13 September 2018
Archaeologists to uncover more island history

Dr Annie Clarke meets with Anindilyakwa elders, Danny Lalara and Jabani Lalara at Emerald River.

Archaeologists hope to unearth more of Groote Eylandt’s rich history when they continue with fieldwork next year.

University of Sydney archaeologist Associate Professor Dr Annie Clarke, has a 30-year affiliation with the mineral-rich island in the Gulf of Carpentaria dating back to 1991, and has just completed a project to return archaeological materials from the University of Sydney to the island’s traditional owners, the Anindilyakwa people.

The Groote Eylandt Archaeology Repatriation Project, funded by the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC), returned historical items such shells, charcoal, fishbones and stone tools for safe keeping. Photographs from fieldwork in the 1990s were also digitised and copies given to members of all the families who helped Annie with her fieldwork.

Anindilyakwa sisters, Shirley, Gloria, Amy and Faith Yantarrnga worked with Associate Professor Clarke sorting and cataloguing the items. Their parents worked closely with Annie in the 1990s.

The material will be  used to obtain  carbon dates  for sites that were used by Anindilyakwa and Macassan peoples and  other sites where they recorded Indigenous occupation of the island prior to arrival of the Macassans.

The items were uncovered from ancient Groote Eylandt camping places, the oldest of which was a small cave called Angwurrkburna at Salt Lake, dating back 3000 years.

At some of the old camping places, such as Marngkala Cave where Associate Professor  Clarke worked with traditional owners, Claude Mamarika, Mary Amagula and their families, pieces of glass bottles, pottery, metal tools and glass beads from Macassan times, were found alongside fishbones, shells and charcoal.

“The old people probably got these things in return for working for the Macassans collecting and processing ‘dirriba’, also called trepang,” Dr Clarke said.

The project allowed for plenty of nostalgia and reminiscences, particularly when Dr Clarke returned photographs to family members who helped with the research.

“Sadly, many of the old people I originally worked with have now passed away but the photographs gave everyone good memories of the times spent together and it was fun to give all the children and grandchildren photos of when they were much younger,” Associate Professor Clarke said.

ALC anthropologist Hugh Bland said over the past 100 years many culturally important objects had been taken away from Groote Eylandt and the ALC was working on various projects to have some of them returned. 

The Land Council last year implemented a heritage protection training program for traditional owners and ALC staff to ensure repatriated objects could be properly looked after and kept safe for future generations.

Following consultation with senior men, a group of objects including restricted men’s objects were returned from the Museum and Art Gallery NT (MAGNT) last year.

“We have also seen the return of photographs and other work by anthropologist Fred Rose, mostly related to the community of Umbakumba and the Qantas base.”

In 2019 Associate Professor Clarke will return to Groote Eylandt for another three months for more fieldwork in various areas.

Shirley, Gloria, Amy and Faith Yantarrnga work with Dr Annie Clarke helping her to sort and catalogue pieces of shells, charcoal, fishbone and old stone chips from the old camping places.