Issue 5
Monday, 01 July 2019
Charles Darwin University
A Djelk Ranger surveys coastal erosion in Arnhem Land
A Djelk Ranger surveys coastal erosion in Arnhem Land

New-world technology to protect ancient cultural sites

By Patrick Nelson

The next step for a “survey method” developed to help manage the impact of climate change on cultural heritage sites in the Northern Territory will be to digitise it for field work tablets, says a Charles Darwin University researcher who oversaw its development.

Charles Darwin University archaeology and heritage-site-management researcher Dr Bethune Carmichael co-developed the “Cultural Site Risk Field Survey” and an accompanying “Cultural Site Adaptation Guide” as part of his doctoral research project, which he completed last year. The research was conducted in collaboration with Indigenous rangers in Arnhem Land.

“The guide is designed to give ‘non-specialists’ (rather than professional heritage managers) a step-by-step planning method for sites and a decision-making process for protecting them. The field survey provides a way to identify those sites at the greatest risk of loss or damage from climate change,” Dr Carmichael said.

“During the development stage, Indigenous rangers tested the tool at more than 100 sites, including Dreaming and burial sites, places used for ceremony, shell and earth middens, and rock art sites.”

Dr Carmichael said his Indigenous ranger collaborators from Kakadu National Park and the Djelk Indigenous Protected Area had strong perceptions of climate change impacts on cultural sites and a strong view that managing these impacts was a priority.

“Rangers were adamant the rising sea level was increasingly impacting coastal shell middens, that salt water intrusion and heavier rain was increasingly inundating floodplain-fringing rock art and earth mounds, and that inland river rock art was being washed away by more frequent and higher floods.”

Dr Carmichael said that he was left with no doubt about the importance of culture to Aboriginal people.

“The Indigenous management of cultural heritage site adaptation remains important given the Indigenous origins, continued custodianship, cosmological importance and remote location of many cultural sites. And the combination of Indigenous knowledge with the empirical understanding of challenges to cultural sites makes this an imperative.”

He said the next step was to create a digital version of the risk analysis survey for “I-Tracker”, the GPS-connected digital tablet that rangers in the Top End use in the field to collect data on weed, fire and pest management.

“The field survey will allow rangers to answer critical questions about the vulnerability of cultural sites but also their relative cultural value to determine which sites would benefit the most from the scarce conservation resources available,” he said.

“They accept that not all sites among thousands in a broad landscape can be protected.”