Ancient history school: what's new with the old?

teaching repatriation issues

teaching repatriation issues

When teaching about archaeology, preservation and conservation, it is vitally important that attention be paid to repatriation. Returning artefacts and material culture to the country or culture of origin has always been controversial. For First Nations peoples, it is about returning the soul of their ancestors to ‘country’ and until that happens, there can be no rest.

Over the past couple of decades, museums have made positive efforts to repatriate human remains. But, how did these remains come to be in the hands of off-shore museums - or even in Australian museums in the case of Indigenous Australia? Many were robbed long before there was legislation to protect scared sites. Mungo Man is a classic example of the removal of human remains from a sacred site. Despite protests from traditional owners at Willandra Lakes, Mungo Man was removed from country over 40 years ago and was stored in a museum at ANU in Canberra. In 2017, his remains were returned to traditional owners. Geologist Jim Bowler, who found the remains in 1974 comments:

"Our removal of remains and taking them to the university was seen by Aboriginal people as a totally unjustifiable…The Aboriginal people voiced their objection, we were intruding into their history, not our history…”

Importantly, the Mutti Mutti, Paakantyi and Ngyampaa people, will now decide the future of the human remains that have been returned to Willandra. For traditional owners, this is not about their past, it is about their present and their future and it is good that the scientific community is able to recognise and respect that. There is still much that can be learned about Aboriginal Australia now that Mungo Man is back home.

But what of material culture - objects and artefacts? Are those objects being returned with gusto? It appears not! The Gweagal Shield was owned by Cooman and ‘collected’ by Cook or Banks in 1770 then given to the British Museum (as catalogued here) It remains in the BM despite repatriation requests from descendants. This is where things get murky - for what is a museum without a collection? How many museums would fold if they returned all the artefacts to traditional owners or countries of origin? And yet, it is the traditional owners who must continue to suffer the loss so that the museum can keep its doors open.

So how can we get students of history and archaeology to grapple with these issues? Some ideas:

  • traditional debate

  • soapbox competition

  • letters to the editor

  • a Twitter storm - excellent for seniors as they need to be concise to fit the limited characters.

  • an advertising campaign

I’ve tried most of theses and they have been fantastic. Best of all, many students were challenged by the genuine complexity of the issues and had to keep coming back to their basic ethical standpoint. Here are some resources you can use. All are about Indigenous Australian repatriation issues but there are references to other First Nations:

I strongly suggest that you get in contact with your local indigenous community (museum, language centre etc). Not only are they a wealth of knowledge, it is the knowledge that relates directly to country. This would be a great opportunity for students to handle genuine artefacts and discuss repatriation issues with members of the community.

Go forth and conquer!

Archaeology of Space

Archaeology of Space

Dr Estelle Lazer in Pompeii

Dr Estelle Lazer in Pompeii