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The PastMasters believe that heritage holds the principal, realisable assets of the people of Arnhemland. Real economic opportunities lie in the Research, Education and Tourism sectors that complement the Social, Cultural & Environmental benefits continuously accruing from the managed development of heritage assets. The littoral zone is still rich in art and artefacts but storm erosion, rising sea levels and cultural change conspire against the past. By working with Traditional Owners, senior cultural people and Ranger organisations in a collaborative history making process we not only aspire to preserving the extant heritage but seek to reveal the centuries of maritime contact that is encoded in the rock art and the spirit dreaming sagas.
The PastMasters work in partnership with Aboriginal people and their organisations to rescue and preserve the great wealth of knowledge that has developed over the eons of cultural time and is now critically endangered by rapid social and environmental change.
Through talking to senior cultural people and working with Rangers, we are endeavouring to locate, identify, conserve and document the physical artefacts that are direct links to important places, events and entities which populate the oral history and cultural tradition.
The nuggets of solid historical fact, at the core of Dreamtime Mythology, are stepping-stones across oceans of time that lead back to the earliest visitors to these northern shores.
Professor Blainey cursed Australia with the Tyranny of Distance and indeed it took the world's greatest navigators to find Sydney Cove & the south coast of Tasmania but that is over 3000kms from Cape Wessel which is closer to Manilla than Hobart by 300kms. Melville Island is closer to the Spice Island of Jamdena than the township of Katherine.
The Top End has had a ring-side seat to a thousand years of international trade and exploration which has left traces in the culture and along the beaches of the land the men of Makassar called the Marege Coast.
Since 2012 we have conducted expeditions during which time we have identified and documented a wealth of important heritage sites which cannot be revealed until the archaeological groundwork and community consultation is completed to the point at which a management plan can be implemented and sustained.
We don't have museums and repositories for safe artefact storage pending future research - we don't have a resident population on the islands that can be trained and supported to manage the archaeology. Visitation relentlessly increases as sites and memories degrade - so we find ourselves in an heritage surge zone where exposure risks destruction and concealment hastens oblivion.
We have developed, field tested and proven a rapid coastal assay methodology but we simply don't have the funds to systematically survey, document and quantify the immense body of historical and cultural wealth that we know to be out there.
A Contextual Framework
Cape Wessel to Cape Wilberforce
The idea of a Cape to Cape National Park is a mechanism to organise our ideas, research and discoveries so that individual points are plotted within a zone of potential relationships. Without such a matrix they would remain isolated finds.
The zone is roughly from Cape Wessel down the western side of the Wessel Islands to the tip of the Napier Peninsular - across to Mallison Island - north-east to Cape Wilberforce and around Truant Island to incorporate the Malay Road and English Company Island.
The area is known to have been seasonally frequented by the Macassan trepang fishermen based at Sulawesi Island and previously by the Samu Baju people from the Sulu Sea to the west of the Philippines. There is Yolngu oral history indicating visitation in much earlier times by such people as the Wurramala Whale Hunters and the geographical situation conspires with the currents and Trade Winds to makes the area highly prospective for undocumented British, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish visitation and perhaps much earlier contact.
This is not the extent of our area of interest - merely a conceptual centre from which lines of inquiry radiate through time and space to the earliest deliberate visitation to these shores.
The presence of early visitors was driven by the same factors that supported the Macassans which are the Great Indonesian Through-flow Current - the NW/SE Trade winds and the presence of freshwater.
In the early phase of the trepang trade, the Macassan fleet gathered in the Malay Road before moving down into the Gulf of Carpentaria as far as the bottom of Bentinck Island. In the late Wet Season they would return to the Malay Road to regrouped before heading north to rendezvous with the Chinese trepang merchants in the Sumlaki Islands, to the south of Jamdena. During the first half of the 19th century the trepang fleets moved progressively westwards to arrive and depart from Melville Island and the Cobourg Peninsular which was reflected in the Chinese merchants residing in Makassar.