Broughton Island

Broughton Island: community-centred cultural heritage research

24 June 2022
Research that supports heritage management and conservation

Collaboration between archaeologists, Traditional Owners and land managers is revealing new information about the past human occupation of Broughton Island, and delivering tangible outcomes for community and cultural heritage.

A 45-minute boat journey north from Nelson Bay transports you to Broughton Island, the largest continental island off the NSW coast, which forms part of the Myall Lakes National Park.

The island lies within the traditional country of the Worimi people, who maintain strong cultural connections with the island and its surrounding land and seas. It is here that researchers from the Department of Archaeology are leading a broad-scale, multi-stakeholder, community-centred cultural heritage research project, the first of this nature to be undertaken on the NSW coast.

The Broughton Island Cultural Heritage Research Project was established through the post-graduate research of Laura Dafter, a local archaeologist who first engaged with the Worimi community in 2018 to discuss the idea of establishing a research project on the island. Laura obtained community endorsement before commencing her research, and the project has been developed with the Worimi community from its inception.

The research is supervised by Dr Patrick Faulkner, Dr Amy Way and Dr Johan Kamminga, and the team is working in partnership with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) (who manages Broughton Island), Worimi Traditional Owners and the Karuah and Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs).

Community visit

A community visit to Broughton Island in May 2022 (Photo: John Spencer, DPE)

Underpinned by a ‘community-centred’ approach, which recognises the inherent rights and interests of Traditional Owners, the views and aspirations of Worimi people are at the centre of the cultural heritage research on their country. The Worimi community’s priorities for the project drive the research. “This research is all about collaboration” says Dr Faulkner; “by developing strong relationships with community that are built on trust and genuine engagement, we are able to identify and work towards shared goals”.

This sentiment is echoed by the Worimi community, who have embraced the opportunity to work with the research team. Shai Richardson, CEO of the Karuah LALC, says this project presents an opportunity for the community to be active participants in cultural heritage research on Worimi country. Andrew Smith, CEO of the Worimi LALC agrees, observing “this project has supported Worimi people to get out onto the island, to engage with the research process and share knowledge both ways”.

“Research has got to be localized. You need to understand where you’re working and the community you’re working with, the intellectual knowledge and experience, the beliefs and storylines”.
Leonard Anderson OAM, Worimi Traditional Owner, Nur-Run-Gee
Meeging on country

Meetings on country with Traditional Owners inform the research priorities (Photo: Dr Patrick Faulkner)

Extensive archaeological evidence survives on Broughton Island, testament to use of the island by Aboriginal people prior to European contact in the region. However, the island has never been subject to detailed cultural heritage research.

This project is informed by an extensive Aboriginal community engagement program, and draws on the cultural knowledge of Traditional Owners, the expertise of land managers from NPWS, and new archaeological data collected through the research.

platform of grinding grooves

An extensive platform of grinding grooves survives on Broughton Island, providing a striking reminder of past human activity on the island. (Photo: Laura Dafter)

The information being collected is significant to the Worimi community. Jamie Tarrant, a Traditional Owner who also works for NPWS, observes “we as a community already know the significance of Broughton Island, but now we are collecting the evidence. Revisiting old records with the research team means we can get a real and true record of what is there”.

Dr Loukas Koungoulos (University of Sydney) completing a 3D scan of a dingo bone on Broughton Island with Worimi community representatives.

Dr Loukas Koungoulos (University of Sydney) completing a 3D scan of a dingo bone on Broughton Island with Worimi community representatives. With support from Heritage NSW, this bone was collected from an eroding midden, to ensure its conservation (Photo: Dr Amy Way).

“My first trip to Broughton Island was in 2001... I became attached to the Aboriginal cultural relationship to the island. In 2018 Laura Dafter rang me for an opportunity to conduct the Broughton Island research project. That was a dream of mine to survey the whole of Broughton Island and uncover the Aboriginal cultural history and significance of the island”.
David Feeney, Worimi Traditional Owner, Karuah Indigenous Corporation
A small field team completed the first systematic cultural heritage survey of Broughton Island in 2021

A small field team completed the first systematic cultural heritage survey of Broughton Island in 2021, from L-R: David Kirk (Karuah Local Aboriginal Land Council), Brendan Lilley (Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council), David Feeney (Karuah Indigenous Corporation), Susanne Callaghan (NPWS), Laura Dafter (University of Sydney), Dr Johan Kamminga (University of Sydney) (seated), Jamie Tarrant (NPWS) (Photo: Penny Amberg).

As applied research, the project seeks to deliver tangible outcomes that will support cultural heritage management on the island, and the benefits of this are already being seen.

The project has established an annual cultural heritage monitoring program with community, and with support from Heritage NSW, the Worimi community and NPWS have recently undertaken urgent conservation actions at key sites.

Susanne Callaghan, the NPWS Ranger who manages Broughton Island, has observed a transformation in cultural heritage management on the island since the project started, noting “through this project, we now have access to high quality, accurate site data and a better understanding of the Worimi communities’ priorities for cultural heritage management, which is so important to informing our work on the island”.  

The research team is currently working with project stakeholders to refine plans for the next stages of research. It is a privilege to be conducting this research on Worimi country in collaboration with our research partners.

This project is made possible by generous funding provided by the School of Philosophical and Historical Enquiry, the Carlyle Greenwell Research Scholarship, the H.R. Dean Research Scholarship, the University of Sydney Post Graduate Research Support Scheme, the Australian Archaeological Association, and in-kind support provided by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council.