Wed. Nov 30th, 2022

On a remote stretch of private beach on the far northwest coast of Lutruwita (Tasmania), the sacred object will finally return home.

For decades, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community has been demanding the return of the luwamakun, or petroglyphs – mostly circular markings carved into stone by their ancestors 14,000 years ago – taken by anthropologists in 1962.

On Wednesday, after years of political negotiations and logistical complications, the rocks left the museums where they were displayed and stored and will travel across much of the state to be reunited on bare rock in Preminghana, near the northwest tip of the island, this weekend.

Aaron Everett is a hell man and former heritage officer who has been visiting preminghana since childhood. He said it was a special place.

“If you watch preminghana, it’s — people are mesmerized by it,” he said. “We would have such an abundance and resources there when you look at the central places all over that place, there was everything… Bringing these things back allows us to bring back something that wasn’t completely lost.”

Returning to him causes conflicting emotions.

“My feeling is probably sadness, but excitement – ​​and a bit of a mix. It’s like a missing piece—I mean, it really is—but it’s also a missing piece from our. When something is taken away and interfered with, it affects our community and our people in a different way, so when it comes back there is a sense of fulfillment, but also regret.”

A ceremony to mark the return of ancient Aboriginal rock carvings to Tasmania's west coast after they were cut and removed for museum display more than 60 years ago at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery's Collections and Research Center in Hobart
A ceremony to mark the return of ancient Aboriginal rock carvings to Tasmania’s west coast after they were cut and removed for museum display more than 60 years ago at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s Collections and Research Center in Hobart Photo: Peter Whyte/The Guardian
Stonemasons remove the plaque in 1962.
The carving, which was removed in March 1962, weighs 1.5 tons and is more than 1.8 meters tall. Photo: TMAG

In 1962, it was legal for anthropologists to saw off a huge slab of sacred carved sandstone. Part of a series of rock carvings made along a kilometer of the wild west coast, the huge piece – weighing 1.5 tonnes and standing over 1.8 meters – traveled across the state to end up at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in Hobart.

It was roughly cut in two and then reattached with nearly 50 metal pins, and was on display in the museum until 2005. Along with smaller pieces, it has since been in storage at TMAG and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston (QVMAG). Parts left both warehouses Wednesday morning as the community gathered to celebrate the repatriation.

In early 2021, TMAG publicly apologized for taking the petroglyphs (along with many other examples of Aboriginal cultural heritage, including ancestral remains). Since then, the museum has facilitated the temporary return of other objects of cultural significance from around the world.

At the same time as the apology, after years of negotiations, TMAG officially announced the transfer of ownership of the petroglyphs back to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. Roger Jaensch, the minister of state for aboriginal affairs, signed off on permits to return Aboriginal heritage two years ago – but the actual transfer has been repeatedly delayed.

As manager of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania – title holder of the preminghan site on behalf of all Aboriginal people in Tasmania – hell woman Rebecca Digney oversaw the planning of the return of the petroglyphs.

“It’s been a long journey,” she said when Guardian Australia spoke to her in February. “I just can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like on the day they come back, I get quite emotional. I am very, very happy that these sacred objects are being returned to their place in the landscape.

Trudy Maluga and Aunt Nola Hooper with Rebecca Digney look at a chest containing one of the carvings
‘They are incredibly important’: from left, Trudy Maluga and aunt Nola Hooper with Rebecca Digney, in Launceston on Wednesday. Photo: Sarah Rhodes/EPA

“They are incredibly important. They are part of an entire network of petroglyphs across the northwestern part of the state. It’s all part of the cultural landscape. These are incredibly sacred places for our people.”

“There will always be fears”

The return of the stones is not without concern. The Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation is promoting a protest in Preminghana on Wednesday, claiming there has been no consultation and citing concerns the petroglyphs will be buried by the natural movement of sand over time.

On top of the added fear of the effects climate change will have on the heritage on display, there is the risk of human interference.

Earlier this year, evidence of damage was found at two other petroglyph sites on Tasmania’s west coast.

At the end of January, it was reported that a carved rock slab was missing at Laraturunawn (Sundown Point), about 35 km south of Preminghana. An investigation by Tasmania’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment found that natural causes were to blame, but with the large missing piece nowhere to be found, many in the Aboriginal community feared it might have been taken.

Within two weeks, news came of damage to the petroglyphs at Maynpatat (Judgment Harbor), further south on the west coast. This place has been hit before: in 1998, a large piece was taken, triggering an investigation by the Australian Federal Police, which traced the theft back to the US and involved Interpol. But the trail went cold. Then in 1999, the site was vandalized with spray paint.

Two gray petroglyphs – large pieces of stone with incised patterns
These luwamakuna (rock carvings) were pulled from storage at the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston on Wednesday. Photo: Sarah Rhodes/EPA

Digney says these cases strengthen the argument that Aboriginal cultural heritage belongs in Aboriginal hands.

“There will always be fears that people will do the wrong thing, that there will be desecration, vandalism and threats,” she said. “It is an ongoing battle for the Aboriginal community to protect our heritage and keep it safe forever. And not just for the Aboriginal community – these places are of global importance.

“When we hear of petroglyphs being stolen or any Aboriginal heritage being destroyed, it’s always a shock to the system, but never a big surprise. Our community is used to that, which I guess is telling enough.”

Remote Preminghana has a major advantage over the tourist destinations of Sundown Point and Trial Harbour: an Aboriginal protected area, it was returned to the Aboriginal community in 1995 and is now maintained by Aboriginal conservationists. Digney said it was a relief that the specific location of these petroglyphs was not widely known outside the Aboriginal community.

“The Aboriginal community is very proud to be able to share their culture and their knowledge and show these sacred places to people who have a genuine interest, but we can’t risk doing that here, because of what we’ve seen happen in the past,” she said.

“They [the rangers] they have the power to say ‘there are certain areas that are publicly accessible, but where the petroglyphs are, it’s not’. Because the land was returned to the Aboriginal community, the rest of the petroglyphs at Preminghana are very well protected.”