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Kids, culture and science come together in the Willandra Lakes

30 May 2019 | 3 min read

A place of deep culture, connection and discovery, Willandra Lakes is a place of great historical and cultural significance.

Some of the oldest human remains ever found in Australia were discovered in this beautiful, harsh, yet somewhat mystical wilderness. Known as Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, these Aboriginal ancestors were part of a community who lived and thrived in the south-west area of New South Wales some 42,000 years ago.

Today, the descendants of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man – the Barkandji/Paakantyi, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa peoples – regularly work with investigators to trace back their history and understand how people lived, interacted and managed their Country millennia ago.

RPS Heritage Manager, Aaron Fogel has made it his life’s work to investigate places like the Willandra Lakes using advanced spatial technologies such as ground penetrating radar (GPR), high-resolution photogrammetry and drones.

Developing close relationships with local Elders through his many investigations in the region – the focus of a PhD he is close to completing – Aaron travelled to the area for a special initiative this month – The Mungo Youth Project.

RPS and students of the Mungo Youth Project using GPR to uncover heritage
The students use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to uncover an old excavation site in the Willandra Lakes.

Mungo Youth Project (MYP) brings school children from all over Australia together to experience the history and culture of the region, both past and present.

We asked Aaron for an overview of his work and the experience of sharing it with the next generation at MYP.

‘As an archaeologist, it’s rare that you get to investigate places that have such a rich, continuous history where there is also a close connection to the land by the modern population.

‘The three Traditional Tribal Groups are direct descendants of people who have lived in the region for thousands of years, so it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to work with them to implement non-destructive methods of investigation.

‘The region has been an area of focus for my PhD research, so it’s also important to me for the ways it has enhanced my personal understanding of how Australian landscapes evolve over time, how Indigenous people have managed them and the geospatial traces that are left behind.

‘Mungo Youth Project was a completely different and incredible experience! Kids from extremely diverse backgrounds – geographically, socially and economically – all descend on a place that I’m used to being mostly quiet and serene. All of a sudden the landscape was full of activity, sound and life.

‘It was amazing how quickly all the barriers between the students were transcended. No matter what school or part of the country they came from, they were all so enthralled by the learning experience and hungry to discover more about Indigenous history and culture, along with the technologies we use to investigate it.

‘Part of my role throughout the event was demonstrating how we use ground penetrating radar (GPR) to uncover heritage that is buried below the surface – things like shell middens, fire hearths and earth ovens.

‘The students were pushing the GPR around and actually managed to uncover an old excavation site that we believe may have been from Professor Isabel McBryde. Dr. McBryde was the first female archaeologist in Australia and led the investigations that revealed the oldest global evidence we have of freshwater shellfish harvesting.

‘These sites are at Lake Arumpo at the southern end of the Willandra Lakes system which is also where Mungo Youth Project is held.

‘Much of my own work and research involves the location of shellfish middens, so it was great to be able to draw the connection between what the kids were seeing on the screen to Professor McBryde’s pioneering work - right there in the desert!’

RPS heritage manager teaching students about GPR at Willandra Lakes
RPS Heritage Manager, Aaron Fogel teaching students about how spatial technologies are used to uncover heritage assets buried below the surface, non-invasively.

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