The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) has alleged that mining giant Rio Tinto provided incorrect information to an inquiry into the destruction of Aboriginal artefacts.

In a letter to the Commonwealth’s Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia sent September 8, WGAC Director and acting CEO Tony Bevan wrote that the organisation considers the evidence provided by Rio Tinto “in relation to the disposal of the salvaged Marandoo cultural material to be incorrect”.

“The verbal evidence provided by Rio Tinto is not supported by the confidential documents provided, by us to the Committee, in our Marandoo – State of Shame submission,” he wrote.

The public hearing in question was held on August 27.

The destruction of the Marandoo cultural material has highlighted the inadequacy of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 and the need for major reforms to the regime.

Bevan wrote that the comments from Rio Tinto “clearly sought to downplay the importance of the cultural material disposed and lessen Rio’s involvement and responsibility for what occurred”.

“It is extremely disappointing that Rio’s focus continues to be on trying to manage the public (and the Committee’s) perception.”

In the letter, WGAC wrote that Rio Tinto had asserted an analysis of the material had been completed and had been conducted by highly qualified archaeologists; had determined which material was of value and which material was deemed to be “non-artifactual or non-diagnostic”.

They had said “the large number and type of material that have been retained and the subsequent research on these suggest to Rio Tinto that significant efforts were made to salvage items of cultural value”.

WGAC had earlier provided the Committee with the results of their investigation into the events surrounding the disposal of the Marandoo material, excavated from at least 14 cultural sites in the 1990s.

“A February 1997 report on the status of the Marandoo material …was prepared by an NTU [Northern Territory University] student. It details the material discarded at the Darwin tip. Excavated material from 11 of the 19 sites were discarded with no analysis or research done,” they wrote.

“Significantly the detail of sites discarded in this 1997 report matches exactly with those in the March 1996 Kinhill proposal … [which] noted that there was a significant amount of material to be analysed and research to be done… [and] that very little work had occurred since a status report dated 22 September 1994.

“The cost to complete the consultancy was estimated to be $53,450. The proposal deemed that the majority of excavated material should be discarded in Darwin due to time, cost and space constraints.”

Bevan told the National Indigenous Times that the materials detailed in the February 1997 report were those which remained after other materials were inadvertently disposed of by the NTU in 1995.

The February 1997 report also noted the shipping container at Myilly Point Campus in which “most of the archaeological material had been stored” had “rusted out” and had “holes in the roof had let water onto and into some of the bags”.

“Some of the material has been effected. Some material had also been stored at the NTU (Casuarina campus). The material in the container was stored in 66 large bags. Most bags were open, as were some of the smaller bags within them.

“Bags were labelled, however this did not always correspond with their contents. Some of the material detailed in the 1996 status report was not found.”

In the letter to the Committee, Bevan wrote that the written evidence provided by WGAC “does not support Rio’s version of “analysis”, or of “significant efforts” to salvage items of cultural value.

In 1992, Hamersley Iron engaged Kinhill to excavate Eastern Guruma sites as required by its Section 18 consent. Kinhill salvaged 28 sites out of an estimated 400-plus sites at Marandoo, a 193 square kilometre area.

The bulk of the material was sent to NTU, now Charles Darwin University, for analysis. The Manganese Gorge material was found to date back at least 18,000 years and proved Traditional Owners connection to the Hamersley Ranges prior to the last ice age.

In October 1995, NTU sent a letter to Kinhill delivering the devastating news that the material from Manganese Gorge had accidentally been taken to the Darwin tip. The letter said university staff cleaning the building “removed the archaeological collections to the local dump”, but noted that “all other archaeological materials from Marandoo have not been damaged and are safely housed”.

In relation to the material that survived, on March 7, 1996, Kinhill Engineers Pty Ltd, consultants contracted by Hamerley Iron (a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto), wrote to the WA Aboriginal Affairs Department.

“I am happy for you to use this letter and the annex when you approach Hamersley Iron to seek confirmation of their commitment to the project and/or the Karijini Aboriginal Corporation regarding the suggestions for disposing of the bulk of the material and permanent storage of the remaining samples,” they wrote.

“The annex indicates that there is still a significant amount of material to be analysed and research to be done I am willing to ensure that the selected materials studied and reported thoroughly to bring the project to a satisfactory conclusion and I am therefore asking your assurance that the final stages as detailed in the annex will be adequately funded.”

It included an annex entitled MARANDOO PROJECT – PROPOSAL TO COMPLETE THE CONSULTANCY, in which tasks completed and tasks yet to be done were set out.

Indicative costing was provided for the outstanding tasks, proposing the budget of $53,450.

Correspondence in response from the Aboriginal Affairs Department of WA to Kinhill has not been made public at this stage.

However, a Hamerlsey Iron letter to Kinhill dated 23 January, 1997, written by the company’s specialist archaeologist, stated: “Further to your correspondence with the Aboriginal Affairs Department regarding the Mandaroo materials, I wish to advise that Hamersley Iron has agreed to assume responsibility for the finalisation of the project”.

“Hamersley Iron accepts your proposal of 9 January 1997 for the processing and returning of materials and documentation to the Pilbara, and has approved a budget of $6,490 to complete the work,” it continued.

“As per the recent discussions between AAD [Aboriginal Affairs Department], Hamersley Iron and yourself, the materials are to be returned to Dampier, where, in cooperation with the relevant Aboriginal groups, I will undertake the remaining analysis of the materials and co-ordinate the reporting/publication of the results.”

Bevan told the National Indigenous Times that the materials “got returned to Karratha and there was some research done, and the materials ended up in the sea container”.

“They didn’t inform the Traditional Owners that material had been thrown out either in 1995 or in 1997. [Traditional Owners] were not involved in the analysis,” he said.

“They went out there for the salvage originally with the archaeologists, then the materials got shipped off to the university and the subsequent analysis only involved academics and archaeologists.

“In those days they didn’t involve the Traditional Owners in that work, it doesn’t happen a lot now either… Consultants run the research, which is not the way it should work.”

WGAC has provided the Committee with the January 23 1997 letter.

Bevan wrote that WGAC also provided a copy of the same letter to Rio Tinto on August 24 2021, four days prior to the public hearing day in question.

However, no one has been able to produce the letter dated January 9 1997, in which Kinhill set out the details of the $6,490 proposal.

The National Indigenous Times contacted Rio Tinto for comment on the morning of September 16.

By Giovanni Torre