Beyond our sort of memory

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Imagine yourself some 5,000 years hence, travelling a land once known as ‘South Australia’. Something catches your eye—a strange glassy substance protruding from the earth. It seems out of place, unnatural. ‘How did it get here?’, you wonder. You begin to scrabble about in the dust, looking for clues. You find a few twisted pieces of metal, and… what’s this? Some of the colour is still visible despite the deterioration and there seems to be—yes it must be—writing. Writing in some ancient, unfamiliar language. A sign of some sort, a label? ‘What was this place?’, you ask, ‘who were these people?’ You try to imagine their customs, their rituals, and begin to muse, ‘What would they make of the world today?’

Some weeks later, traces of plutonium are found in your system.

A Senate estimates committee in May 2000 questioned staff of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) about the ‘clean-up’ of the atomic test site at Maralinga. Large areas of land, it was admitted, would be uninhabitable for 24,000 years. 1 As Len Beadell pondered his ‘Aboriginal Stonehenge’, he was engaged upon a mission that would create a monument equally as lasting, whose meaning to generations far removed would be equally mysterious.

With the entire span of European occupation measuring a mere two hundred years, the task of communicating the atomic test site’s dangers to generations 24,000 years into the future was admittedly problematic. The Senate committee was informed that there were warning signs around the perimeter, though the ARPANSA staff readily conceded that these were unlikely to last the distance. And even if they did, who would be able to read them? Geoff Williams of ARPANSA suggested that recordkeeping was the key, and pointed to the oral traditions of Aboriginal people as a means of preserving knowledge about the sites: ‘I think they have records going back beyond our sort of memory, do they not? They have their own way of recording things’. He thought that with expert guidance the region’s Aboriginal inhabitants would be able to incorporate appropriate warnings into their oral ‘tradition’. 2

And so, 5,000 years in the future, perhaps it would be the descendants of a supposed ‘Stone Age’ people, whose very presence seemed so at odds with the atomic test program, who would help you understand the significance of your deadly discovery. Through them you might learn of the dangerous follies of a careless, short-sighted people. A people who stole the land, poisoned it, and gave it back. A people obsessed with progress.

Already the atomic tests seem long in the past. The motivations of those who so willingly sacrificed the land and its people are difficult to recapture. New replaces old in an endless succession of forgetting and denial, as we seek to escape our past and push our problems ahead, ever further into the future. In the contrast of old and new we find the substance of our ambitions, the source our confidence, the meaning of our pride. We create an image of ourselves as bold revolutionaries, breaking with a past that can never be revisited or reclaimed. In the contrast of old and new, progress gleams inevitable and unyielding.


  1. Senate, Community Affairs Legislation Committee, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, 2 May 2000, p. 37; see also Phillip Coorey,  ‘Dreamtime push for Maralinga’, Adelaide Advertiser, 3 May 2000, p. 2.
  2. ibid.

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