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Swiss NGO to fund IUPUI Archaeological Expedition and Training in Australia

The Swiss UBUNTU Foundation, in collaboration with a team headed by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), will host a workshop for Australian Aboriginal (Yolngu) Sea Rangers on heritage protection in July 2013 at Gunyangara on the coast of Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.

UBUNTU is a traditional ethical concept of the Zulu and Xhosa peoples of South Africa. It defines humanity in terms of mutuality: a person can only be a person through other people. The concept was made famous in the writings and speeches of Nobel Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The Swiss UBUNTU Foundation works with indigenous peoples around the world on projects of mutual enrichment, but especially in South Africa.  The San people, as is the case with other marginalized indigenous minorities like the Yolngu, have much to offer humankind: their traditional knowledge, their survival strategies, their rich historical legacy of rock paintings, their contemporary arts and crafts and, despite all adversities, their sense of humor.

The workshop, entitled ‘Custodians & Curators’, has dual objectives.  Firstly, the sensitizing of Sea Rangers to the subtle signatures of the heritage that abounds upon the Arnhem Land strand. This is time critical, as links to the oral tradition erode; the country becomes more accessible to outsiders  and climate change takes an inexorable grip.  During their routine work with ghost nets and beach erosion, Rangers will inevitably encounter long-hidden archaeological sites that have been roughly exhumed by tropical storms and rising sea levels. As custodians of the land and curators of its history, Rangers are perfectly placed to manage their inheritance of Australia’s pre-colonial heritage – but they cannot protect what they do not understand.

The second objective, therefore, is to introduce Rangers to the gamut of heritage management processes as opportunities for skills acquisition and complementary learning. They will explore scientific techniques in research, and conservation as practiced throughout a range of disciplines, including archaeology, geomorphology, geophysics and landscape surveying.

The training team includes IUPUI anthropologist Dr. Ian McIntosh, Yolngu elder Terry Yumbulul of the Warrimirri clan, Northern Territory historian and heritage consultant Mike Owen ,John Perkins, a Bristol University PhD candidate in archaeology formerly of the British Museum, geomorphologist Tim Stone, and consulting archaeologist and Yolngu trainer Mike Hermes. 

The workshop is being conducted in conjunction with an expedition funded in part by Australian Geographic to explore the origins of an extraordinary ancient coin find in the Wessel islands that has the potential to rewrite Australian history.

During WW2, Australian serviceman Maurice Isenberg found five copper coins on the Wessel Islands from the ancient Sultanate of Kilwa, now a World Heritage ruin on the southern Tanzanian coast. In the 12th century, Kilwa was the most prosperous maritime city in the East Africa, the starting point of the vast Indian Ocean trading network that linked Great Zimbabwe to Persia, India and the fabled Spice Islands of Indonesia that Christopher Columbus was seeking when he encountered the Americas.

In the wake of a visit to Kilwa by Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama in the early 1500s, Kilwa was subjugated and razed to the ground.

How coins from this once prominent southern African port city reached northern Australia has been the topic of much scholarly speculation over the years. Did a Kilwani coastal ship flee the siege to the open ocean, to be driven 10,000 miles eastward to a sea grave in the uncharted Wessel Islands? Perhaps Portuguese sailors filled their pockets in the sacking of the citadel and sailed away triumphant upon a one-way voyage of exploration. Were the coins perhaps the keepsakes or talisman of long forgotten castaways?

 Fantastic theories come alive in the lees but only a thorough site survey will reveal the truth. If shipwreck is involved, then the team from Indiana University’s Undersea Science Unit, best known for its work on Spanish wrecks in the Caribbean, is ready to join a major follow-up expedition to get to the bottom of the mystery.

This is essentially a pilot project exploring, through heritage conservation, the conceptual themes that find harmonic resonance in both western and traditional knowledge systems. It is hoped that, if successful, the workshop format and field survey methodology may be developed into modules at certificate level, articulating to higher education achievement, which may one day see Yolngu graduates of IUPUI & its partner institutions.