The Forced Repatriation of Cultural Properties to Tasmania

Article excerpt

In July this year the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council (TALC), claiming to represent the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, sought an injunction in the Australian Federal Court to force us to surrender to TALC five archaeological assemblages from Tasmania excavated under permit between 1987, and early 1991, all of which were under active analysis in the La Trobe University archaeology laboratories. TALC claimed that the permits under which the material was held had expired, that we had refused the direction of the Minister to return the material to TALC, that the material was of great spiritual and psychological importance to Tasmanian Aborigines and that TALC's wish was to rebury these assemblages in the respective sites to heal the wounds, created by their excavation. TALC set the precedent for such action last year when it put a Pleistocene assemblage into the waters of a dam now covering the site from which it came.

At the end of the preliminary hearing the judge concluded that important matters of fact and law relating to the case should be tried, and maintained an interim injunction which saw the materials removed from La Trobe and held in the Museum of Victoria. Almost immediately the Tasmanian Minister for Environment and Land Management as a representative of the Crown took possession of the material and had it returned to Tasmania. This ended the court action. Although at the time of the court,s decision the Minister was quoted in the press as saying that he would return the material to TALC, as at the beginning of October 1995 the material remains in storage somewhere in Tasmania. An extensive press, radio and television coverage of the matter continues, in which the Minister refuses to indicate what might eventually happen to the material.

Two separate but related questions are pertinent. Should the Minister have forcibly returned the material to Tasmania prior to the completion of the analysis, and should TALC have the authority to rebury any archaeological material in such a way as will destroy the scientific integrity of properly excavated and analysed assemblages? Many matters of fact, past circumstances and personal views surround these questions. Here space permits only the barest necessary background. Further accounts will be found in Allen (1995) and Murray (in press).


The five sites include three southwestern Tasmanian Pleistocene sites, none of which are likely to have had any human occupation at all in the last 12,000 years (see Porch & Allen (1995) in the special number of Antiquity published alongside this issue, for explanation); one northern Tasmanian site occupied briefly in the terminal Pleistocene and the late Holocene; and one contact site (a white settlement farm which contained some Aboriginal artefacts - see Murray (1993)). None of the sites were known to Tasmanian Aborigines before their excavation.

The contents of these sites consist partly of garbage discarded by humans, and partly of material unassociated with human occupation - animal bones deposited via the faeces of Tasmanian devils and the regurgitated pellets of owls; bones and shells of animals and snails which died naturally in the sites; and in-washed soil. The sites contain no human bones or teeth, ornaments or art which might be considered sacred. The human components consist only of food remains, charcoal, discarded stone and bone tools and the debitage from their manufacture. The historic site also has Aboriginal tools made on glass.

All sites were excavated under permits issued by the Tasmanian Department of Parks, Wildlife and Heritage @Parks@. In the late 1980s these were issued for a maximum of three years and from 1990 for one year only. These periods were intended to cover excavation and analysis. Permit issue required consultation with the Aboriginal community; prior to TALC being formed in 1990, this consultation was with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). …