An Escalating Conflict – Archeologists Anti Climber Bias?

Are archeologists actively campaigning to have climbing banned in the Grampians? This week we present evidence that that this could be the case. And these people are on the payroll of Parks Victoria. This is the first of several reports on this subject we will be publishing in the next few weeks. Let’s get started!

A fascinating conference occurred at Melbourne University in October this year that directly relates to the rock-climbing bans being enforced at the Grampians and Arapiles. It was titled:

ROCK ART SYMPOSIUM 2019: Exploring the social, political and cultural dimensions of rock art in Australia and beyond.
The aim of this one-day symposium is to have a robust discussion about the social and political dimensions of rock art in Australia. The symposium seeks to analyze the mechanisms under which rock art operates in Australia beyond archaeological engagement. The overall aim is to review and highlight what is and what is not working in rock art preservation in Australia

Download the symposium’s program we found online below:

So how does this meeting of rock art academics at Melbourne University relate directly to our climbing issues? One of the presentations was titled:

Woah! OK. This directly relates to our problems – and even has a lovely tabloid style headline “an escalating conflict” to really hammer it home. Describing it as a “conflict” seems pretty far fetched as one party (the climbers) were not even acutely aware there was a conflict until the gate got shut and the key thrown away on their favourite climbing areas. The presenters of this lecture are a who’s who of people directly involved in current assessments and management decisions about rock-climbing in the Grampians – more about them later on. This 20 minute talk (with 5 speakers?!) opened the conference.

What did they talk about? The symposium’s program gives abstracts about each presentation. An abstract is a short overview.

The recent escalation of bouldering and bolting in the sandstone ranges of Western Victoria has caused noticeable damage to Aboriginal rock art sites in the Grampians National Park (aka Gariwerd), Black Range State Park and Red Rock Bushland Reserve. This has forced Parks Victoria, as an initial measure, to increase Special Protection Areas within the Grampians National Park, resulting in the closure of eight well-known rock climbing faces. The closure, along with a Parks Victoria review of other climbing areas, has caused an outcry by the Victorian climbing fraternity. Reviews of the reasons for the closure are presented while adding a caution to all Cultural Site Managers to regularly and carefully monitor their cultural sites for an increase in damaging activities associated with climbing.

There is a lot to unpack from those four simple sentences. If it was designed to make us want to hear their lecture – they got our attention! This presentation is obviously key to understanding the position climbers find themselves in this year – with the world’s largest climbing ban applied across a third of the Grampians – and now a section of Arapiles.

We don’t know attendance numbers for this conference, nor who attended in detail, but the presenters were a who’s who of prominent representatives from the Aboriginal community and archeology fields. Well known Aboriginal activist, regular ABC TV panelist & professor Marcia Langton was one such presenter. A lecture titled “an escalating conflict” would certainly make a lasting impression on anyone who attended this symposium that rock climbers = bad. It’s apparently a conflict after all.

We will analyze each sentence from the abstract:

The recent escalation of bouldering and bolting in the sandstone ranges of Western Victoria has caused noticeable damage to Aboriginal rock art sites in the Grampians National Park (aka Gariwerd), Black Range State Park and Red Rock Bushland Reserve

In this instance it appears when they refer to “escalation” they are referring to growth in climbing, not conflict as the title of their talk describes. We cannot deny there has been a slow and steady increase in climbing numbers over the last few decades (which probably mirror the growth in tourists to the area). But has this growth really caused “noticeable damage” to Aboriginal rock art sites? That would depend on the definition of how large a site is. The two infamous instances we know about are safety bolts being placed accidentally within a few metres of unsignposted and hard to see rock art in the Black Range and Red Rock Bushland. No damage was done to the art itself. Both these bolts were placed by the same person. These bolts were removed almost immediately after the art was made public leaving a tiny 1.2cm hole in the rock. This was a near miss and a totally regrettable incident that climbers are still struggling to recover from in the public eye. These two examples were well outside of the Grampians National Park. Both areas remain open to climbing – they are not in SPAs or received a new “determination” from PV prohibiting climbing.

