20,000 Aboriginal artefacts

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The new M15 Hunter Expressway knocks half an hour off our trip to Sydney. It bypasses the most tiresome part of the old journey, replacing it with travel at 110 kilometres an hour.

During the construction of the 40 kilometre expressway, archaeologists found over 20,000 Aboriginal artefacts. The eight-year long archaeological dig was one of  the largest subsurface archaeological investigations ever conducted in Australia.

Archaeologists found hammer stones, axes, stone tools, scarred trees, ceremonial sites, fire pits, open campsites, grinding grooves and artefact scatters. They are believed by the archaeologists to be 4500 to 5000 years old.

Artefacts were found along the whole length of the expressway, but most were discovered at Black Creek.  I wonder whether there were still Aboriginal people living along Black Creek at the time of white colonisation. It seems likely, as the name given to the creek by white men suggests that this may have been the case. Blacktown, a suburb of Sydney, for example, got its name from Aboriginal settlement there in the early days of the colony.

In a report on ABC news online on 14 February 2014, archaeologist Jan Wilson said 122 Aboriginal sites were identified, mainly on elevated areas and close to fresh water.

“We have a lot of evidence of Aboriginal people producing stone artefacts in sites,” she said.

“Of them using the flakes of stone they were manufacturing for cutting and slicing and sawing and of modifications to the artefacts so that they could make specific little tool types that people were using as a multitude of things; a spear barb, as knives as scrapers.”

She says residue testing has also been conducted.

“So we actually know that people were butchering kangaroos, we know that they were processing various types of plant foods, so we can start to look now at what times of the year people were in those sites,” she said.

“One of the artefacts we have here has someone’s fingerprints on it and that’s just amazing to see a single person.”

More than 40 Aboriginal community groups were involved in the project and excavation. After further analysis of the artefacts by the archaeologists, they will be handed over to the Aboriginal community who want to put the artefacts on public display in a new museum. They want to share them, and the story they tell, with all Australians

Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Laurie Perry says the discoveries are important for their history.

“It shows occupation, people were here,” he said.

The discoveries are important for all of our history. The wealth of artefacts uncovered in this relatively short corridor of Country are just a hint of the material evidence of Aboriginal occupation and land use in the Hunter Valley over millennia. That so much was found is astounding, and emphatic, when so little of the Aboriginal history of this place is ever mentioned in everyday life. The Great Australian Silence, W.E.H. Stanner’s razor-sharp observation of the white Australian psyche and its disavowal of our Indigenous history and of the blood on our hands. This silence continues to be deafening.

These 20,000 artefacts speak clearly through this silence. They issue a conceptual challenge to the way we move through the real and the imagined Australia. Mostly we choose not to allow space in our imaginations and in our hearts for Australia’s Aboriginal history, the unique-in-the-world, living and continuous heritage of Aboriginal thought and action. We disrespect Aboriginal people. We tolerate and perpetuate racism, including at all levels of  government and society. We are so blindly racist we have little idea that we are racist at all.

These artefacts say to us, if there are 20,000 of us here, then there are 20,000 of us somewhere else, and 20,000 somewhere else yet again, and again and again. If you look. Below the surface. Always here. Aboriginal Australia is always here. Not the past, but the past, present and future.

There are information panels at the expressway rest areas that discuss the Aboriginal people of the Hunter. I’ve included images of them below. The image on the first panel gives a good idea of the landscape through which the M15 was cut.

The final panel on the Hunter Expressway songline is quite disturbing, I find.  It is great that the bridges have all been given Aboriginal names by local Aboriginal people, presumably in the Katang language though the sign doesn’t say. However, the characterisation of the expressway as a ‘songline’ is simplistic and questionable, given the complexity, power and sacred basis of real songlines.

Aboriginal songlines are among the great cultural objects of human history; they are alive still and deserve the greatest respect.

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