Daily Archives: May 27, 2020
In the expansion of its iron ore mine in Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto blasted the Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 – Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years. These sites had deep historical and cultural significance.
The shelters are the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age.
The mining blast caused significant distress to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama traditional land owners. It’s an irretrievable loss for future generations.
Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. It has global significance, and forms an important component of the heritage of all Australians.
But the destruction of a culturally significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Rio Tinto was acting within the law.
In 2013, Rio Tinto was given ministerial consent to damage the Juukan Gorge caves. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed incredible artefacts, such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair, and evidence that the site was much older than originally thought.
But state laws let Rio Tinto charge ahead nevertheless. This failure to put timely and adequate regulatory safeguards in place reveals a disregard and a disrespect for sacred Aboriginal sites.
Not an isolated incident
The history of large developments destroying Indigenous heritage sites is, tragically, long.
A $2.1 billion light rail line in Sydney, completed last year, destroyed a site of considerable significance.
More than 2,400 stone artefacts were unearthed in a small excavated area. It indicated Aboriginal people had used the area between 1788 and 1830 to manufacture tools and implements from flint brought over to Australia on British ships.
Similarly, ancient rock art on the Burrup Peninsula in north-western Australia is under increasing threat from a gas project. The site contains more than one million rock carvings (petroglyphs) across 36,857 hectares.
This area is under the custodianship of Ngarluma people and four other traditional owners groups: the Mardudhunera, the Yaburara, the Yindjibarndi and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.
But a Senate inquiry revealed emissions from adjacent industrial activity may significantly damage it.
The West Australian government is seeking world heritage listing to try to increase protection, as the regulatory frameworks at the national and state level aren’t strong enough. Let’s explore why.
What do the laws say?
The recently renamed federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is responsible for listing new national heritage places, and regulating development actions in these areas.
At the federal level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides a legal framework for their management and protection. It is an offence to impact an area that has national heritage listing.
But many ancient Aboriginal sites have no national heritage listing. For the recently destroyed Juurkan gorge, the true archaeological significance was uncovered after consent had been issued and there were no provisions to reverse or amend the decision once this new information was discovered.
Where a site has no national heritage listing, and federal legislation has no application, state laws apply.
For the rock shelters in the Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto was abiding by Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 – which is now nearly 50 years old.
Section 17 of that act makes it an offence to excavate, destroy, damage, conceal or in any way alter any Aboriginal site without the ministerial consent.
But, Section 18 allows an owner of the land – and this includes the holder of a mining licence – to apply to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee for consent to proceed with a development action likely to breach section 17.
The committee then evaluates the importance and significance of the site, and makes a recommendation to the minister. In this case, the minister allowed Rio Tinto to proceed with the destruction of the site.
No consultation with traditional owners
The biggest concern with this act is there’s no statutory requirement ensuring traditional owners be consulted.
This means traditional owners are left out of vital decisions regarding the management and protection of their cultural heritage. And it confers authority upon a committee that, in the words of a discussion paper, “lacks cultural authority”.
There is no statutory requirement for an Indigenous person to be on the committee, nor is there a requirement that at least one anthropologist be on the committee. Worse still, there’s no right of appeal for traditional owners from a committee decision.
So, while the committee must adhere to procedural fairness and ensure traditional owners are given sufficient information about decisions, this doesn’t guarantee they have a right to consultation nor any right to provide feedback.
Weak in other jurisdictions
The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is under review. The proposed reforms seek to abolish the committee, ensuring future decisions on Aboriginal cultural heritage give appropriate regard to the views of the traditional Aboriginal owners.
NSW is the only state with no stand-alone Aboriginal heritage legislation. However, a similar regulatory framework to WA applies in NSW under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.
There, if a developer is likely to impact cultural heritage, they must apply for an Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit. The law requires “regard” to be given to the interests of Aboriginal owners of the land, but this vague provision does not mandate consultation.
What’s more, the burden of proving the significance of an Aboriginal object depends upon external statements of significance. But Aboriginal people, not others, should be responsible for determining the cultural significance of an object or area.
As in WA, the NSW regulatory framework is weak, opening up the risk for economic interests to be prioritised over damage to cultural heritage.
The federal minister has discretion to assess whether state or territory laws are already effective.
If they decide state and territory laws are ineffective and a cultural place or object is under threat, then the federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 can be used.
But this act is also weak. It was first implemented as an interim measure, intended to operate for two years. It has now been in operation for 36 years.
In fact, a 1995 report assessed the shortcomings of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
It recommended minimum standards be put in place. This included ensuring any assessment of Aboriginal cultural significance be made by a properly qualified body, with relevant experience.