The only Grampians specific art site and bolting issue that has been mentioned by PV has been at Millennium Caves – where the nearest safety bolt and chalk was more than 5m away from a single piece of art and placed 20+ years ago. Again this art was near invisible to the naked eye and remains unsignposted and open to abuse from tourist graffiti to this day. Evidence of this is already obvious at this area. We are not going to refer to rock tool quarries in this article as the symposium’s subject was specifically rock art.

Art site at ground level at Black Ians Rocks (Lil Lil/Red Rocks Reserve)

The second sentence in the abstract gave a bit more detail.

This has forced Parks Victoria, as an initial measure, to increase Special Protection Areas within the Grampians National Park, resulting in the closure of eight well-known rock climbing faces

This is an odd line. Why only mention 8 sites as being closed rather than the entire SPA areas covering 500 square kilometres? Climbers have been avoiding these vast areas for almost a year now on the request of Parks Victoria. We have seen public statements from TOs and certain climbers shaming people for daring to consider climbing in the wider SPAs. Rangers and TOs are also patrolling these wider SPA areas and threatening climbers with fines – remember that Summer Day Valley is not one of the 8 key sites.

It’s also worth noting that PV didn’t increase Special Protection Areas (SPAs) so they could then ban climbing in 8 well-known rock climbing faces. These areas were already in an SPA dating from the 2003 Grampians Management Plan. We know PV had to make “determinations” in February to shut the 8 key sites to climbing. But PV also assures us that a mislabeled table about zoning in their 2003 Management Plan says that climbing is “not appropriate” in all the rest of the SPAs as well. Why is it mislabeled? Because it says it only applied to 1% of the Grampians area – not 30% as shown in maps.

Why go through getting determinations and erecting signage for 8 key sites when apparently all of the SPAs are closed to climbing? Anyway we digress. It would be good if the authors of this lecture actually understood the scale of these so-called bans that PV have inflicted on climbers. When we read it’s only 8 sites it shits us. The same line keeps ending up in media reports as well. That this huge ban is labeled a “initial measure” is a major worry for climbing’s future in the Grampians.

The actual size of the bans according to Parks Victoria

The next sentence in the abstract is a cracker.

The closure, along with a Parks Victoria review of other climbing areas, has caused an outcry by the Victorian climbing fraternity.

We can’t argue with that! Hopefully they understand that climbers from all around the world are watching what PV are doing closely. At last count the petition to Stop Climbing Being Banned in the Grampians had 30,707 signatures. With regular national newspaper articles, TV stories and radio interviews highlighting the concern climbers have – it should be very clear that there is a lot riding on assessments and how the data from these is being used.

Reviews of the reasons for the closure are presented while adding a caution to all Cultural Site Managers to regularly and carefully monitor their cultural sites for an increase in damaging activities associated with climbing

We would love to get our hands on whatever was presented as the reasons for the closure. Did the authors reveal photos and locations that are apparently secret information on the Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System? Because climbing access groups have struggled to get PV to release any of this information. The last line is a goody. Site managers need to “regularly and carefully monitor cultural sites“. Indeed, because whoever had the job in the Grampians clearly dropped the ball for the last 25 years or so! Crags such as The Gallery, now closed because of the existence of an Aboriginal quarry, have been used by climbers since the early 90s. Same for Millennium Caves – the untouched rock art and climbing area has existed side by side for more than two decades with no warning made to the climbing community from land mangers about a conflict. Will they actually start telling climbers where these sites are – or will they continue the unworkable current system where this information remains secret until it’s too late? Or will they just take the easy way out and ban the lot?

The Secret Report

This “escalating conflict” symposium lecture is actually a presentation based on a written report with the same name into Grampians climbing and rock art that has been authored by the same speakers. We know of the existence of the report but have not got our hands on a copy yet.

The existence of this report, and the symposium presentation seems to directly conflict with what a senior Parks Victoria’s executive said in the recent Rock Climbing Roundtable meeting held in December “A report will come in from Ben [Gunn] in the future. We don’t have a report today – we don’t have any initial findings”. There does appear to be a preliminary report and certainly some findings. In fact the authors were so confident of their work they did a public lecture to a room full of archaeologists and land managers about it. The only people who don’t appear to need to know about this report are climbers of course.

