One Place Many Stories With Dave Johnston

The discovery of a site of significant Aboriginal heritage has brought farmers and Traditional Owners in NSW together in a rare collaboration.

Indigenous archaeologist and anthropologist Dave Johnston discovered an ancient axe quarry site on a NSW property called “Millpost” that has now been listed on the New South Wales special sites register.

Since then the farmers of the property and the Traditional Owners of the area, the Ngunnawal and Nambri people have cooperated to protect and promote the area.

It’s a rare collaboration because very few sites of significant Aboriginal heritage listed in NSW are on privately held land.It seems that for many years farmers have kept heritage discoveries on their property secret.

Dave Johnston told an audience at Flinders University recently about the site and the work that had been done to protect and promote it.

He spoke to Aboriginal Way after the event to tell us more and explained how he came to identify the axe quarry site after being invited for a picnic by the Watson family who live on the property.

Uncovering the site

“We were invited out for a picnic with a group of friends, to go up to David Watson’s favourite place on the property, up on this hill where he grew up as a kid, it was his favourite place.

“He was hoping there might be something there. I looked around, I couldn’t see any evidence straight away, but I said, look, it’s a good visual point, you can see the Brindabellas and the various ranges around Canberra, into the valley, Millpost Valley.

“But then I looked around again as we were leaving, I thought what was a granite outcrop, I looked and saw this blue stone. I thought, oh, that’s a bit different, it’s been chipped too. And I thought, oh, it’s a vehicle’s chipped this big block. Then it just dawned on me as I looked around, this isn’t granite, it’s basalt, which is the most popular stone for making stone axes around the country.

“And I realised that this outcrop was basalt, not granite… and I could see it growing in my eyes, and as being a massive outcrop of basalt that has been quarried. And the axe blanks were there specifically for making axes, and it was an axe quarry site for the metadolerite” he said.

Mr Johnston had worked with the local Nambri and Ngunnawal communities in the area for over 35 years and so immediately spoke to them about the find at Millpost.

“So I thought, well here we are, we’ll stop here. We’ll go and contact the Elders. The farmers were keen to meet with the traditional owners, the custodians” he said.

Having the site recognised

Dave Johnston worked with the Traditional Owners, the farmers and the Office of Environment and Heritage New South Wales and the outcrop was recorded as “majorly significant Aboriginal site” and a special site for the state.

“Just recently the Minister in New South Wales declared it an Aboriginal place on their special list, that’s a separate list to just the general Aboriginal sites registrar. So it’s quite a significant find.

“It’s just such an important and great opportunity for the communities to come together and share and recognise and look after the place, which they’re doing” Mr Johston said.

Working together

The Watson farming family were happy to collaborate with the traditional custodians on protecting the site. It can be a rare attitude still for many pastoralists and property owners said Mr Johnston.

“The original false news was, you know, from a native title, came that Aboriginal peoples and farmers just couldn’t be friends, so to speak. Aboriginal people were going to steal their land through this native title. And all these false news and false stories that have gone on.

“The Watsons broke the mold in saying ‘well look, we actually want to know about the local community'”.

The Watsons have been on the property for five generations and expressed a respect for the Aboriginal people before them as well as an interest in the full history of the site.

“There are many histories, but if people who love country, their families, have an attachment to the land, and look, are worried and concerned about its future and their children’s future, who better than Aboriginal communities and property owners?” asked Mr Johnston.

“There are so many histories. And everyone has an angle of their history. But that is shared” he said.

Engaging with the site was also significant for local Ngunnawal and Nambri people, including Matilda House, Molly Bell and Carl and James Mundy.

“The Aboriginal people that came to the site, even though they hadn’t been out Millpost in their generation, finding the sites was part of their heritage.

“This is a process where people are coming together to say, hey, we actually do care about our local history and heritage, and if governments aren’t adequately, I would argue, looking after our heritage, Australia’s heritage and Indigenous heritage, then you know, the locals and good people can” Mr Johnston said.

Economic opportunities

The significant find at Millpost offers potential for tourism and other economic development, with people working in partnership said Mr Johnston.

“We’ve just run an Indigenous outreach program utilising that site and hospitality of the Watsons.

“It’s the start. Now we’re growing it, and we’re also looking, can we get some economic opportunities alternate for the farmers, having some cultural tourism both European and Aboriginal with the Traditional Owners working together in partnerships, and that’s what we’re starting. It can’t be everywhere do that, but it’s certainly working here” he said.

Overcoming fear about finding heritage

This paritcular site, while special in the way it has been managed, is not unique in terms of heritage across the nation explained Mr Johnston.

“Australia as a whole is a cultural landscape. Aboriginal people have been here for 65,000 plus years, their survival, everyone, you know, making tools, implements, that is our archaeology. That’s our physical remains that are there, our existence symbolising it.

“It’s our footprints in the sand, so to speak” said Mr Johnston.

In the past, property owners may have been reluctant to share their finds Mr Johnston said.

“Every farm would have a collection. However, it’s illegal to collect and destroy sites by collecting them, but in the old days everyone did it

“So we always said, you know, every farmer has the best collection under the house. And that’s true.

“The difficultly is that there’s fears that ‘we’ve taken the artefacts, we might get sued’. Well, it is illegal now to do that, but the old collections prior to that legislation are fine”

“For years, because they didn’t want black fellas coming in to take their land, so… But when they realised they don’t, there’s an opportunity for a conversation” he said.

That conversation has commenced, led by examples such as Millpost and changing attitudes among farmers Mr Johnston said.

“The ANU just the last couple of weeks have been running some workshops with farmers and Aboriginal groups about some of the collections they’ve had under their sheds, collected from years ago before the laws said it was illegal to do that.

“But more importantly the Watsons, and other farmers like that, are talking to their neighbours, talking to their family down the road, talking at the local shows.

“They are the better ones to let the other farmers know, ‘hey, this is a great relationship we’ve got here, we’ve got so much to gain and little to lose’.

“The other farmers will listen to the other farmers first. Breaking down those stumbling blocks that are actually just glass houses is wonderful to see, and watching the community grow in this way” Mr Johnston said.

You can see a video about the Millpost project here:

By Lucy Kingston

Picture top:  Dave Johnston & Dr Chris Wilson, Flinders University

SANTS acknowledges that the land on which our office is based is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and we respect their spiritual and cultural relationship with their country.