Farmer charged with harming Aboriginal heritage over change to Lake Bolac stone arrangement: ABC News

By environment reporter Peter de Kruijff

Adrian McMaster is facing charges of damaging an Aboriginal heritage site.(ABC News: Sian Johnson)
  • In short: A unit under Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet has charged a farm caretaker with harming an Aboriginal heritage site.
  • It is alleged part of the kooyang (eel) stone arrangement was removed during the Easter weekend three years ago.
  • What’s next? No court date has been set, but the caretaker is suggesting the stone arrangement is of European origin.

A western Victorian farm caretaker has been charged by the state government with harming Aboriginal heritage for allegedly removing part of a stone arrangement representing a short-finned eel.

The 176-metre long kooyang (eel) stone arrangement at Lake Bolac is on Victoria’s Aboriginal heritage register and is thought to be about 1,500 years old.

Farm caretaker Adrian McMaster plans to fight the charges, contesting the beliefs of traditional owners as to the basalt formation’s origin, which he has argued is actually a European-constructed sheep pen.

A 60-metre section of the stones, representing the kooyang (eel’s) tail, was allegedly removed by Mr McMaster on Good Friday three years ago.

He is potentially facing thousands of dollars in fines if found guilty.

The southern shortfin eel has been of great cultural significance to Aboriginal people at Lake Bolac.(Supplied: David Paul/Museums VictoriaSouthern Shortfin EelCC BY-NC 4.0 DEED)

Mr McMaster is one of the owners of the private farmland at Lake Bolac where the stones are located, about 220 kilometres west of Melbourne.

It has been in his family for 120 years.

Mr McMaster’s legal adviser said the stones were never an Aboriginal heritage site and the formation was the remains of an old sheepfold.

He also lodged a defamation case against musician Neil Murray and Ballarat newspaper The Courier over commentary and coverage of the incident in 2022.

The civil case was discontinued last year with the matter settled out of court.

A pile of rocks from the partially destroyed kooyang stone arrangement at Lake Bolac, photographed April 6, 2021.(ABC News: Sian Johnson)

But over the past three years, investigators from Aboriginal Victoria — which has since been amalgamated into First Peoples – State Relations under the state’s Department of Premier and Cabinet — continued to look into damage at the site.

The investigation was recently finalised and a Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet spokesperson said charges had been laid over harm to a site at Lake Bolac.

“Victoria’s Aboriginal cultural heritage, like other forms of heritage, is a vital part of our history and identity and ensuring its protection for all Victorians is one of our top priorities,” they said.

“As this matter is before the courts, we are unable to provide further comment at this stage.”

The department would not state how many charges there were, nor what parts of the Aboriginal Heritage Act had allegedly been contravened.

There are several provisions under the law relating to damage to Aboriginal heritage, with some garnering maximum penalties of up to $346,158 for an individual or $1.9 million for a corporation.

No court dates have been set yet for the case.

The stones that were moved remain in a pile on the farm after an order under the Aboriginal Heritage Act to prevent any more damage at the site.

A sketched diagram of the Lake Bolac eel stone arrangement, from a 1980 Victorian Archaeological Survey.(Supplied)

Mr McMaster’s legal advisor Alan Flint said the defence to the charges would be on the basis the stone arrangement was incorrectly classified and not of Aboriginal origin.

“The stones that were disturbed were not marked as being within the protected area of Aboriginal cultural heritage,” he said.

[They] were believed from family history and official publications including the Shire of Ararat centenary yearbook 1966, revised in 1996 without change, to be remnants of an early settler’s sheepfold.”

A 1980 report for the then Victorian Archaeological Survey identified the arrangement as being of Aboriginal construction while suggesting a similar structure 10 kilometres further north was possibly a sheepfold.

This report is one of the historical documents put under scrutiny by Mr Flint in a report he prepared for the defamation case.

The Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, which referred the damage to the regulator, declined to comment while the case was before the courts.

Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation’s John Clarke at Lake Bolac. (ABC News: Sian Johnson)

John Clarke from the corporation has previously told the ABC the stones at Lake Bolac were believed to be a major gathering place before European colonisation.

“Different language groups and different nations would come into this space to celebrate the life cycle of eels,” he said.

“Such is the cultural importance of the eel, it was the basis of our aquaculture industry.”

A placid tree-rimmed lake at dusk under a cloudless sky
Lake Bolac is an important place for catching kooyang (eels).(Supplied: MelburnianLake BolacCC BY 3.0 DEED)

Colonial official George Augustus Robinson noted in his diary in 1841 that during “eeling season” there could be annual gatherings of about 800 to 1,000 Aboriginal people at Lake Bolac.

Two decades later in 1863 the Victorian government amended its Fisheries Act to prevent net fishing by non-Aboriginal people in Lake Bolac and Mordialloc Creek near Melbourne.

A historical article in now-defunct newspaper The Argus stated the amendment came about because of complaints fishermen had interfered with Aboriginal people by taking big catches of eels in the season they were most plentiful.

The eel is still celebrated at Lake Bolac with an annual festival.

Read the original story on the ABC News website here