It’s difficult to comprehend the age of two rock shelters destroyed in WA, but we need to try much harder in order to preserve our heritage, writes Gareth Hutchens.

What historical artefacts do we value in this country? Or is everything just rubble to be bulldozed and forgotten, blown up and shipped overseas as dust?
Two examples from this month.
A few weeks ago, a convict-era pub in Sydney the Royal Oak Hotel, in the suburb of Parramatta began to be demolished to make way for a light rail.
It was one of Australia’s most historic hotels.
It was built around 1830 by a man named John Tunks, whose father was a First Fleeter called William Tunks, who had served as a marine in the American War of Independence and then onboard HMS Sirius the flagship of the First Fleet.
The historic Royal Oak Hotel, in Sydney, is being demolished to make way for the Parramatta Light Rail.(ABC News)
John Tunks’ mother was Sarah Lyons, a convict on the Lady Juliana, the infamous ‘Floating Brothel’ that arrived in Sydney in 1790.
Everywhere you look in early Sydney, the Tunks left their mark.
They have a huge family vault in Parramatta’s St John’s Cemetery the oldest surviving European cemetery in the country, notable for the graves of more than 50 First Fleeters and early settlers.
One of the oldest cricket grounds in Australia, North Sydney Oval, owes its life to John Tunks’ son, also called William, who dedicated the land for a public park and cricket ground as local mayor in 1867.
But after 180-odd years, and despite the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage acknowledging the Royal Oak Hotel was “relatively rare in its age”, the pub has been razed. 
Now to Western Australia
Mining giant Rio Tinto has destroyed something so ancient in WA it’s hard to fathom with a human brain.
Two rock shelters, recognised as one of Australia’s oldest known Aboriginal heritage sites with evidence of human occupation from over 46,000 years ago were destroyed last weekend.
Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.(Supplied: Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation)
Rio Tinto, operating legally under a law written in the early 1970s, detonated the shelters to extend its Brockman 4 iron ore mine.
Rio knew the site was thousands of years old and it had delayed destruction of the rock shelters to allow excavations to be carried out and for cultural artefacts to be salvaged.
But archaeologist Dr Michael Slack, who led the excavations in 2014, found several “staggering” artefacts, including grinding and pounding stones believed to be the earliest use of grindstone technology in Western Australia, and a 28,000-year-old kangaroo leg bone sharpened into a pointed tool, which appeared at the site up to 10,000 years earlier than in other sites.
Dr Michael Slack said some “really important discoveries” were made at the Juukan Gorge site.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)
He also uncovered a 4,000-year-old belt made of plaited hair, whose DNA was associated with today’s Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners. 
His excavation dated human occupation in the region scores of thousands of years earlier than previously thought.
“What we found were some really important discoveries,” he said.
“This site was something special. It was a massive cave, it had such a rich cultural deposit, such an old occupation.
“And so significant in that respect, that it’s one of those sites you only excavate once or twice in your career.”
How can we put the loss into perspective? Can our brains comprehend deep time?
According to historians, written language was invented around 5,500 years ago. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was constructed around 4,500 years ago. 
So go back a further 40,000-odd years.
Mathematician John Playfair, of the Scottish Enlightenment, said when he looked upon an ancient rock formation “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time”.
It’s a similar phenomenon here.
Peter Stone, a world-renowned archaeologist and UNESCO chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University in the UK, said the destruction of the rock shelters was comparable to the Islamic State’s destruction of Palmrya.
“It’s a tragedy that sits up there with all sorts of sites; the Palmyras, Mosuls and Bamiyan Buddhas of this world,” he said last week.
Is anyone responsible?
Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act hasn’t been updated since the 1970s.
Since mid-2010, mining companies operating in WA have applied 463 times for leases that grant permission to destroy or disturb heritage sites and none has been refused.
Rio Tinto received legal approvals and ministerial consent in 2013 to conduct the detonations after consulting traditional owners and allowing archaeological excavations.
The miners who set the explosives were just doing their job.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt has flagged an urgent review of state and federal heritage-protection laws.(ABC News: Evan Morgan)
A Rio Tinto representative has expressed deep regret over the incident to the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Ken Wyatt, in a private conversation.
Mr Wyatt has flagged an urgent review of state and federal heritage-protection laws.
WA’s Treasurer and Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Ben Wyatt, says the WA Government is hoping to modernise the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
And Burchell Hayes, a traditional owner of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people, said his people were sad that something they had a deep connection to had been destroyed. 
“We can’t undo what’s already happened, but what we can do is try and go back to Rio Tinto and talk to them on how we can protect the remaining sites in that area,” he said.
Who decides what’s valuable?
Economists have long had trouble defining what’s “valuable”.
In the capitalist system, if a price hasn’t been found for something it’s often accorded no worth.
There’s an argument that a powerful way of stopping environmental destruction, and encouraging cultural preservation, is to put a price on “natural capital” so the system recognises its value.
But others say that type of thinking is morally wrong and intellectually vacuous.
Where does that leave us?
It makes one think of a story from World War II.
In the final days of the German occupation of Paris, a German general called Dietrich von Choltitz, the last Nazi governor of the city, refused a direct order from Adolf Hitler to obliterate major landmarks in the city.
If it weren’t for his disobedience, the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, and other buildings and bridges would have been blown to smithereens.
Why didn’t he do it?
He believed Hitler had become insane by that stage and the destruction would have been militarily futile.
But he also had an affection for the city’s history and culture.