Indigenous artefacts return home after decades in Israel museum

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt looks at stone items returned by the Israel Museum to Indigenous communities. Picture: Keegan Carroll
Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt looks at stone items returned by the Israel Museum to Indigenous communities. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Each stone artefact laid on the table told its own story.

A grindstone bore the red and yellow marks of ochre used for ceremony or art.

Stone axe heads showed signs of hafting - when their owners attached handles to them so they could be used to cut down trees.

They were among 1800 items formally returned to Indigenous communities by the Israel Museum on Tuesday morning, after decades in the institution's collection.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra received the items during a formal handover, and will temporarily house the artefacts before they return to communities.

It is the first handover of Aboriginal cultural heritage items from the Middle East to Indigenous peoples.

The artefacts, which include stone tools, spear heads, flakes and grinding stones, originated from northern Australia, Tasmania, South Australia, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia.

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt said the return of the artefacts was a step towards realising the stories of the regions they originated from.

"Every time we lose an elder, or a traditional owner, we lose a walking encyclopedia of knowledge that can never be replaced," he said.

"But when I look at those objects on that table, I look at the craft, the work that it took to make each of those objects.

"It was somebody's hands that shaped each of those within a cultural context of survival, of continuity of living as one with land."

The items had been preserved in a way that represented a point in time of more than 60,000 years of history, Mr Wyatt said.

"It doesn't matter what it is, what's important, it's coming home to rest where it first arose from," he said.

Stone artefacts returned to Indigenous communities by the Israel Museum. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Stone artefacts returned to Indigenous communities by the Israel Museum. Picture: Keegan Carroll

The handover of the stone artefacts is part of a four-year program to facilitate the return of cultural heritage items to Indigenous communities in Australia, a project led by AIATSIS.

The Israel Museum, in Jerusalem, was the first overseas collecting institution that agreed to return Indigenous cultural heritage items.

They were originally donated to the museum in the 1970s by Carl Shipman, a migrant who settled in Melbourne. His family helped facilitate the return of the artefacts.

The collection will be temporarily housed at AIATSIS for research and while the institute asks Indigenous communities how they wish to proceed with the return of the materials to Country.

AIATSIS chief executive Craig Ritchie said the items included everyday tools as well as artefacts of spiritual and ceremonial significance.

"Our culture is lived, everywhere actually, in the everyday," he said.

"These are very important items to be returned for that reason."

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It is estimated that more than 100,000 items of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage are held in overseas institutions.

Mr Ritchie said the goal of the four-year program was not to grow the AIATSIS collection but to return artefacts to Country.

"We're proud that some of those ceremonial items that were never made to be put behind glass display cabinets but to be used in ceremonies are now being used in ceremonies again 100 years or so after they were made," he said.

The program also helped Indigenous people locate their cultural items held overseas, Mr Ritchie said.

"We continue to be surprised at the places where our items of cultural heritage turn up."

Mr Wyatt said he intended to work with AIATSIS to return domestic and international collections of Indigenous artefacts to elders and traditional owners.

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This story Stone artefacts returning to Indigenous communities after decades in Israel Museum first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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