Ochre Exploitation Around the Tamar

By Nigel Burch

Until very recently it was thought that Tulampanga, near Mole Creek, was the only source of high-grade ochre available to Indigenous peoples.

Europeans in the 1820s discovered some of the best-quality ochre in Australia, at Beaconsfield and Rocherlea, though they did not consciously connect it to the Aboriginal population. The quality of the Tamar material was such, however, that a paint industry was established in Launceston in the 1920s.

With indigenous settlement of the Tamar going back 40,000 years, however, it is simply not credible that they would not have already known of these resources. Apart from its use in their cultural practices, the ochre would have been a prized trading commodity, perhaps in exchange for access to other group’s country, for example.

The question is naturally asked – how were these deposits found so early by white settlers?

French painting of a Tasmanian Aboriginal man

Ochre had significant cultural significance, as can be seen from this French painting of a Tasmanian Aboriginal man encountered by the Beaudin expedition of 1807. Image: SLNSW

The world-class gold deposit at Beaconsfield was found by luck, when a tree blew over and gold was seen in its roots. Mineral resources are usually covered by soil and vegetation. It is therefore a well-established practice in mining, of ‘discoveries’ actually taking advantage of earlier exploration which had exposed a resource.

The early discovery the ochre strongly suggests that it was found when European pioneers noticed, and followed up on, indigenous quarrying activity. The quality of the mineral around the Tamar strongly suggests it was a very important resource to the local indigenous people over millennia.

High quality ochre can be found on both sides of the Tamar.

High quality ochre can be found on both sides of the Tamar. Image: Dr Paul Richards

An 1873 sketch of miners

An 1873 sketch of miners only a few metres from the ochre deposit at Beaconsfield. Image: Illustrated Tasmanian News 1873.

1.	The Governor’s party at the Beaconsfield
  1. The Governor’s party at the Beaconsfield ochre deposit in 1918. Picture: Weekly Courier 28/3/1918

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Human history in the Tamar Valley could extend back some 40,000 years considering that at least one site in the upper Forth River 200km west has such a basal date, but the Tamar lacks sites, caves, that could confirm this. The only site to yield a date is at Flowery Gully, near Beaconsfield, being calibrated to c.8,000 BP a bone deposit with a bone tool.

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Ochres are earthy, pulverulent (reduced or crumbled to powder or dust) forms of Haematite and Limonite or friable (easily crumbled), earthy iron ore.

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Aboriginal Launceston