An archaeological dig to understand the history of fires across the landscape in East Gippsland is taking place at an Aboriginal cultural site, at a secret location, near the junction of the Buchan and Snowy rivers in Buchan.
A joint project by the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, GLaWAC, and the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre at Monash University, it’s hoped the research will influence the current strategy around bushfires.
Significantly, the dig was already underway before the Black Summer bushfires tore through the Buchan area, so the research project has now been extended to take into account their impact, specifically damage, on the cultural site.
“One of the big aims is to work out how bushfires affect the cultural deposits under the ground,” Professor Bruno David, an archaeologist with Monash, told the Advertiser.
By examining the vegetation the archaeologists are able to paint a picture of past fire activities.
“The bushfires tend to affect the plants and what’s above them, but at the same time they burn into the roots of the plants and the plants can be growing into cultural deposits,” Professor David said.
He said examining the charcoal and the sediments at the site helped determine the landscape’s fire history.
“If we can date the different layers of soil and the pollen that’s captured under the ground, then we can date the history of the vegetation communities,” he said.
Professor David said coupled with the buried charcoal, the team is able to work out the history of landscape fires, be they controlled cool burn fires or hot bushfires.
Russell Mullet, who is the RAP manager at GLaWAC, which has responsibility for cultural heritage, said the information could change the current strategy of bushfire management.
“We know the current strategy, the sequence of major, hot fire burns in the forests of Gippsland have increased in the last 10, 15, 20 years and so we know that strategy is not quite right,” Mr Mullet said.
“If we learn from the past, this information, may well feed into a new strategy, or a revised strategy, or tweaking the strategy.”
Some of those people who were impacted by the bushfires in East Gippsland have told the Advertiser that more cool burns need to take place in order to mitigate the onslaught of hot fires like the one experienced during the Black Summer.
Mr Mullett said it made sense, particularly in locations such as the High Country, to think about reintroducing “cultural burning or cool burning regimes”, which Aboriginal people once regularly carried out to reduce the thick undergrowth on the forest floors.
He said over years, with “more government control”, the practice had been extinguished.
“What we’re getting now is hotter burns on those high plains,” Mr Mullet said.
Professor David said with hot burns large areas of forest are wiped out, inflicting a detrimental effect on vegetation and the animal community.
The joint project, which began two years ago, but was mothballed as the bushfires took hold in 2019, and further delayed because of COVID-19, is also aimed at understanding how Aboriginal Elders lived along the river banks.
The location, which is occupied by a series of rocks shelters, has unearthed remnants of stone tools, old fireplaces and animal bones, evidence of where the Gunaikurnai camped along the river.
“We know very, very little history of these camping events,” Professor David said.
He said information held underground from the plants helps form a picture of those years.
“All the different species of plants have all got pollen that can drop into the ground, so the pollen gets blown around or just falls next to the plants, and then it gets captured under the ground as the soil builds up,” he said.
“So what’s under the ground is a bit like the pages of a history book where the plant communities from the surrounding area is captured.”
The project is using specialist researchers from multiple universities, from Australia and overseas.
Mr Mullet, who sits on the GLaWAC Elders Council, said the Elders were being kept informed of the multi-pronged research project around cultural history and bushfire research.
GLaWAC’ s biodiversity team is also doing a study of animals around the site.
Charcoal samples have already been sent to two separate universities for analysis, the ANU in Canberra and the University of Waikato in New Zealand.
The excavation extends one-and-a-half metres into the earth below the stone terrace overlooking the river.
To date the results from the top 30 centimetres of soil dates back 1500 years, with the stone tools identified as having been from the early to mid 1800s.
Professor David anticipates their research will take them back 6000 years. Archaeologist, Dr Rob Skelly, told the Advertiser that “it’s been a beautiful place to dig”.
Dr Skelly, who is usually in the field for two months of the year, said the site was easy to dig.
“It’s a beautiful working site. On hot days a pleasant breeze comes up,” he said. Along with his team comprising fellow archaeologist, Michael Coulter, and stone tool specialist, Dr Jerome Mialanes, the trio has been staying in Buchan. Professor David said in contrast to excavations of the past, only a pinhead of charcoal is needed for a result, with the excavation site gently scraped for clues, rather than shoveled. He expects the team will keep digging for another metre as they continue to reveal “thousands of years of stories”.
“We keep finding more charcoal the deeper we go,” Professor David said.
Russell Mullet, from GLaWAC, with archaeologist, Professor Bruno David, from Monash University’s Indigenous Studies Centre, at the dig on a secret cultural site near Buchan last Friday. (PS)