Two NSW men found guilty of using oily handprints to damage sacred Uluru cave art Australia
Two NSW men found guilty of using oily handprints to damage sacred Uluru cave art Australia
Two NSW men found guilty of using oily handprints to damage sacred Uluru cave art Australia
Rock Art Network
Two NSW men found guilty of using oily handprints to damage sacred Uluru cave art
3 November 2023

Rock Art Network

The Coat of Arms of the Northern Territory
Two New South Wales men who used oily handprints to damage ancient rock art in a sacred Uluru cave have been accused of showing "great contempt" for the Aṉangu people and the laws of Australia.

Shawn Bartley and Richard Jarrett, who claim to be "sovereign citizens", did not appear in the Alice Springs Local Court on Thursday as they were found guilty of a string of offences relating to the incident. Those offences included damaging and defacing a Commonwealth reserve, entering a prohibited area, and lighting a fire on and taking animals onto a Commonwealth reserve.

As the co-accused were not present and did not enter any pleas, the matter proceeded ex parte. The court heard that on August 11 last year, the two men had driven into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park after 10am, parked in a no-stopping zone and climbed through a fence with their two dogs.

They then entered a prohibited cave site, Warayuki, where they used an oily substance to make two handprints on sacred rock art. The court heard the men also lit a fire in the cave and moved sand to make a drawing on the cave floor. Commonwealth prosecutor Ryan Bocock told the court the cave was a sacred Aṉangu men's site which was placed "in the highest order of significant sites" inside Uluru. He also said there were a number of signs prohibiting entry along the fence line.

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Rock art - ancient paintings and engravings on rock surfaces - is a visual record of global human history. It is a shared heritage that links us to powerful ancestral worlds and magnificent landscapes of the past. It tells the story of the birthplaces of art, the dawn of artistic endeavors. It creates connections to significant places and depicts encounters with the surrounding living world. Through its existence nature and culture are connected in the landscape. It resonates with our individual and collective identity while stimulating a vital sense of belonging to a greater past. Rock art illustrates the passage of time over tens of thousands of years of environmental and cultural change. It incarnates the essence of human ingenuity and facilitates contacts today between cultures and aspects of spirituality. Rock art is artistically compelling and full of meaning. This fragile and irreplaceable visual heritage has worldwide significance, contemporary relevance and for many indigenous peoples is still part of their living culture. If we neglect, destroy, or disrespect rock art we devalue our future.

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The court heard soon after the men entered the cave, they were spotted by a tour guide, who alerted park rangers.

"The rangers could hear the sound of clapsticks, and it was considered that something similar to ceremony was taking place," Mr Bocock said.

"The rangers waited for the Aṉangu traditional owners to arrive at the site and then intercepted Jarrett and Bartley who emerged … with two dogs."

Mr Bocock said Bartley appeared to be Caucasian, while Jarrett was "Aboriginal in appearance" and had been carrying a jar filled with an unidentified liquid.

"A conversation ensued between Jarrett and Bartley and the traditional owners where Jarrett stated that he came to make treaty … with 'my people'," Mr Bocock said.

"In response, [a traditional owner] said: 'No, I know this place. What's wrong with you? You have no shame coming to our place, you have no culture, you have no language'."

The court heard traditional owners claimed both Jarrett and Bartley had "no connection" to Aṉangu men and had entered the cave without permission. Mr Bocock said following the conversation, the co-accused had exited the park, while rangers inspected the cave.

"There was a large sand drawing in the cave floor … in the middle of a big circle was burnt leaves, tree nuts and coals from a fire," he told the court.

The court heard the rangers had also found two handprints in an "oil-like substance" on the cave walls, including one over a faded section of Aṉangu rock art.

The co-accused were subsequently offered interviews — with Bartley replying in an email that he "personally accepted responsibility" for his part in the vandalism, but had been "coerced and misled" by Jarrett. Both men also claimed to be sovereign citizens.

Alice Springs Local Court
Alice Springs Local Court
© Public Domain
Mr Bocock told the court the cave site had been inspected again in July this year, and the damage from the handprints remained. He argued there was "little doubt" both accused had known they were acting unlawfully and "violating sacred areas of great importance". "There was not any apparent remorse shown at the time or subsequently, and it's still not clear whether any damage can be repaired," he said. "This reveals a deliberate disregard and disrespect for Indigenous culture and heritage."

Mr Bocock rejected any "mistaken belief" that the co-accused had permission to enter the area, and told the court Jarrett's claims he had been there to make treaty "lacked credibility".

"We submit the circumstances of the offending by both accused reveals a very serious example of this type of offending," he said.

"This is not merely an example of tourists wanting the experience of climbing Uluru to take some photos."

The court heard both men had criminal histories. Bartley's record was described as "old and minor", while Jarrett's was said to be "substantial" and showing a "repeated disrespect for the law".

However, Judge David Bamber noted this was the first time the men had been charged with offences of this nature, and said the damage to rock art was the most serious of their offences.

"This is a case where we have two persons who have these wrong-headed notions of sovereign citizenship, whatever that means," he said.

"Clearly this was quite a blatant attempt to thumb their noses both at the general law and show really a contempt to the culture of the traditional owners."

The co-accused were convicted and fined $8,600 each.

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