Recording unmarked graves in a remote Aboriginal community: the challenge of cultural heritage driving sustainable development

Jordan Ralph, Claire Smith, Gary Jackson, Brandon Isaac Pamkal, Jasmine Willika, Rusalka Rubio Perez, Nell Brown, Guy Rankin, Alok Kumar Kanungo, Nishaant Choksi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This paper presents the results of archaeological fieldwork conducted at the request of Elders from Barunga, a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, Australia. The aim of the project was to use archaeological methods to help people from the community relocate and identify each person buried in the Barunga Graveyard and to develop a system where this information would not be forgotten. In the past, the location of burials and the identities of the buried have been known only through memory, as well as repeat visits to the graveyard. Overcrowding within the graveyard has made this practice difficult. To add to this problem, the vast majority of graves of Aboriginal people in remote Northern Territory communities are not recorded in any register. While there is a legislative requirement for a burial register to be kept in non-Aboriginal communities, this has not been a requirement for those within Aboriginal communities. Instead, families must rely on the memories of those in attendance at the burial, and in time the remembering generation also dies and the identities of people in these graves become more and more blurred. This makes it difficult to mourn properly, or to care for that person by caring for their grave. During our fieldwork, we located 175 graves, and we identified 85 individuals. Of those that could be identified, 29 were identified by an associated plaque or headstone, and 56 were identified through oral histories that were recorded during several field visits with Elders from the community. Beyond the archaeological results of this research, we found there is an opportunity to build sustainable development in this community that would see local people employed to locate and identify currently unidentified burials. Drawing on comparative cases from other countries such as India, this study addresses the challenge identified by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) (2015) introducing cultural heritage into the sustainable development agenda. Retrieved February 19, 2020, from, to identify the concrete actions needed to integrate cultural heritage conservation and promotion into the sustainable development debate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-78
Number of pages26
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Apr 2021


  • Indigenous archaeology
  • Sustainable development
  • Community archaeology
  • Graveyards
  • Social justice


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