Ancestral remains

Ancestral remains are of great significance to Aboriginal people, who feel strongly about the removal of remains from grave sites, so it is important to know how to manage them appropriately if found.

Aboriginal remains may be uncovered by natural forces or when sand or soil is being moved during a development, for example, industrial and residential development, road-works, mineral or petroleum exploration and practices associated with agriculture, pastoralism and tourism.

Reporting and identification

If you discover Aboriginal remains, please do not interfere with the burial area. Instead immediately notify the Registrar of Aboriginal Sites and the Western Australia Police.

Photographs of the general area should be taken. It is important to mark the location of the remains with care so that directions can be provided to the police and/or the Registrar to relocate the site.

Only a qualified archaeologist or forensic specialist can disturb the remains for the purpose of identification and relevant Aboriginal people should be involved if any disturbance is necessary. Ideally, a team comprising relevant Aboriginal people, police, a staff member of the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage and a physical anthropologist and/or trained archaeologist should undertake the process of identification.

Procedures for dealing with a burial site

After discovering a burial site or Aboriginal remains, the following action should be taken:

  1. Immediately contact the police and the Registrar.
  2. If development or other ground disturbing activities are carried out, these activities must cease immediately.
  3. The police will investigate the remains as soon as possible. The Registrar will liaise with police to ensure that the minimum amount of disturbance takes place before identification of whether the remains are of Aboriginal origin and not a matter for further police involvement.
  4. Upon notification that the remains are of Aboriginal origin and not a matter for further police involvement, the Registrar will seek the immediate involvement of relevant Aboriginal people.
  5. The landowner will develop an appropriate action plan for the management of the remains, in consultation with relevant Aboriginal people and the Registrar.
  6. The Registrar will ensure that the burial place is recorded and placed on the Register of Aboriginal Sites.
  7. The Registrar will ensure that the burial place is reported to the Commonwealth Minister for Indigenous Affairs, in accordance with the legal requirements under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act 1984.
  8. If the landowner wishes to carry out further development activities on the location the Registrar will provide advice on how to lodge an application to use the land.

Managing Aboriginal remains

The most effective way to prevent site disturbance is to know of the existence of Aboriginal sites beforehand.

If you undertake ground-disturbing activities, you should consult with relevant Aboriginal people, particularly in areas such as coastal dunes (commonly found to be the location of burials) and areas which have sandy soils. Consultation should take place before starting ground disturbing activities. In many cases, local Aboriginal people know whether burial sites are likely to exist.

Prior consultation with Aboriginal people means you will know who to contact for further advice about future management of the remains, if Aboriginal remains should be discovered. You may also have a protocol already in place to manage any remains that may be located.

When Aboriginal communities and the Registrar become aware of the discovery, the options for dealing with the remains depend on:

  • the views of relevant Aboriginal people
  • the circumstances at each place
  • the nature of any development which is occurring.

Aboriginal people may want to learn more about the remains, for example:

  • the gender
  • how old was the person
  • how old are the remains (length of interment)
  • whether there are grave goods
  • what mortuary rites were practiced, (staged burial, cremation, seated or flexed burial, decoration of the bones).

To activate such studies the consent of the relevant Aboriginal people and the Registrar is required in accordance with Section 16 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 and must be undertaken by a qualified archaeologist or appropriate specialist.

Options for managing Aboriginal remains:

Leave remains in situ

Where remains have not been disturbed, or disturbance has been minimal, it is best to leave the remains in situ. To reduce the chances of inadvertent interference with the site it may be appropriate to stabilise the surrounds and consider placing a sign or other marker to notify the existence of an Aboriginal burial location.

Rebury in the same place

If the burial site has been only partially disturbed (that is, not actually removed), and the activity at the site can be halted permanently the remains should be reburied at the same site, if that is the preference of the local Aboriginal community. When this is done the area should be stabilised and the placing of a sign or other marker to notify the existence of an Aboriginal burial location should be considered.

Rebury in gazetted cemetery or keeping place (ossuary)

If development in the whole area is unavoidable, or if it is the choice of the local Aboriginal community, the remains may need to be removed from the site entirely. This should only be done under the supervision of local Aboriginal leaders. The fate of the material is then at their discretion. Their aim may be to find a satisfactory reburial site somewhere in the vicinity of the original find. Some communities may request remains be reburied within a gazetted cemetery or a keeping place (ossuary) that has already been purpose built. Such an ossuary has already been constructed at Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth. Construction of ossuaries is being considered for other regional places. 

Rebury as close as possible

In some cases, skeletal remains are not discovered until development is well under way. In these cases it may not be possible to rebury the remains in exactly the location they were discovered. In this case, the preferred option is to rebury them as near as practicable (that is, where the risk of future disturbance is minimised) to the original place of discovery. This should involve the local Aboriginal community and the placing of a sign or other marker should be considered at the reburial site to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent interference.

Landowners and the discovery of Aboriginal remains

The discovery of remains does not pose a threat to a landowner's right to freehold title, but it does require that approval for development on the burial area is sought.

If a developer already has consent from the Minister to develop the land and Aboriginal remains are discovered during development work, the landowner should follow the steps set out above under procedures for dealing with the discovery of Aboriginal remains.

Page last reviewed 2 January 2019
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