of Aboriginal life,” he said.
“Of course you can’t understand the message that’s being left for us right now because it’s not part of the bigger picture, but you put it back and you see it all makes sense.”
Logistical exercise of epic proportions
Ms Digney said there had been several political and legal hurdles to jump over just to have the art handed back in principle, let alone for it to be physically moved from one end of the state to the other.
Both museums had to agree and go through processes outlined in the Aboriginal heritage act. Then Aboriginal Affairs Minister Roger Jaensch had to sign off on a final permit.
Since that permit was granted, Ms Digney said there had been “a coming together of minds” to tackle the unprecedented task of getting the rock art home, including enlisting the help of an expert stonemason and structural engineers.
The preminghana site is only accessible by foot or by several hours of four-wheel driving — two unviable options for transporting massive but fragile ancient art.
“The bigger petroglyph in Hobart had to have the concrete carefully removed from it, so now it weighs about a tonne, and the smaller one is about 300 kilograms,” she said.
“The community’s preference initially was to helicopter these massive sacred items in because the notion of taking heavy machinery across that landscape was just not acceptable, but we’ve had to change that.
“Everyone’s been so great at working with us, taking in our cultural knowledge and our cultural will.”
Culture practitioners will be with the trucks every step of the way, Ms Digney said, so the heritage of the landscape could be protected.
She said the petroglyphs would go back where they were taken from, and while that meant they would quickly be covered in sand, she said that was the way they were supposed to be.
Claims north-west locals not consulted
The celebrations are not universal across Tasmania’s Aboriginal groups.
The Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation (CHAC), whose geographical area includes preminghana, is protesting at the site over what it says is a lack of consultation with it and the broader community in the area.
CHAC chairwoman Selina Maguire-Colgrave said both non-Indigenous and Aboriginal residents should have been included in the repatriation process.
“This has been constantly happening for years,” she said.
“As we’ve only got one land council, and they’re Hobart based, they’re supposed to speak on behalf of all of Aboriginal Tasmania, which they don’t do.”
“I think culture should be shared and not made divisive.”
“We need to involve the local community in these big decisions. It can’t be Hobart-centric all the time.”
Ms Maguire-Colgrave said putting the petroglyphs back in the landscape would amount to them “being buried”.
“Why wouldn’t we use some of the oldest petroglyphs in the world as a learning opportunity and tool for reconciliation?” she said.
“We could have put them in our local museum or looked into a purpose-built facility near Preminghana so we can learn from them.”
Ms Digney said the land council consulted hundreds of people, including in the north-west, and described the idea of moving the art from one institution to another as “counterproductive”.
Dark past brought into the light
The petroglyph return has been part of a broader reckoning among Tasmania’s cultural institutions about the way to acquire and display Aboriginal artefacts and history.
TMAG and the Royal Society of Tasmania publicly apologized in February 2021, saying “nearly 200 years of practices were morally wrong”.
In colonial times, the organizations were jointly involved in exhuming the bodies of Aboriginal people in the name of science and taking sacred artefacts without permission.
The Launceston City Council, which manages the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, apologized to Aboriginal Tasmanians during NAIDOC Week in 2020, although not specifically about the petroglyphs or artefacts.
TMAG director Mary Mulcahy said the museum acknowledged that spiritually and culturally important materials and those acquired unethically should “be returned to their rightful owners unconditionally”.
She said the museum had “apologized unreservedly for its past practices — including the removal of the preminghana petroglyphs in the 1960s — that resulted in immense hurt and suffering to Tasmanian Aboriginal people”.
*The Tasmanian palawa kani language does not use capital letters