Rock art expert accused of grave robbing

He was feted by society dames, received an honorary doctorate from a top university and was awarded a medal from the Royal Geographical Society for his work recording Aboriginal paintings, but photographer and author Grahame Walsh was alleged to have hidden a dark secret - grave robbing.

He was feted by society dames, received an honorary doctorate from a top university and was awarded a medal from the Royal Geographical Society for his work recording Aboriginal paintings, but photographer and author Grahame Walsh was alleged to have hidden a dark secret - grave robbing.

The late rock art expert and former Queensland ranger was the subject of widespread acclaim for his recording of tens of thousands of Australia's most remote and unique Aboriginal cave paintings

With his trademark tattered Akubra hat, Walsh cut an Indiana Jones-style figure while trekking through some of the nation's most remote terrain, mostly in Western Australia's rugged Kimberley escarpment country, where he would camp for months hunting down, photographing and recording rare Aboriginal paintings, such as the delicate Gwion Gwion figures or the eerie big-eyed Wandjina images.

The late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch was among a host of high-profile social identities and corporate high-flyers who helped fund his work and promoted a foundation to keep his archive of photos and his coffee table-style books containing vast rock art galleries.

When he died in 2007, he was eulogised in glowing terms and he left behind a treasure trove of photos and records of rock art sites.

But there was little mourning at his death among one clan of Aborigines - just frustration and a sense that he had finally received a form of spiritual payback for his activities.

The Bidjara people allege that in 2007 Walsh had been in possession of the remains of up to 25 ancient Aboriginal bodies, which have since gone missing.

From their homelands among the rocky hills and gorges of the Carnarvon Gorge region about 590 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, the Bidjara say Walsh robbed ancestors' graves by taking rare bark coffins containing bones that were left in traditional burial locations in hollow trees.

They say Walsh hid the sarcophaguses on a property he owned in the area and refused to return them to the Bidjara unless he was given compensation for the cost of their preservation. If they didn't pay, Walsh threatened to return the skeletons to their tree trunk resting places or secret caves where no one would ever find them, according to the Bidjara.

Since his death, the clan has little clue as to the location of the remains and their storage containers.

"It is a disgrace," said Bidjara senior traditional owner Keelan Mailman, who manages Mount Tabor cattle station near where Walsh had a property at Carnarvon Gorge. "I could never understand how he [Walsh] could get away with it. He had our people. Maybe he took them for research, but the bottom line is they should be given back and we don't know where they are."

Mailman, who is Australia's first female Aboriginal cattle station manager, was at a meeting with the Bidjara elders where they were told that Walsh wanted $100,000 to return the remains of 25 bodies. "I will never forget that day seeing my mum and old peoples cry. I could never understand how the man could get away with it," she said. "We would be thrown in jail if we went down to the Augathella cemetery and dug up the remains of white people."

She said there was a belief among the Bidjara that Walsh had bad luck and eventually died because of his association with the remains. "What goes around comes around," she said.

Walsh certainly had opportunity, a maverick streak and powerful supporters. In the 1980s he worked as the technical officer for historic sites for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in the Carnarvon National Park and in 1988 he was commissioned by the federal government to produce a book for the national bicentenary covering all known Aboriginal art works. In 1990, he was awarded the J.P.Thompson Medal by the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland. He also nearly died that year in the Kimberley in a seaplane crash, which he later said gave him a significant brain injury.

Towards the end of the 1990s, Walsh started to gain some supporters among Australia's rich and powerful. In 2002 his work attracted the attention of prominent philanthropists Maria and her husband Allan Myers, one of the country's wealthiest commercial lawyers. The Myers purchased two pastoral leases to support Walsh's research. They were also instrumental in the establishment of the Kimberley Foundation Australia, which has as directors such prominent Australians as former federal minister Laurie Brereton and NSW Supreme Court Justice Henric Nicholas.

The foundation supported Walsh's work and further research into the Kimberley rock art. There is no suggestion any of these backers had knowledge of his keeping of Aboriginal remains.

Walsh's maverick style courted controversy, and accusations of racism emerged when he argued some of the unique rock art in the Kimberley had been painted by non-Aborigines. But those who were close to him just before his death express disbelief that he would have "stolen" Aboriginal bones. His relatives and associates confirm he did have Aboriginal remains in bark coffins but say he would have been rescuing them from destruction.

His companion Helen Bunning said she knew he had sought compensation from the Bidjara. But she said he would have been saving the remains from dumps or been given them by people who did not want to keep them any longer.

"I don't know about robbing graves. I know he had the utmost respect for Aboriginal elders and their art," she said.

He spent a significant amount of time and money to place the cylinders and bones in glass cases, she said. "He never tried to sell them outside. It was just when they [the Bidjara] asked for them, he said, 'I need some recompense. It cost a fortune to put them in sealed glass containers'."

After Walsh's death, his belongings at his home at The Gap, in Brisbane's north-western suburbs, were packed up by his ex-wife Pamela and son Roderick. Pamela, who resided with him at Carnarvon Gorge decades earlier, said there had been no evidence of any such relics in his estate and she denied Walsh would have acted inappropriately.

"It was quite common in those days that people if they had a skull on their mantelpiece and they were old and they died then they would hand it on to Grahame," she said. "They were basically like if you think of Egyptian mummies, that type of thing in various forms of decay. Most were only skeletons.

"There used to be one he [Grahame] had on display. I don't think they would have gone to a museum. Grahame possibly replaced them sometime afterwards. Maybe they are back in situ."

Pamela said there were just photographs and papers at his home. "It was a repository of photographs of the Kimberley and stuff he had been working on for 20 years. It was all paperwork and photos and it all went to [the Kimberley Foundation] in Melbourne in a container."

But Fairfax has learnt that Queensland's Environment Department investigated Walsh just before his death, with officers hiding in bushland near his Brisbane house and conducting surveillance of a special shed he had on the property. A former departmental employee told Fairfax: "We were particularly interested in a large shed Walsh had on the property, which was airconditioned and had a security camera permanently trained on it."

The former officer said they had been unable to get a search warrant after the traditional owner, who has since died, baulked at providing a statement because he was nervous about the spiritual issues. The officer said department colleagues had told him that they could not approach the shed because Walsh had a security camera trained on it.

The department's former senior bureaucrat overseeing compliance, Troy Collings, this week confirmed that Walsh had been investigated. He said Walsh had denied holding the remains.

After his death the investigation stalled, said Collings, who is now the chief of staff for Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell.

Queensland-based Kamilaroi elder Bob Weatherall, who specialises in repatriating Aboriginal remains from institutions, called on state authorities to track down the remains. "And investigate what he did have in his collection and establish an inventory and see what should be turned over to the Aboriginal community," Weatherall said.

Mailman is also determined to resolve the mystery. "Well, mate, we don't have our people and I don't care if it was five bodies or one body. It should be coming back," she said.

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