Now it is absolutely the prerogative of rock art experts to be able to write papers and discuss with their peers on subjects they work on. These are well qualified experts who bring decades of experience to the subject. Since we haven’t got access to what was presented at this symposium, nor the written report, we can only hypothesize on the contents. Of course a talk-fest run by archaeologists is going to be pro-archaeology.

The Authors

Now pay close attention to the following names – some of these individuals have presented at Roundtable 3 as PV contracted cultural heritage experts. Due to secrecy provisions about those meetings we cannot tell you who said what. But we will reveal what they said. Stay tuned for that in our next article – coming soon.

Remember these are archaeologists studying and reporting on the physical signs of Aboriginal occupation. They are not Traditional Owners of Gariwerd who may have a far more nuanced understanding and value system on each of these areas.

Two of the speakers at this symposium are familiar names to climbers, Jake Goodes and Ben Gunn. These two are heavily involved in exploration and current assessments of climbing sites in the Grampians. A third person listed as a speaker is Andrew Thorn who notably also attended the most recent Rock Climbing Roundtable with Ben Gunn and spoke at length. Let’s take a look at the bios supplied for each of the speakers of the Escalating Conflict presentation.

Ben Gunn

Dr Robert (Ben) Gunn is a consultant archaeologist with over 40 years’ experience, who has specialised in the recording and management of Australian Aboriginal rock art. He has published over 50 papers and monographs, mostly on areas of rock art research. With his wife, Leigh Douglas, he has worked throughout Australia, and has been heavily involved with Gariwerd rock art since 1979. He was a founding member of the Friends of Grampians-Gariwerd National Park. His work has involved the collection of both archaeological and ethnographic information and, consequently, he has worked closely with senior Aboriginal custodians and traditional owners. Robert completed his PhD at Monash University focussing on the extensive site of Nawarla Gabarnmang in Western Arnhem Land to develop new methods to record and analyse rock art superimposition sequences. 

Not to be confused with the character from Treasure Island, Ben Gunn is certainly the expert in the field for Grampians related rock art research. You can read some of his published papers over at the ResearchGate website. He is not a PV employee – but does contract work for them. His name has come up on several occasions when PV discusses the recent Cultural Heritage assessments at places like Summer Day Valley, Black Range and in the Victoria Range. He presented at the Rockclimbing Roundtable 3 but left before anyone could ask him questions. In our FOI requests his reports for PV and Aboriginal Victoria appear to be redacted (due to current government policy of not revealing location of Aboriginal sites). He lives locally to the Grampians and clearly has a long association with the area and land managers.

Jake Goodes

A proud Narungga and Adnyamathanha man, Jake Goodes was born in Woodville, South Australia. He was appointed as Ranger at the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd) in 2003. He then advanced to overseeing Cultural values and pest plant and animal control, which took him to the remote areas of Gariwerd. In 2018 he achieved Cert IV in Cultural Heritage Management from La Trobe University after which he was appointed as a Rock Art Cultural Heritage Protection Specialist for Parks Victoria to be responsible for the management of rock art sites throughout the Crown Lands of the State of Victoria. He now lives in Stawell, overlooking Gariwerd. 

Jake Goodes, as a Parks Victoria employee, has positioned himself as the public face of Aboriginal rock art discovery and preservation in Victoria in recent years, appearing in several newspaper articles. Two examples are Indigenous tourism in Victoria set to shine and Rediscovered rock art reveals an ancient monster. Jake has also taken on the role of co-presenting the Summer Day Valley Cultural Heritage Inductions that started last month. Jake is not a Traditional Owner of the Grampians area – his family ties are in the South Australia region apparently. Jake appears to be the brother of AFL legend and 2014 Australian of the Year recipient Adam Goodes. Jake is a key person that our climbing organisations need to work with.

