Anaiwan elder Cheryl Kitchener knew her ancestors had once walked across the landscape now known as Uralla, New South Wales.
But, she hadn’t been able to trace those steps, because the land was privately owned, and used to farm sheep and cattle.
That changed when ACEN Australia chose to develop a renewable energy project.
Ms Kitchener was among First Nations people to inspect and assess the project site for culture and heritage values.
She knew there was a traditional trading route at the back of the property, and she knew traditional owners camped.
“We knew the history of that landscape, but we weren’t allowed to physically actually go on to the property,” she said.
Once she started walking there, and identifying and reconnecting with those sites, “it was an amazing feeling”, she said.
“We knew that it was a trading route, we knew that our great grandfather, and our great great uncle actually walked across the landscape,” she said.
“But we didn’t know exactly what was there, we knew they camped, but we didn’t know about the ceremonial stuff that was there.”
Archaeologist and Anaiwan elder Cheryl Kitchener.
There were some significant sites discovered, one of them being grinding grooves.
“There’s a lot of cultural heritage in that landscape, so the grinding grooves, we found axes, artefacts and scarred trees,” Ms Kitchener said.
“And there’s just amazing wealth of cultural history within the landscape.”
When the group reached the grinding grooves site, artefacts were still in the dents, and on the ledges.
“It was like coming across a place where people had made these implements, and just gone up and walked away, and they were still all there in those particular areas,” she said.
“It was absolutely a brilliant site to actually walk on, and see those things still there.
“It just reminded you of someone being there yesterday, and just walking away, and not realising they weren’t coming back.”
According to plans for ACEN Australia’s development New England Solar, the presence of Bora rings, quarries, scarred trees, grinding grooves and open stone artefact sites and lagoons are representative of a “continuous archaeological character”.
And, many more sites are likely to be found in similar landscape contexts throughout pastoral properties in the Northern Tablelands in northern New South Wales.
Head of construction Tim Greenaway said findings of such high significance are unusual.
“Therefore it’s something that we’ve, right from the beginning, wanted to work very closely with [Aboriginal people], and in partnership, to provide access to it, and protect it for future generations,” he said.
In order to protect the site, it was decided the grinding grooves would be outside of the project area, and with a significant buffer zone of 100 metres.
“It was important to give a site of that significance, give it the space around it as well, for context,” he said.
Second from right: head of construction Tim Greenaway.
The company also puts all its workforce through cultural awareness sessions, to talk about the history of the site, show the artefacts, and explain why areas are fenced off with signage.
“Empowering them with knowledge of Aboriginal history has been a huge success,” he said.
Ms Kitchener said what makes the grinding grooves a significant find is that the material is such a hard one to grind.
“You can just imagine how many hundreds of years people would have been grinding in this one spot to make those really deep grooves in that particular material,” she said.
“It’s a special place and when you go there you can absolutely feel the hum of the place. It just speaks to you. It’s amazing.”
Aboriginal people were sustaining and living off the land for thousands and thousands of years, she said, and then ACEN comes along and puts up a solar farm, to ensure resources are shared.
“I think that what they’re doing in relation to caring for country is something that we were doing naturally anyway,” she said.