The Forced Repatriation of Archaeological Materials

by Tim Murray and Jim Allen

© all rights reserved


• The excavated 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; 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). 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 not associated 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 inwashed soil. The sites contain no human bones or teeth, ornaments or art which might be considered sacred. The historic site also has Aboriginal tools made on glass.

• All sites were excavated under permits issued by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (Parks). Permit issue required consultation with the Aboriginal community; prior to TALC being formed in 1990, this consultation was with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). All La Trobe excavations were carried out with the permission of TAC or TALC and all excavations employed one or more of their members as overseers who had the right to close any excavation which turned up human skeletal material.


Should the Minister have forcibly returned the material to Tasmania prior to the completion of the analysis?

• Each initial permit was granted after detailed scrutiny by the Parks’ own professional archaeologists and other specialists, who knew from the research designs and previous Tasmanian archaeological history that it was highly unlikely that the research could be completed in the time for which permits were granted, especially when this period was reduced to one year. Given previous experience there was no suggestion that such a time line would ever be enforced by Parks. We believe that by granting permits Parks was contracting with us to have specific pieces of research undertaken and completed before the return of the materials, and by preventing this completion they have effectively breached these contracts. Similarly, we maintained all agreements negotiated with the TAC and the TALC in good faith.

Should TALC have the authority to rebury any archaeological material?

• Reburial of these materials in sites, some listed as World Heritage, appears to be illegal under the current Tasmanian law, and the Burra Charter of ICOMOS, to which Australia is a signatory.

• We agree that culturally significant material heritage should be returned to appropriate Aboriginal custodians for them to protect and preserve into the future. In Tasmania in particular, the “culturally significant” category should also extend to archaeological collections specifically because the first 80 years of European settlement in Tasmania saw not only the demise of every fullblood Tasmanian but also the loss of all but fragments of traditional Tasmanian culture. Archaeological sites and artefacts are more significant in Tasmania precisely because they provide the main cultural link between modern Tasmanian Aborigines and the Aboriginal past with which they identify. Unique archaeological collections should not then be sacrificed to current political expediency.

• It is becoming more obvious that younger generations of European Australians now embrace Aboriginal history as part of their own history as Australians. As the current processes of reconciliation develop between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians this will increase. In this sense archaeological artefacts are part of a national heritage which precludes individual ownership, but encourages local Aboriginal groups to act as the appropriate custodians of them. However, custodial rights also carry the responsibilities of conservation and preservation.

• In the case of archaeological collections the complications of “ownership as empowerment” extend with increasing antiquity. It seems to us that no rights of ownership which include the right to destroy cultural heritage can be bestowed on any individual human group, large or small, when the material in question comes from caves which arguably have had no humans living close to them or entering them at all for the past 12,000 years, and whose archaeological contents may have been discarded as long as 35,000 years ago.

• All sites in Tasmania reflect the history of prehistoric human endeavour, not merely the old ones. If Aboriginal history is important, then preserving the evidence which creates present and future histories is paramount. The archaeological samples in question have been transformed by years of scientific study into unique documents which illuminate our common human history.

• Placing already excavated material back in or on sites destroys the scientific validity not only of each scientific collection, but also the site itself for future scientific investigation. If this happens to sites without any documentation, when memory is lost all sites in a region will be made effectively suspect.


Ultimately we have been punished for disagreeing with TALC’s separatist policies on cultural heritage. Parks has taken the easy option and seized the material to no apparent end.

This extract is reprinted with permission from a critique by Tim Murray and Jim Allen, in Antiquity, Vol 69, Dec 1995. Further accounts will be found in J. Allen “A Short History of the Tasmanian Affair”, Australian Archaeology, December 1995 and T. Murray “A Forced Repatriation of Cultural Properties to Tasmania” in M. Chanock and C. Simpson (eds)Law and Cultural Heritage, a special issue of Law In Context 1996.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]