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Cultural Burning as Heritage Preservation: An Archaeologist's 'View'

In the Esperance region of southwestern Australia, while standing atop a large granite dome several hundred meters above an expansive coastal plain, you see the panoramic views of the integrated cultural landscape of the Esperance Tjaltjraak Traditional Owners. Isolated blue-grey granite monoliths dot the landscape, places of spiritual significance, associated with traditional names and stories, of history, heritage and connection. Below, you see creeks running across the plain, lined with an array of flowering trees and an incredible variety of shrubs and plants that make up this biodiversity hotspot.

You see circular freshwater pools, stained tan brown with the fringing tea tree and swamp paperbarks, and gently swaying reeds and rushes in between. You see the patches of flat granite outcrops, shimmering in the open sun by the water that has pooled in shallow depressions, and some deeper waterholes, created by the Ancestral Tjaltjraak, capped with granite slabs, are gently overflowing from the last series of winter storms - the freshest of water. You turn north to see the Mallee Country blur into the bright blue-sky horizon. You turn south to the view the flooded landscape that is now an archipelago of one hundred granite domes floating on the ocean, beyond only Antarctica.

And then, after spending years walking and exploring this land with the People, you also see the movement, a network of slowly rising smoke from small fire hearths as small family groups prepare a morning meal of freshly smoked fish, dried wallaby, wattle-seed damper, swan eggs, bush tomatoes, salted, native asparagus, youaq (a native carrot, Platysace) and djeeljiri cakes (macrozamia), and sweet, vitamin-rich native plum.

You see a group of young fellas run off from camp, darting through the bush, laughing and shouting with their stone-barbed spears, following a well worn path that links this summer camp to a flat granite outcrop, crosses between two large swamps, and keeps going to the next granite dome by the coast – Mandoweernup. They're not allowed to go there they know, as its close to ceremony time. When western rivers mob from Walitch Brenweenerup journey over for trade, feasting, dancing.

As they ran, one quickly scurried off the track, chasing a fat kurda (monitor lizard) that ran onto a small granite outcrop, set already with five or so traps, and the unlucky lizard scuttled under one such trap, thinking it safe. But this young girl followed it flicked the carefully placed pedestals propping up the granite slab, pinning the kurda (monitor lizard), and she skillfully stabbed her long-barbed spear into the front side of the kurda, pulling it out still attached to her shaft, whooping with delight. The others smiled as she held it a loft, then broke its neck and tied it to her skin belt. She took off with a skip back to her friends, then remembered her Elders’ words, and ran back to re-prop the lizard trap.

An Elder laying down on his grass tree and paperbark bed, just outside his small, durable mia mia - made up of flexible tea-tree bent across each other and lined with the water resilient and fire resistant paperbark - hollers at the kulyungars as they run off, telling them to be quieter. But they already too far gone, so he grumbles and puts his head back down, warm and content in the rising sunshine, and pulls his yonga (kangaroo) boka (cloak) down off his shoulders, ready to recommence his snores. He glances over at his old hunting partner, yokin/dwert (dingo), who always sat proudly, ready, but just out of camp on the nearby rocky outcrops, and they nodded at each other.

Another small group to the other side of camp, are processing medicines for a broth, busily grinding and picking. Another small group are in another activity area, working a cluster of tree trunks into shields, boomerangs, and spears - always getting ready. Meanwhile, a young toddler wanders off toward his aunt's mia, keen to see if she has left any resin gum or (native bee) honey inside.

A group of young women gather and follow a different path, this one going towards the rising sun, heading for a large swampy area. They are carrying the carved wooden coolamons and water bags made from kangaroo gut. The follow their path, looking up to follow the way the smoke from the recent cool-seasons burn the families carried north-way, nearer their summer camps. The Elders organized all the families together, just at the right time, the air was lowering, the winds calming, rains were coming. So, they started the burning, all spread out, weaving patches of fire in and around the granite, connecting patches, making lines, creating new habitats, managing old habitats.