It said the role of Aboriginal people should be appropriately recognised and statutorily endorsed. Whether an area or site had particular significance according to Aboriginal tradition should be regarded as a subjective issue, determined by an assessment of the degree of intensity of belief and feeling of Aboriginal people.
Twenty-five years later, this is yet to happen.
In ancient Rome, you could tell a lot about a person from the look of their garden. Ancient gardens were spaces used for many activities, such as dining, intellectual practice, and religious rituals. They also offered the opportunity to flaunt horticultural skills as well as travels. As such, gardens were taken rather seriously by Romans. Walking had an important role here, as there is no better way to show off your garden than to take people on walks through it.
The role of horticulture in the construction of elite identity in ancient Rome is one of the topics I am investigating, while the excavation of an ancient Pompeian garden I co-direct is revealing tangible information on settings for horticultural displays.
For wealthy Romans, gardens were a place to exercise the mind, for instance by strolling while conversing about philosophy or literature. The orator and philosopher Cicero famously wrote that if you have a garden and a library you have everything you need.
The type of plants chosen could reveal much about how cultured the owner was. From the writings of Roman authors, we can see that plane trees (which nowadays commonly line streets and walkways in parks) were a good choice. They offered shade in summer and were a way to show that one was versed in Greek philosophy: Aristotle and Plato’s famed philosophical schools were held in garden’s shaded by plane trees, as Plato referred to in his Phaedrus.
Fruit of the empire
Rome empire-building military expeditions abroad also resulted in new plants, or new cultivars (a plant variety produced by selective breeding) of known plants being introduced into Italy. Roman generals or provincial governors often came back to Italy with specimens that they planted in their gardens. For example, Lucius Vitellius the Elder, the father of Emperor Vitellius, planted several figs varieties in his rural villa estate near Rome that he had encountered while governor of Syria. In this way, gardens could also become a sort of microcosm of Rome’s empire, with plants from different territories.
Horticultural display of grafted fruit trees and other plants reproduced by layering might have characterised the large garden of the House of Queen Caroline – named in the 19th century after the queen of Naples and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, Caroline, who visited during its initial excavation. I am currently excavating the site in Pompeii in collaboration with colleagues from Cornell University. Here wide walkways seem to have separated the regularly spaced plantings, an indication that it was not a commercial orchard but a garden in which horticultural productivity was an important part of the pleasure the garden was meant to offer.
Committed to exercise
Walking in their gardens was a serious exercise for many wealthy Romans. Medical works such as the de Medicina by the encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus, written in the first century AD, give specific indications about the daily exercise physicians recommended: one Roman mile, or 1,000 paces.
Some gardens even came with exercise advice inscribed in them detailing how many laps a person needed to cover. One such inscription from Rome once stood in an ancient orchard. It advised that to cover one mile one needed to go along the path back and forth five times.
In Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy, a similar inscription was found in the Poikilé, the large four-sided portico enclosing a garden with a central pool. The north side of the Poikilé was a double portico, with circular spaces at both ends to allow one to do laps: this was where the emperor could walk sheltered from the elements. Thus, Hadrian could either take exercise in the open air, in the central garden, or under the roof of the double portico.
All this may suggest that the stereotype associating ancient Romans with excessive drinking and eating is undeserved. But, for wealthy individuals, moving about in a chariot or being carried around in a litter (a “vehicle” without wheels) by slaves in hippodrome-gardens (they were shaped like an elongated U and imitated the shape of the chariot-racing stadium) also counted as “exercising”. Indeed, there are two words in Latin texts for the daily walk: ambulatio, “walking about”, and gestatio, “being carried about”.
Such walking was the pastime of those who owned impressive townhouses or luxurious villas in the country or by the sea. But shrewd politicians such as the Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD, included gardens among the public building projects they financed. They understood that improving living standards by providing ordinary people with a green oasis to escape Rome’s crowded streets and cramped accommodation was a great way to gain popularity. Augustus opened to the public the groves and walks which surrounded the magnificent Mausoleum he had built, and before him, Caesar had willed to the people of Rome his large pleasure park (Horti).
Following the Roman dichotomy between amoenitas (delightfulness) and utilitas (usefulness), scholars traditionally class gardens as either utilitarian or pleasure gardens, but this binary choice does not fully capture the essence of Roman garden culture. Roman gardens were complex physical and ideological spaces. They represented wealth and contributed to wealth and they showed off horticultural skills through aesthetics as well as their ability to produce food.