Grave concerns - filling in the blanks

Isaac Pamkal and Jordan Ralph setting up Total Station recording equipment at Barunga. Pictures: Dylan Benedetto and Tarmia Klass.
Isaac Pamkal and Jordan Ralph setting up Total Station recording equipment at Barunga. Pictures: Dylan Benedetto and Tarmia Klass.

Archaeologists are recording unmarked graves at the Barunga Cemetery, which was first used in the 1960s.

Working at the request of Elders from Barunga Aboriginal community and the Roper Gulf Regional Council, archaeologists from Flinders University in Adelaide are recording unmarked graves in the Barunga Cemetery.

Since the 1960s, around 200 burials have taken place.

Only 29 of these are marked with a plaque identifying the name of the dead person.

The archaeologists, led by Professor Claire Smith and doctoral candidate Jordan Ralph, have already recorded 175 graves.

“This is a Territory-wide problem,” Professor Smith said.

“In the Northern Territory it has not been compulsory to record the location of the graves of Aboriginal people buried in remote areas.

“Through time, people forget exactly where their loved ones are buried.  This can be traumatic.

“However, university researchers can help solve these mysteries and provide a real service to communities.”

Claire Smith, Nell Brown, Jordan Ralph (sitting), Jocelyn McCartney (sitting), Elizabeth Moreen (identifying unmarked graves).

Claire Smith, Nell Brown, Jordan Ralph (sitting), Jocelyn McCartney (sitting), Elizabeth Moreen (identifying unmarked graves).

Working at the request of Elders, the archaeologists have been using tablets to record information about each grave and a Total Station to map the cemetery.

They have been relying on the memories of community Elders to identify the unmarked graves.

As this information exists only in the memories of a few Elders, the window of opportunity to record this information is quote narrow. Once these Elders have passed away much of this information will be lost forever.

Families of the deceased need to know where to find their loved ones, to visit, mourn, and remember them.

 “We want to know the name of the people who passed away and put a headstone on the grave,” Traditional Owner Joyce Bulumbara said.

“I know where my mother is buried, but I don’t know about my father.

“I know that he is buried in this graveyard but I don’t know where.  I just want to know where my father is buried. We need that university mob to find out where the family members are buried.  Then we can put headstones on their graves.”

Jordan Ralph, Claire Smith, Nell Brown, Elizabeth Moreen (identifying unmarked graves).

Jordan Ralph, Claire Smith, Nell Brown, Elizabeth Moreen (identifying unmarked graves).

The researchers also are providing the data required for the community and Roper Gulf Regional Council to plan future burials.

In the past, existing graves have been accidentally excavated by the community grave digger, who was unaware of the grave.

 “There is an urgent need for this data to be recorded. Without this research, the information will be lost and the people will be forgotten,” Mr Ralph said.

The archaeological recording has been led by Mr Ralph—a PhD candidate at Flinders University and an archaeological consultant, who has been working in Barunga since 2010—and carried out by a team of postgraduate archaeology students.

“Our work here will ensure this situation will not be a problem in the future,” Mr Ralph said.

So far, the archaeologists have only dealt with what is on the surface.

However, there are additional areas of the graveyard that may contain graves, but these need to be explored using specialist equipment.

“Many of the graves at this cemetery are unmarked and do not leave a mark on the surface, particularly the older graves,” Mr Ralph said.

“These graves are just flat areas of the ground, indistinguishable from other areas. To locate these graves and erect a headstone, we could use geophysical equipment such as a ground penetrating radar. This is a low-impact and non-destructive way of seeing what is underneath the surface.”

New legislation is currently in preparation to address this Territory-wide problem.

“Aboriginal graveyards across the Territory are going to have to be recorded to comply with the new legislation, and we are the people who can do the job,” Professor Smith said.

“We are committed to Aboriginal employment on Aboriginal lands. Our team of University and community people includes local Aboriginal people who are being trained in site recording. In fact, one member of our team is a Barunga community member who has almost finished her university degree in archaeology.” 

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