Aboriginal rock art sites that were previously unrecorded have been discovered in national parks in the Hunter Region.
The sacred sites were found during surveys to assess bushfire damage in Yengo and Wollemi national parks and surrounding country.
Aboriginal elder Warren Taggart led the survey team that discovered the unrecorded sites.
"There is nothing better than finding an unrecorded site where no person has been there for thousands of years," Mr Taggart said.
"It's a feeling that you can't really explain."
Mr Taggart said a cave found in Wollemi National Park had "100 handprints in it and stone mixing bowls sitting on the floor".
"In the back of the cave, we found animal bones in a crevice," he said.
"The crevice was too small for the animal to get in there on its own and the bones must have been pushed in with a stick.
"Another new site had a sugar glider drawn in charcoal."
When new sites were found, he said, "everyone has a smile on their face".
The sites, which had been previously unrecorded in the state's Aboriginal heritage system, included two caves with "significant drawings and stencils, several stone arrangements, engravings and grinding groove sites".
Aboriginal people made the grooves when they shaped and sharpened stone axes by grinding them against sandstone.
Some cave sites also contained artefacts such as knapping stone flakes, ochre fragments, animal bones and mussel shells.
The knapping stone flakes involve hitting two stones together to create sharp edges.
"They are splinters of rock made from a large rock to make a stone axe or cutting tool," Mr Taggart said.
This leaves small flakes with a range of edges that were used for carving weapons, meat, sacred and ceremonial objects and wooden objects such as dishes.
Some of the art could disappear in the next 50 years due to erosion from the weather, which is one of the reasons the surveys are considered important.
The Aboriginal rock art in the survey area is "up to 7000 years old".
"Some could even be older," Mr Taggart said.
He said a lot of Aboriginal sites were found by bushwalkers who notify national parks.
"Until the day I die, we still won't find every Aboriginal site," he said.
Even if a site hadn't been well preserved, "it is still a significant site".
"There is a lot of strength and a lot of what I call movement around these sites and I can feel it," he said, referring to spiritual feelings.
"There are some sites that I don't want to leave. I'll think to myself that I will sit here a bit longer and stay a bit longer."
Some places, though, make him "feel so crook and so sick that I have to move myself back away".
"Once I'm gone, I feel good as gold again. There are just some sites that I cannot go to."
He has a book coming out, titled Spirit of Place.
"It will continue the education work that I have been doing on these sacred sites," he said.
"The whole idea of the book is to educate people and stop them going out to the sites.
"They can experience the sites and learn the culture without them being given away."
Time Means Nothing
Mr Taggart - also known as Uncle Warren, elder of the Wonnarua people - has been surveying Aboriginal sites all his life.
He finds himself in a different state of mind when he enters the national parks.
"Time means nothing to me when I'm out in the mountains," he said.
After the Black Summer bushfires, his team received a bushfire recovery grant from the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife.
The grant was used for the survey of Aboriginal sites in Yengo and Wollemi national parks and surrounding country.
Mr Taggart and three friends with passion for Aboriginal sites work as a team on the site surveys.
"We aren't a formal organisation as such, but we work closely together.
"Carol Carter and Allan Chawner are the photographers and Jim Mitchell and myself do the paperwork and the planning for the day.
"We all clicked and we all love what we do. We're out there to look, protect, photograph and document."
The team surveyed up to 70 sites from May to December last year. National park rangers helped with the project.
The sites are mostly in massive areas of national park to the west of and parallel to the Hunter Region and Central Coast.
"We went well and truly beyond the initial expectation. We did three or four sites at a time depending on the distance between them and what the weather was like," Mr Taggart said.
The survey spanned forest areas in which the notorious Wollemi megafire, known as the Gospers Mountain blaze, burnt more than 500,000 hectares.
It set a record for being the biggest forest fire in Australian history.
Most of the sites survived the fires, but two caves were damaged due to eroding winds in the firestorm and trees that burnt into the cave overhangs.
"A damaged cave in Wollemi National Park had handprints that were all gone because the cave was directly facing west and the fire hit it front on," Mr Taggart said.
"The majority of the caves and rock engravings remained unburnt. The fire had come up to the bottom of the caves and around sandstone plateaus and didn't enter.
"There was only one cave that I came across - in Wollemi National Park - where the cave was completely burnt out, with only one handprint remaining.
"I was expecting a lot more damage."
'Dad Showed Me'
Mr Taggart said his dad was "a man of the bush and showed me a lot of the sites growing up".
The survey covered many areas that his dad showed him.
"This is over 7000 square kilometres. It's impossible to do every single site," he said.
Mr Taggart said all Aboriginal sites were sacred.
"Each site is significant and should be preserved and respected," he said.
"When people ask me where the sites are, I tell them they're in the mountains. When they ask when I'll take them there, I say one day.
"In other words, I won't be taking them."
He will make some exceptions.
"If I take a person out there, it has to be the right person for the right reason.
"You take the wrong person out and it becomes a domino effect because then they take someone else.
"Before you know it, the site is vandalised because someone wants to put their name up on the walls."
He said the amount of vandalism at some easy-to-access sites was gobsmacking.
The sites in this survey were "very remote".
"None of the sites had been given away, so fortunately none of these sites were vandalised."
Getting to some sites deep in the bush requires a three-hour walk.
"It's dedication for the culture," Mr Taggart said.
He said the caves that weren't damaged were because "no one knows about them and no one would want to walk in that far".
Griffith University archaeologist Dr Jillian Huntley has written a foreword for the Spirit of Place book.
Dr Huntley has conducted research on the rock art of the Sydney Basin for more than 15 years.
"We are privileged in Australia to have continuing cultural traditions of Aboriginal peoples," she said.
"This sort of work, revisiting and redocumenting rock art sites, is one of the most important things that Aboriginal custodians can do to care for them."
The basis for any conservation management program was to "understand the condition of sites, how they are preserving over time and what is affecting them".
"Support for this sort of survey and documentation is critical in helping Aboriginal custodians care for their sites and their cultural landscapes more broadly," Dr Huntley said.
"Aboriginal people need the most up-to-date information in order to make decisions about the management of their country.
"Rock art is just one aspect of Aboriginal cultural heritage which shows the long-lived connections people continue to have with their country."
Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife chief executive Ian Darbyshire said the survey was "an extremely important contribution to preserving our Indigenous heritage".
"We are committed to the ongoing protection of Aboriginal sites.
"Through grant funding, we can continue to support the work being done by passionate individuals and community."
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