Dr Clive Carlyle

Dr Clive Carlyle is a forest scientist and biogeochemist whose research focussed on N and C dynamics in plantation and agricultural ecosystems. He is also a keen traditional rock climber and has walked, scrambled and rock climbed throughout the ranges of Gariwerd since 1984. Early rock-climbing forays included Hollow Mountain/Mt Stapleton, the Chimney Pots, Number 1 Creek, Mt Abrupt, and the Fortress. At that time the hardest thing was often finding and getting to the base of the climb. More often than not we were the only climbers at the crag, and it was generally unusual to meet more than 2 or 3 other parties. Clive now lives on and manages a conservation property abutting the Mount Difficult Range. He is active in Landcare and currently Vice Chair of the Project Platypus Board. From 1987-2010 Clive worked for CSIRO, culminating in the position of Senior Principle Research Scientist and Assistant Chief of Sustainable Ecosystems with CSIRO. 

Clive appears to have scientific qualifications around rock weathering but seems to have been brought in for his climbing “expertise” – that seem to mostly involve reminiscing about climbing times gone by and his climbing tick list (which consists of several areas in SPAs)? Has he been brought along to demonstrate how climbing has diverged from “traditional” climbing to something else? We know Clive is an active member of Friends of the Grampians and owns property bordering the Grampians. When Clive started climbing in the Grampians in 1984 there were 15 million Australians, now there are 10 million more – 25 million. The Grampians is no longer just a state forest – it is a showpiece National Park with an advertising campaign created by a government obsessed with mass marketing it to as many tourists as possible. It should be no surprise that with new roads, Grampians Peaks Trail and internet enabled mapping that the good ol days of having it all to yourself are over. Perhaps the authors should have engaged the advice of someone in the current generation of climbers to get their experience? It appears not.

Leigh Douglas

Leigh Douglas is a physiotherapist and photographer. For the past 15 years she has joined Robert Gunn in the recording of Aboriginal rock art throughout Australia. Her photographs have been used by University of Western Australia for promotional work and included in over 20 co-authored academic rock art papers. Leigh grew up at the southern edge of the Grampians (Gariwerd), and now lives on their eastern side near Lake Lonsdale. She has a great love of the Grampians, and consequently has maintained a close connection to, and involvement with, the National Park.

Andrew Thorn

For some reason a bio of Andrew Thorn was missing from the program notes in the PDF. According to his profile on The Conservation website his fields of expertise include:

Conservation of cultural materials with a special interest in mural paintings, rock paintings, sculpture and monuments. Environmental monitoring and deterioration assessments. Collection surveying and management. Passive environmental control systems. Paint analysis including archaeological investigations of painted monuments.

Andrew took a front and centre role in the Cultural Heritage presentation to the Rock Climbing Roundtable in December. He spoke at length and clearly has a keen interest in the science behind all of this – take a read of this article he wrote about the ageing process of natural elements used in rock art for example – Pigments and palettes from the past – science of Indigenous art. It appears he does a lots of work restoring damaged rock art sites throughout the world. He also appears to be contracted to Parks Victoria to do assessments and suggest management solutions. He asked some fairly odd questions at the Roundtable meeting regarding chalk use and safety bolts so doesn’t seem that well informed about climbing.

Bias Against Climbers?

Is it fair that these people are happy to present such a contentious lecture to a room full of important people in the Cultural Heritage field before they have presented anything to climbers? Especially since one of them is a PV employee, and at least two of the others are currently contracted to PV doing cultural heritage assessments?

Do they have a bias and agenda against climbers? We think it is better described as a bias and agenda for rock art. For decades Ben Gunn and other archeologists thought they had the whole of the more remote parts of the Grampians to themselves. What they didn’t realize is that climbers have been traveling the same rough bush paths, climbing on the same rocks and enjoying the same views as them the whole time. When Ben first started looking for rock art in 1979 all of the major cliffs had already been recorded as climbing areas for at least a decade – some of them for almost 70 years. Where they asleep at the wheel during the ’90s when sport climbing and bouldering arrived? It appears so since they only seem to have noticed these developments in the last couple of years.

It is clear that all of these presenters are passionate about preservation of rock art and the Grampians environment. But don’t think for a minute these rock art experts are climbers friends because we all love the Grampians together. Their job at the moment is to assess climbing areas for real or potential damage that climbers have caused and to judge if an area should be open or closed. They are quite literally judge, jury and executioner for the future of rock climbing in the region. PV have outsourced this work to these individuals. The title of their presentation alone appears to suggest that climbing conflicts with the very nature of their archaeology work.

