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Australia’s largest Aboriginal ochre mine

By , 11 July 2014

Brendan Hamlett at Yallabilli Mindi

Brendan Hamlett at Yallabilli Mindi.
Image: Annie Carson

It’s National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week. What better time to celebrate a shared research project between the Wajarri people and the University of Western Australia!

Australia’s largest Aboriginal ochre mine is Wilgie Mia. In Wajarri Yamatji country far north of Perth, it is an incredibly important cultural heritage site. Red, yellow and green ochres from the mine have been traded across the country for many thousands of years.

It’s said that ochre from Wilgie Mia was traded across Western Australia into the Kimberley, the Pilbara, down to the south coast and into neighbouring states. Red and yellow ochres are still an important part of Indigenous Australian cultures today.

This week, three young Wajarri men are visiting the University of Western Australia to work alongside archeologist Vicky Winton. Together, they are studying samples from several new sites near Wilgie Mia.

“We’ll be going down to the stores and floating some of the samples,” says Vicky. “That’s a technique that involves putting excavated sediments into water.” Lighter material, such as burnt or charred wood, separates from rocks and makes it easier to sort.

Even after it has been burnt, charred wood can reveal interesting things. Using a technique developed in Europe, the team previously identified the species of tree burnt in fires long ago.

“When the conditions are right, the wood chars and details of the anatomical structure are preserved intact,” says Vicky. Archeological samples can be compared to modern charcoal, taken from partially burnt trees that have been carefully identified. Brendan Hamlett, a Wajarri Traditional Owner who worked on an earlier trip to the University, was surprised to find Mulga trees had been burnt the past. Today, the Wajarri people mainly use Miniritchie and Gidgee trees, he says.

High-end technology can be used to study rich cultural treasures. Recently, a super computer from the University of Western Australia stitched photos of cave shelters into 3D models. Having a digital record of the sites makes it easier to spot any damage that might occur in the future.

By sharing knowledge, everyone benefits. Training the next generation is a priority for the Wajarri Traditional Owners, says Brendan. “This is the first time I’ve made maps with a computer. It’s unreal to use this technology to draw parts of my country.”

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More information

World class 3D models help reveal cultural treasures.
Wilgie Mia ochre mine.
NAIDOC week.

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