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Patterns of early trade and interaction revealed along the south coast of Western Australia

Cultural monitors working at the Lucky Bay carpark development project, in Cape le Grand National Park, Western Australia, discovered stone artefacts - tools made by ancestors of the Esperance Traditional Owners. Some of these artefacts were uncovered over a metre below the ground surface, suggesting a long period of human occupation in this area. Most of the artefacts were made from locally-available chert, a fine grained material that forms within ancient limestone reefs. However, several specific types of artefact have caused some ripples of excitement.

The artefact would look like just a natural piece of stone to most people, but to the Traditional Owners and archaeologists working together, it is a very significant find. The artefact is made from a type of basalt that outcrops over 600 kilometres away, near Augusta, Capel and Bunbury. The material known as ‘Bunbury Basalt’ is derived from a volcanic eruption that occurred approximately 130 million years ago, with the lava flow forming large columns of basalt in spectacular outcrops.

This material was highly prized by ancient peoples of the South West of WA, who would quarry this basalt to make composite tools – like the kodj - an axe only made by Nyungar peoples. This axe is usually made of two pieces of hard stone – like basalt – hafted to a wooden handle by resin made from balga trees, used for cutting out wood from trees, and other tasks. A local invention. In the ancient past and through to recent times, Nyungar people participated in a vast social trade network. They met regularly for ceremonies and traded materials and ideas. The recent finds at Lucky Bay sheds some light into this system.

The ‘Bunbury basalt’ stone artefacts were found in Lucky Bay by Annie Dabb and also Gail Reynolds-Adamson, while monitoring the area during earth works associated with the Lucky Bay carpark re-development project undertaken by the Department of Parks and Wildlife. Because people have lived in the Esperance region for at least 13,000 years, human material cultural deposits are often buried, trapped by layers of wind-blown sands forming high dunes and ridges. When the ground is disturbed, Traditional Owners and archaeologists often uncover evidence from the ancient past. Monitors are required during earth works, as part of heritage legislation, and to ensure that we do not inadvertently disturb or destroy ancient, incredible heritage sites or features.

Gail and Annie are also co-chairs of the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, and said the finds are further evidence of the rich and dynamic history of their ancestors: “Finding a piece of material like this is always exciting for us” said Gail. “It demonstrates a powerful connection to our people, who live, loved and created their homes all across our beautiful region.” Gail traveled to Perth to visit with the Corporation’s partners at the Western Australian Museum. Dr. Moya Smith, head of Anthropology and Archaeology, investigated the artefact, and discussed the results with the Museum geologist, who reported that the stone found in Esperance is consistent with characteristics of Bunbury basalt. “It is a very exciting find, shedding light on our understanding of past trade and interaction along southern Western Australia. A find like this really validates the urgent need for cultural monitors at any development project – the protection of our priceless heritage.”

The artefact is currently being analyzed to determine specific functions that may be derived from the study of breakage patterns, hafting traces, and possible residues on the stone tool itself that may show evidence of processing a particular material (e.g. woodworking or grinding seeds). The data collected from the artefact, will be entered into a heritage database and interactive map, set up by the Corporation’s partners at Applied Archaeology Australia. Managing Director, David Guilfoyle, shares the teams excitement of this find: “Over the past ten years of our work in partnership with the Esperance Traditional Owners, we have uncovered a rich array of cultural features, including rock art, hunting sites, fish traps, and thousands and thousands of stone artefacts. This is really just the tip of the iceberg. The cultural map of Esperance is rich and dense, with major cultural complexes found all over, from Munglinup to Cape Arid, even on the islands of the Recherche Archipelago.”

Once analyzed at the Museum, the artefact will be returned to Esperance, and form part of a display to be housed within the new offices of the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation. “It is an exciting time for all our community, our own administrative and operational centre, run by the people for the people,” says Gail. “We welcome everyone from Esperance and beyond to come and meet with us, learn about our research projects, and work with our Elders and our research partners.” The establishment of the Tjaltjraak offices, coincides with the Western Australian Museum’s development of content for the New Museum, which it is hoped will include stories about Esperance’s rich cultural heritage. Gail said her community is very keen to share their knowledge with the wider community. “Come and meet with us, get involved, as we continue to explore, manage and protect our heritage, within our shared cultural landscape.”

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