According to Parks Victoria these authors have already done cultural heritage surveys on 96 locations in the Grampians – most of them outside of the SPAs. There is 30 more to go. The remaining locations are to be completed by around March 2020. Is this the usual pace these surveys are done? Writing a climbing guidebook to all of the Grampians climbing areas would take years of work and research. It’s hard to fathom the speed they are doing these assessments – they would have to be visiting multiple sites a day week in week out. The results of this work is the difference between open or closed climbing areas.

At this speed should these archaeologists be trusted to interpret climbers impacts vs the impacts of other users of the park when climbers are excluded from the process? Time will tell.

These sorts of assessments and reports could spread across all of Australia’s climbing areas as the word spreads amongst government departments, archaeologists and Traditional Owner groups that climbing is a problem that needs fixing. The audience from this symposium will be returning to their jobs and home areas with a new zeal after hearing this presentation. Climbers – get your ducks in order now.

Sisters Rocks: Changing Connections to a Sacred Space

There was a second talk at this conference that relates, in a round about way, to rock climbing issues. It focused on the well known granite outcrop of Sisters Rocks which is located just to the east of the Grampians. It is famous not for its climbing (there are a couple of routes) – but for the huge amount of graffiti festooned on every bit of rock.

The abstract reads:

The Sisters Rocks are an isolated group of granite tors located in the Black Range, 3 km south-east of Stawell in western Victoria, on the boundary between Jadawadjali and Djab Wurrung Country. According to the Creation stories of these peoples associated with the place, the rocks were created by the Ancestral Being, Bunjil. Bunjil’s wives are said to have imbued meaning in to the place by marking the rocks and naming them. There have been various claims that there were once Aboriginal rock paintings at the site, which is a plausible assumption considering that most similar geological features in the surrounding area have rock art, most notably Bunjil’s Shelter located 7 km to the south-west. Today a tradition of marking Sisters Rocks continues in the form of modern graffiti, a phenomena that began at the place in the late 19th century. It is possible that Aboriginal rock art initially prompted the production of graffiti by modern visitors, a problem that is common at rock art sites around the world.

But does the transformation of connection by different agents through time change the reverence of Sisters Rocks, or are changing cultural connections what make it sacred? The place is an important example of the continuation of intangible culture and relationships with place and their survival into the contemporary world. The view of Aboriginal peoples and their connections to the site are of primary importance in terms of its heritage values and significance. The graffiti poses challenges for the management of the site — there have been various calls to remove it since the 1930s, but there are also various arguments for its retention; the graffiti itself is part of the site’s history and might be considered part of what makes it significant as a heritage place, both historical and Indigenous. This paper explores the changing cultural values of Sisters Rocks, including its continued importance to contemporary Traditional Owners and the implications these values have for its management as a heritage site.

The author of this presentation, Darren Griffen, is apparently the Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) Manager at Barengi Gadjin Land Council Aboriginal Corporation (BGLC) and an archeologist. He is credited as being “involved in the recording, management and conservation of rock art sites within Wotjobaluk and Jadawadjali Country, including Gariwerd, Dyurrite [Arapiles] and Sister’s Rocks” 

This would be another interesting presentation and paper to read. It seems to delve into more philosophical aspects of Cultural Heritage protections and how it fits into the modern world. One line in the abstract was particularly interesting:

“The graffiti itself is part of the site’s history and might be considered part of what makes it significant as a heritage place”

This acknowledgement of a shared history to a place seems to diverge from PV’s current thinking on climbing. Parks Victoria’s CEO, in the latest Roundtable 3 said that climbing areas will “need to be put back to where they were to the best of our ability and protected for another 20,000 years“. Unofficial walking tracks, chalk and bolts are slated to be removed across the Grampians. Our next article will explore this plan in detail…

4 thoughts on “An Escalating Conflict – Archeologists Anti Climber Bias?”

    1. We’re sorry, but this article is not ready to be released; an email was mistakenly sent to subscribers. It may be held back until after xmas. Thanks for letting us know.


  1. To whom it concerns.. I don’t know what my password is or how to renew it. any assistance is much appreciated. Pete Johnstone.

    On Mon., 23 Dec. 2019, 22:10 Save Grampians Climbing, wrote:



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