• It's a painstaking process for the researchers and community members. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
With over 5000 unmarked grave sites in the Northern Territory alone, archaeologists are working closely with community members to map the cemeteries.
Amelia Dunn

9 Aug 2018 - 11:31 AM  UPDATED 9 Aug 2018 - 11:43 AM

The vast majority of graves in the cemetery in Barunga, 80 kilometres south-west of Katherine, are unmarked.

Clinton Walters is part of a group of archaelogists from Flinders University working with the Aboriginal community to painstakingly map the graves.

The Palawa Kani man from Adelaide only discovered his love for archaeology after being encouraged by his daughter to enroll in university.

“Being an archaeology student is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” he told NITV News.

He, along with two of his professors and classmates, travelled to Barunga earlier this year to help mark some of these graves. An experience he said was confronting and unforgettable.

“It was disturbing to be honest,” Mr Walters said.

“I met a lady who didn’t know where her sister is buried. Her sister is there and she doesn’t even know where she is.”

In the small local cemetery there are 174 graves, 149 of them unmarked. 

“That’s quite a lot of people no one knows about,” Mr Walters said.

“The pain was quite fresh."

Members of the community worked hand-in-hand with the archaeologists to go through every inch of the graveyard to pinpoint the exact locations of graves.

Mr Walters said it was a collaborative effort, relying on family member’s memories to help map the cemetery correctly.

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“Sometimes the work was painstakingly slow,” he said.

“But without the community’s assistance and knowledge we wouldn’t have been able to name any of them.”

Mr Walters said many of the unmarked graves belonged to children and young adults, making the work very sensitive and emotional for the community.

“The pain was quite fresh,” he said.

“We must respect the land that we’re on and go about it the way they want us to do it.”

He and the team self-funded the project, volunteering their time and knowledge to a cause he said was “incredibly important”.

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'Tip of the iceberg'

Mr Walters is aware the issue of unmarked graves is not isolated to Barunga, marking Indigenous graves is a “massive task” that would “take an army” to properly complete.

He has also experienced first-hand not knowing where loved ones are buried. His whole father's side in Tasmania are scattered in unmarked graves.

According to archaeologist Professor Claire Smith, who headed the project in Barunga, there are over 5000 unmarked graves in the Northern Territory alone.

“Barunga is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

The NT government has recently announced it will attempt to address the widespread issue in the territory.

In a statement to NITV News, NT Minister for Housing and Community Development, Gerry McCarthy acknowledged historical problems in how the territory recorded graves.

“Issues with oversight and lack of documentation of cemeteries have challenged multiple Northern Territory administrations for over a century due to factors such as isolation and remoteness,” he said.

“While it would be impossible to trace all burials that have happened in the Territory over the last hundred years there are many similar local initiatives aimed at recording what is known of the history of the Territory’s cemeteries.”

The Cemeteries Act introduced in 1952, is now under review to ensure both urban and regional cemeteries would be required to record all graves. 

'More work to be done'

Mr Walters is planning to travel back to Barunga year after year to help the community find closure.

“To have them marked for the future generations, to be able to go and visit their kin, is very important,"  he said.

“And it’s such rewarding, important work, I hope more people can help.”

With unmarked graves in communities across Australia, Mr Walters is calling for others to help document them.

“We’re the only ones doing a project like this. We need more people doing this work,” he said.

“There is so much more work to be done."

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