Annie Clarke, Shirley, Amy and Gloria Yantarrnga and Ursula Frederick at the Angurugu field office: Photograph Ursula Frederick, 2018

Repatriating unexpected treasures in Arnhem Land

27 May 2020
From cave relics to thoroughly modern ephemera
To mark National Reconciliation Week, we explore the unusual, fascinating career of University of Sydney archaeologist Professor Annie Clarke.

If it weren’t for COVID-19, Professor Annie Clarke would have planned to travel to Arnhem Land this year. In particular, the University of Sydney archaeologist would have returned to Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, home to the Anindilyakwa-speaking people.

On this remote island, she has performed co-research with the local community, on and off, for over 30 years.

In more recent years, her efforts have been focused on repatriation, but not of the usual kind. Rather than returning bones or artefacts, she has largely shared printouts of photographs that she took during her early research trips in the 1990s – an element of what she calls ‘knowledge repatriation’.

“I went off to Kmart and printed loads of copies for everyone. I could only take 13 kilograms of luggage on the plane, so I took as much as I could carry,” she said.

“When they received the photographs, some people cried. I hadn’t realised how powerful they were.”

Unlike in previous generations, in the local Groote Eylandt community, photographs of deceased elders (for personal use) are no longer taboo. Not only did some community members display the photographs in their homes; they also shared them on Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, in a manner “no different from any other group of millennials,” Professor Clarke said.

“I saw one Snap where they had decorated a photograph of their recently-passed dad with a floral headdress,” she added.

How Professor Clarke’s journey began

“I did my PhD and postdoctoral research on Groote Eylandt in the ‘90s but wasn’t able to get back there for a long time due to teaching and other demands,” she said.

“Then, in 2017, I was contacted by a local land council employee. She told me that kids were learning archaeology in high school, but it was all about the ancient Egyptians. She wanted to know what they could learn about the island.

“I told them about some places close to one of the towns, Angurugu, but, as it turns out, the road had been realigned and the bush had grown over the original path – it was impossible to gain access.

“One was a significant site with rock paintings with an ancestral being story attached to them, where I had done an excavation in the ‘90s.”

That trip was quite emotional. There were only around three or four people who were still alive since my original visit

One thing led to another, and by the end of that year, with the help of anthropologist Hugh Bland from the land council, Professor Clarke was back where her academic journey had begun – performing community-based archaeology on Groote Eylandt. This time, however, she was doing it with younger generations of the community, some of whom remembered her from 30 years prior, when they were small children. 

“That trip was quite emotional,” she said. “There were only around three or four people who were still alive since my original visit. Some of the people I knew as kids were now in their 40s and had kids and even grandkids. They came rushing to find me and we reconnected.”

It was followed by a four-month, local land council-funded visit in 2018, when she began the process of repatriation. She also set up a small laboratory in the Angurugu field office of the land council. There, together with four daughters of a couple she had worked with previously and Dr Ursula Frederick of Australian National University, she analysed material that she had collected over the years.

“It was a huge effort,” she said. “There were 70 boxes of samples, comprising shells, fish bones, and soil that we had to transport to Groot Eylandt on a barge.”

“The daughters remembered stories about us camping out in the bush for weeks at a time, collecting bush honey and fishing. Some had even come out with us.”

Last year saw her visit the island once more, again courtesy of the land council, with Dr Frederick and a young volunteer archaeologist from Melbourne, Steve Skitmore. They found new places to excavate, including, to her delight, potentially older sites (most previously identified sites were relatively young – archeologically-speaking).

In the centre of the island, she struck research gold: an area containing rock art with paintings of Macassan boats. These ferried Indonesian traders to Australia from the 16th century to 1904, in search of trepang – sea cucumbers.

Steve Skitmore, Ursula Frederick and Annie Clarke on fieldwork. Photograph Ursula Frederick  2019

Steve Skitmore, Ursula Frederick and Annie Clarke on fieldwork. Credit: Ursula Frederick, 2019.

The future of archaeology on Groote Eylandt

Professor Clarke is nearing retirement. She wonders whether her work will have a successor. She hopes so.  “I’m trying to encourage younger archaeologists like Steve Skitmore to do work there,” she said.

As this year’s fieldwork has been delayed by the coronavirus, she will apply for an external grant to fund other activities, like the creation of digital resources. Items on her long-term wish list are more tangible. “Eventually, I’d love for there to be a small museum in Angurugu’s cultural precinct,” she said.

Hero image: Annie Clarke, Shirley, Amy and Gloria Yantarrnga, and Ursula Frederick at the Angurugu field office. Credit: Ursula Frederick, 2018.

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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