Warkworth mine finds oldest Hunter artefacts

DIGS at Rio Tinto’s Warkworth mine have uncovered some of the oldest Aboriginal artefacts found in the Hunter Valley.

While early reports indicated the Warkworth finds were up to 45,000years old, later studies say ‘‘chipped stone tools’’ found in the ‘‘Warkworth sand sheets’’ are probably less than 15,000years old.

Even so, the Warkworth findings could be twice as old as those from the KFC/Palais site in Hunter Street, which were carbon-dated to about 6500years ago.

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Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Laurie Perry said Aboriginal people had been excited by the archaeological findings but they still wanted to be able to tell their own stories of connection to the land.

Mr Perry said he accepted that Aboriginal sites would be destroyed by open-cut mining and said a museum being planned beside the new Hunter Expressway at Greta was a breakthrough after years of debate about displaying Aboriginal artefacts.

A Rio spokesman said the company understood the artefacts were important to local Aboriginal people regardless of their age.

South Coast geoarchaeologist Dr Phillip Hughes, who worked on a 2002 investigation at Warkworth, said assessments for coalmine approvals meant the Hunter Valley was one of the most archaeologically studied areas in Australia.

Dr Hughes said dating ancient objects was an imprecise art and he still leaned towards a ‘‘ late Pleistocene’’ dating for the Warkworth stone chips despite the findings of a subsequent study.

Another team investigating a larger section of the Warkworth sands said ‘‘significant sediment disturbance meant the Pleistocene dates were ‘‘unreliable [and] too old’’.

‘‘The oldest artefacts buried in the Warkworth sands are all probably Holocene in age (less than 10,000years old), or perhaps slightly older,’’ a 2008 report to Rio Tinto said.

Dr Hughes said archaeologists had been unable to find any charcoal or other material suitable at Warkworth for carbon dating, meaning the dates were obtained from luminescence testing on buried sand.

He said it was something of a scientific mystery why – despite the area being so heavily studied – Sydney and the Hunter had not turned up evidence of earlier Aboriginal habitation despite sites elsewhere on the mainland and Tasmania dating back 35,000years or more.

The Warkworth site is about 12kilometres south-west of Singleton and is part of the combined Warkworth/Mount Thorley open-cut coalmine.

The sand sheets investigated earlier this decade are in an area approved for mining, east of Wallaby Scrub Road.

But various reports to Rio Tinto show Aboriginal sites scattered across the company’s holdings, including the Warkworth Extension project west of Wallaby Scrub Road.

Rio Tinto has promised to protect an important Bora site, or meeting ground, on the extension project’s western boundary with Wambo mine.

The Warkworth extension has been approved by the state government but the Environmental Defenders Office has lodged a ‘‘merits appeal’’ to be heard in the Land and Environment Court from later this month.

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