Coalpac’s claims about age of Aboriginal hand stencil in dispute

An aboriginal hand stencil found in the Blue Mountains, said to be no more than 4 years old in a report commissioned by miner Coalpac, has been declared to be a genuine ancient artefact.

The archaeologists working for engineering agency Aecom Australia have visited the Gardens of Stones site in the Ben Bullen State Forest twice.

The first time was said to be with local aboriginal groups in 2010 when they failed to find any rock art or hand tools at the site.

The second visit was made in response to the Lithgow Environment Groups' submission to the current DA to extend and reopen the mines, which resulted in the report which suggested the hand stencil was ‘questionable’.

The Blue Mountains Conservation Society has since commissioned archaeologist Michael Jackson of Jackson Ward Archaeology, who disputes claims about the inauthenticity of the hand stencil.

Jackson told the ABC that there is more than one hand stencil, and that stone tools made of chert have been found at the site, which indicate beyond any doubt that the site was a shelter used for aboriginal habitation, and that the stencils could be more than 200 years old.

“I noticed the hand stencils a few seconds after going into the shelter,” he said.

“You could see which way the deposit was sloping, which is the way the artefacts and other material would be eroding, so I just looked for an area where there was already an eroding part of the deposit and that’s usually under the drip line of the shelter where water is falling and eroding the sand, and I went over to that spot and immediately I could see a couple of stone tools.

“From my point of view, I find that the rock art is clearly not three and a half years old.

“I've seen rock art that's been done in the last five years and it's much brighter, there's evidence usually in the shelter of preparation of pigments and all sorts of things,” Jackson said.

He also said that his site recordings have been independently verified by the Office of Environment and Heritage, which is the state government authority on Aboriginal heritage determinations.

Lithgow Environment Group's president Dr Richard Stiles said the new findings posed questions about the original archaeological investigation at the unique Pagoda landscape in the Ben Bullen State Forest.

"I think it leads to questions about the due diligence of Coalpac's consultant's report and it really makes you question how an archaeological consultant could say those things, when there is so much evidence in this cave that there's been Aboriginal occupation and artwork in it," Dr Stiles said.

Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporations' Auntie Helen Riley, a traditional custodian and elected elder for the region said that traditional custodians weren't involved in the first on-site Aboriginal heritage assessment that Aecom Australia carried out for Coalpac in December 2010.

She said the Aecom/Coalpac assessment had involved a north-eastern Wiradjuri person to check the site.

She's a Wiradjuri person but it's not her area,” Riley said.

"You've got to have people that live in the area, and know the area, you can't just bring other people in even if they are Wiradjuri.

“I’m not against the mine, we just want the truth and we want our culture and heritage looked after.”

If approved, the expansion by Coalpac will extend the Invincible Colliery and Cullen Valley Mine, which has raised concerns about mine subsidence, which may be caused by highwall mining underneath the cliffs and caves in the Gardens of Stone site.

Coalpac applied for a consolidation project in 2010 which would have merged the Cullen Valley and Invincible operations, and cleared nearly 900 hectares of forest.

The Planning Assessment Commission made recommendations against the project, leading to a smaller application which was refused by the Planning Department due to potential biodiversity and rock formation impacts.

Coalpac is presently in voluntary administration, however if the project is granted planning approval the company will be bought by EnergyAustralia.

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