Mystery treasure belonging to king found at Moree

Noeline Briggs-Smith OAM with the breastplate.
Noeline Briggs-Smith OAM with the breastplate.

BURIED treasure accidentally discovered and secretly donated, the spectre of grave robbery and conflict over land... it’s not the plot to an Indiana Jones sequel but events that took place in Moree. 

A local Aboriginal historian has received a historic breastplate which once belonged to a king of North West NSW. 

Noeline Briggs-Smith OAM said she suspected the donation was made to her anonymously by a local farmer who recognised its value but feared losing their land. 

“It looks as if it has been hit by a plough,” Mrs Briggs-Smith. “This breastplate is just priceless. It’s an artefact of the colonial era. Whoever found it saw that, but thought that we’d launch a land rights claim.” 

The Kamilaroi elder praised the anonymous discoverer and said she hoped others would be inspired to follow suit. 

“I want to thank this person from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “You’ve given a part of our history back to us.” 

Mrs Briggs-Smith said she believed similar relics were scattered in living rooms and basements across the Plains and beyond, but that precious little was in the hands of Kamilaroi people.

“This is like when the government ran its gun buyback amnesty,” she said. “We’re saying to people, if you have objects like this, stone tools, axes and spears, please come forward with them. 

“We aren’t looking to take back land – we’re looking to take back our history. And if you still aren’t confident, put it in an unmarked box and hand it in anonymously.” 

The breastplate once belonged to a man called Yarra, described as King of Boongar on the Barwin River. The river is now spelt Barwon and runs through Mungindi, Collarenebri, Walgett, and Brewarrina. 

It was originally given to Yarra by a landowner whose surname was Nowland, though his initials can’t be deciphered. In one corner of the breastplate is an engraved kangaroo and in the other is an emu. 

If there is a date engraved it cannot currently be seen. Mrs Briggs-Smith said she would be getting the breastplate cleaned and was hoping to glean more information from it.

She is also appealing for residents who might know more to come forward. 

“I get cold shivers all over when I hold it,” she said. “I feel like a I am holding something unique and I feel connected with the Aboriginal person who once wore it.” 

The breastplate was posted in July last year but found its way to the dead letter office. 

From there it was sent to the National Museum of Australia which contacted Mrs Briggs-Smith several weeks ago. 

The Moree Plains Gallery holds four similar breastplates which were donated in 1993.

Because they were not traditional objects they were given back after death, not buried with the elder, unlike objects such as shields and spears. 

“There’s no point in going and digging up their graves because the breastplates aren’t there,” Mrs Briggs-Smith said. “There was a breastplate in a headstone out Boggabilla way which was gouged out and taken and never found again.

“Ours aren’t buried with them, they are in the gallery.”

Moree Plains Gallery director Vivien Thompson believed Moree held the only matching breastplates in the country. 

The older matching pair belonged to Marie and Brummy who were described as king and queen of Terry Hie Hie. The breastplates are believed to date from the 1880s.

The other pair were given to Billy and Maggie Barlow who succeeded them as king and queen of Terry Hie Hie in 1914. 

Breastplates were given out from 1816 by Governor Macquarie in an effort to replace the traditional elder system with a European model of nobility. 

“Unfortunately those breastplates are some of the only objects we have,” Mrs Briggs-Smith said. “It is important to gather, document and preserve our Kamilaroi history for future generations.

“It will not only enhance our local  history but the history of our Australian nation.”