The plants slowly burnt and realized their seed load, while the seed bank already in the ground from last year, began their birth from the underground with the smell of smoke in the air. The women could see in the distance two walitj (eagles) gliding towards them, also ready to collect food and resources in the new burn. And the animals couldn’t resist either – yonga (kangaroo), waitch (emu), tamir (wallaby), kurda, and all the little ones, coming to feast on the new grasses and new shoots from last season’s burn. They passed a small swamp, they called out to the Old People, and the mungan (snake) who was Custodian of this place. Here they quickly collected eggs and dug up a clump of the yoork to munch on later, placing them in their bags, then continued toward the slowing fires of the Elders.

Over the other way, two men are collecting some tool-stone, chert, from a large vein exposed on a low ridge. They inspect a large nodule together, and one tapped the other on the back as they walked a small distance to cut down some spear trees with their well-worn, hafted axes. Together the walked back to a small granite outcrop and began working at the chert nodule with masterful strokes. The sound of stone on stone echoed over the granite in the still air. Quickly, one had worked a nice core, taking off some impurities from the cobble, then with precision and skill, flaked off ten long, elongated blanks, ready to be shaped into blades for spear hafting, and scrapers for skinning hides.

One of two friends wanders to check on a gnamma hole that was in use since he was boy, and lifts the capstone and pulls out the stick they had left in place on their last visit here, being for any animal to climb out on, in case in falls in. Satisfied with the full, clear water in the deep, curved hole carved into the granite bedrock, he takes a refreshing sip then re-joins the flint knapping. He plucks off some resin from a large balga on the edge of the granite, and together they grind the hard, crystalline, blood red resin into fine powder, mix it with some yonga dung, and a bit of grass ready for heating. They pull off a smoldering seed cone from the mungitch (bull banksia) tree that sits warm in their fur coat, and cut a little off the end and blow, so that it sparks back into life.

A few sticks and grass, then they create a small fire, where they heat up a shaped wooden shaft, and roll it into the resin mixture, and then back to the small flame. The heated resin forms a workable dark fiberglass looking adhesive, and when ready they place some of fresh chert blades into the shaft, where it binds and holds, real strong. Another hafted tool, this one as a serrated tarp, for cutting small brush, stripping bark, and handy in the coming warm season when they move to the coast and the estuary fishing.

That is what we see, hear, smell. The activities of The People in and around their base camps, hunting areas, gathering areas, social areas. Here, now, standing alongside an Elder from each of the six families that maintain strong and complex connections to this place. We stand together on the dome, chatting quietly about previous surveys, walking the places, culturally mapping this landscape. We record the Old People places – their rock art, their burial grounds, their fish traps, their lizard traps, their gnamma holes, their stone arrangements, their tools. This is part of a long-term program, to document, map and protect these places. But they are just not ‘sites from the past’ they are alive, still being visited, maintained, used by their descendants.

For this project, we are working for Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (ETNTAC), in collaboration with the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) and our small team, from Applied Archaeology International (AAI). We have been working with the Traditional Owners here since 2005, warmly welcomed to their boodja, working side by side on heritage preservation projects. This journey means you gain a respect for the people’s knowledge and connection, and also the land, of course. The people, and the land, grab you. The privilege of looking after these heritage places, and spending time listening to Elders, their stories, their laughs, and their challenges; living in a wider community that has for so long, never taken the time to understand or learn about their culture and ways of life. And in many ways, a wider community that has actively removed people’s opportunity to practice their custodial responsibilities to look after the land, their sites.

But now, on this day, we feel a turning point. A project, a truly collaborative project, that seeks to implement a cultural burning program around one of their most important granite domes (name withheld). There is recognition that traditional burning practices is a sophisticated way of biodiversity management. However, since European settlement - with the vast clearing of land for farms and other developments, a network of fences, and the establishment of national parks and non-ecological based land zoning - burning regimes have adopted a more “life and property" strategy, rather than for biodiversity management. Where a controlled burn occurs in large, zoned areas and creation of numerous, invasive fire breaks, a cultural burn occurs in the cool season, is based on creating a mosaic or patch burn complex. Importantly, it involves a whole of community effort; working different types of fires for different types of vegetation and terrain, and also, ensuring the protection of the heritage places and values.

