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Fellowship supports research into destruction of ancient Tasmanian rock art

Zoe Rimmer

A University of Tasmania alumna who is documenting the removal and destruction of some of the earliest examples of rock art dating back 14,000 years is the recipient of the 2021 Australian Academy of the Humanities’ John Mulvaney Fellowship.

A proud Pakana woman, Zoe Rimmer (BA-BFA 2006) is currently completing her PhD on Tasmanian Aboriginal activism in cultural institutions. The doctorate is being completed through a Senior Indigenous Research Scholarship at the University. Winning the Fellowship will allow Zoe to expand her studies and enable her to visit the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and other museums in Canberra to continue her ground-breaking work.

The John Mulvaney Fellowship is presented to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander early career researchers and PhD students working in any area of the humanities and is designed to support recipients to undertake research fieldwork in Australia or overseas. Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney FAHA was often described as ‘the father of Australian archaeology’.

The main objective of Zoe’s research is to investigate and document the Aboriginal community campaign in Tasmania for the repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural material from the 1970s until the present. It also tracks the impact this campaign has had on both museum practice and the revival of community cultural identity, spirituality and practice.

“A major component of this study, and the focus of my fellowship application,” Zoe said, “is the Preminghana petroglyphs – the collection of slabs of engravings taken in the 1950s by the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery and by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in 1962 – and the current unfolding repatriation of these to the Aboriginal community and Country.”

Petroglyphs are rock carvings made by etching a rock surface using a stone chisel and a hammerstone to create designs on a rock’s surface. There is a special significance in Zoe being presented with the Academy’s 2021 Fellowship. In 1963, archaeologist John Mulvaney, who the award is named after, visited north-western Tasmania knowing that TMAG had recently removed a large slab of the engravings from Preminghana (then known as Mount Cameron West).

“He was ‘absolutely shocked’ by what he saw: ‘they had sawn off the face of the carvings’ and there ‘were bits of carvings lying all around, all broken’,” Zoe said.

“He condemned the Museum’s ‘removal’ of the petroglyphs as a deplorable destruction of some of the most important examples of early rock art in the world, and of a site of deep cultural significance. Mulvaney’s outrage effectively stopped TMAG from cutting further panels out of the petroglyph site and led him to involve the Aboriginal Institute…to undertake extensive excavation and documentation of the site in 1969.”

This ended more than a century of what Zoe described as “amateur-led collecting and archaeology in Tasmania” and instigated new research that recognised the deep cultural significance of the island and its original inhabitants. It also influenced the development of government legislation intended to protect Aboriginal heritage.

Zoe said the decision by TMAG in late 2019 to repatriate the Preminghana petroglyphs, followed in February this year by the Museum’s formal apology to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community for their treatment of ancestral remains, shows a remarkable transformation.

In congratulating Zoe on her Fellowship, Academy President, Professor Lesley Head FAHA, said it gives her great pleasure to recognise and support the work of a young Indigenous researcher whose project work is so closely aligned to John Mulvaney, albeit nearly five decades later.

“Zoe’s project is original, timely, much-needed and significant in documenting a sad part of our recent history,” said Professor Head.

“Importantly, it also captures the positive results of a community-driven campaign which has helped right this terrible wrong.”

Photo credits: image of Zoe Rimmer in southwest Tasmania by Jillian Mundy, image at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) by Simon Cuthbert

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Published on: 08 Sep 2021 3:47pm