Rules needed to protect relics

Anita Smith, an archaeology and heritage lecturer at La Trobe University.
ARCHAEOLOGISTS: The community needs to be better informed about the cultural significance of heritage. Dylan Bruce, Adrian Brooks and Courtney Gillespie report.

People ruin heritage every day and they “aren’t even aware” of it, according to a lecturer in archaeology and heritage at La Trobe University.

Dr Anita Smith says people don’t understand the cultural significance of the relics they are destroying.

“The current process is not adequate in providing the community with information they need to make informed decisions,” she says. “There is not enough emphasis on publishing findings.”

According to Dr Smith, this occurs because there are no rules that require archaeologists to publish their findings on their excavations.

Recording and publishing relics with heritage value comes second to the development rush, Dr Smith says.

Increased funding for research would encourage archaeologists to publish more of their findings.

Bob Skelly, an archaeologist with more than 40 years of experience, says lack of financial backing is to blame for slow research release.

“There are virtually no jobs in Australia where you can say ‘My job is a researcher leading to publication and I’m going to earn a decent wage’”, he says. “People need enough money to put food on the table.”

Skelly says it takes too long to publish research and there is little financial reward, leading many archaeologists to take up consultancy work.

“I know a guy who discovered wooden boomerangs that are 10,000 years old at Wyrie Swamp,” he says. “He published four or five paragraphs in the late 1970s and he hasn’t done anything with it since.”

Confidentiality concerns often cause researchers to hold off on publication.

“I don’t report things that I know are told in confidence or information that could cause damage to a community or individual,” Skelly says.

“We’re talking about material things that could be used for political purposes and to make claims over land that may not be justified.”

However, Dr Smith is hopeful the current state of archaeological research publication will improve.

“The archaeological committee is working on guidelines around publicising findings.”

Dr Smith says there should be an emphasis on publication because the information gained through excavation will help society move forward, because relics can show how society once lived and functioned together.

“You can’t go forward without knowing your past,” she says. “We can learn from them and then make better choices about how to live our lives.

Dr Smith says there should be more concern for heritage preservation in Victoria.

“We don’t just want archaeologists to decide what is worth keeping and what we should get rid of. We want the community to help decide,” she says.

“Heritage is a great thing and opens up opportunity for community discussion.”

Dr Smith says that people should care more about the history of Australian land. “We need to give more thought to heritage protection.”

Professor Hannah Lewi of Melbourne University says it is important to protect our heritage and illegal desecration of sites is a tragedy.

“A city that keeps a uniform structure will grow to regret it,” Professor Lewi says.

“A healthy mix of many different time periods would do Victoria well.”