This type of biodiversity management, linked to heritage preservation, occurs at the landscape scale. To do either at the site-specific scale, or in isolation, without knowledge or integration of the other, or without the community leading, directing projects - then things become problematic - for the land manager, the heritage specialist, the scientist. Integrated, holistic management is a key component of cultural knowledge systems. Western science and western methods of land management, and the fields of archaeology and ecology, have only relatively recently began to collaborate in this ways, for more effective outcomes.

So here I am. With the Elders and the ETNTAC Rangers. The group discussed the burning plan, and I sat, open mouthed, fascinating by the level of detail and understanding of the weather, the place, the way to burn. This was what we they now call, as a field of study, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) – and here it was, being applied. It is part of amended controlled burning plan to ensure that cultural practices are adopted - to maintain biodiversity through cool-season, patch burning that promotes new growth, controls fuel loads, and provides for a mosaic of habitat for plants and animals.

The burning took place around this domes that was also a nationally recognized heritage site. As we at atop this huge granite dome, this sacred place, the Senior Cultural Facilitator, talked to the young rangers about the wadjella significance of this place. A cave within this massive dome underwent archaeological investigation in the 1970s, and revealed human occupation here extending back 13,000 years before present. During the excavation, the team recovered the remains of a partially cremated infant, wrapped in seaweed and placed in a shallow pit with nodules of red ochre. This infant lived during a different geological era – the Late Pleistocene, some 12,800 years before present (± 310 BP) was also discovered during archaeological excavations at Cheetup rock shelter during the late 1970s.

Also, during this excavation, seeds of the bayou (zamia, cycad) palm were recovered, in a shallow pit that was lined with balga (Xanthorrhoea, grass tree) leaves. This was a zamia seed roasting pit. The seeds are toxic if eaten straight up, but you can leach out the toxins through soaking in water or roasting. So, the presence of these seeds in a roasting pit in this ancient cave deposit, demonstrates the knowledge of how to remove these toxins and use this plentiful seed, full of carbs and protein, for snacking, or making cakes with, has existed for at least 13,000 years.

Likewise, the cultural burning knowledge is trans-generational knowledge, knowledge of knowing Country. Embedded as part of traditional management practices within the broader principles of caring for country. This project was developed after many years of working with agencies and partners to advocate the critical need to re-instate TEK systems into land management. The opportunity for Elders to direct and control the cultural burning program, while working with and spending time with youth and cultural rangers, is part of the holistic, community-based methods for sustainable biodiversity management that operates at the highest levels of science; cultural science.

While we walked around in small groups, creating patches and lines of fire, we recorded newly exposed cultural features and artifacts. We took GPS points linked to photo points on an interactive recording form on hardy field tablets. The rangers were moving all over the place, with fun and excitement in burning the bush under the guidance of their Elders, while excitedly relocating the some of the artifacts of their ancestors. They hollered out with each find, and I could barely keep up, moving between ranger to ranger, such was the density and diversity of cultural features in this small area, newly exposed in the fire patches. We mapped many, may lizard traps. We mapped in ochre quarries and stone arrangements. We mapped gnamma holes and cultural plants. We mapped stone artifacts, grinding stones and formal quarries. We all started to see how this place was used and managed, and structured – a whole host of different activity areas.

The work allowed the Custodians to take the direct lead and role in managing their cultural places within the larger cultural burning program. They are best place to decide on how certain areas should be recorded, mapped, and buffered from fire-tracks and fire zones themselves. Here, the community are taking the lead in heritage preservation, and whatever heritage legislative frameworks apply. This takes the pressure off the land managers, and offers a perspective on archaeological and ethnographic heritage significance of sites and places by placing them in a landscape context, and with layers of social significance.

At the end of last day, we gathered exhausted, content, excited about the work. All ash-stained and smelling of balga bush resin, that seems to wrap you like a comforting blanket and make you think and feel happy thoughts. There was a quick meeting over a billy and a small fire. The Elders said they felt happy, doing this project, and wanted it to continue. It made them feel content, at ease, being out on the land. A ranger said he felt proud, walking the same paths as his ancestors. It ended, with this: “Good work everyone. The Ancestors are proud of you all.” We waved to them.

This is the view we see, when under a model of cultural leadership.

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