Opal mining heritage
Australia’s harsh outback environment, rough conditions and dreams of fabled gems have produced unique multicultural opal mining communities – resilient, inventive and fiercely independent. The small scale of opal mining operations and the characteristics of the opal resource have contributed to a unique industrial and cultural heritage. Entire opal mining landscapes, created under severe conditions by exceptional communities of people, are an aspect of mining heritage that is unique to Australia. Each opal mining region has generated its own particular equipment, mining methods and way of life.
…lifestyles of hope, courage and ingenuity, tall tales and free spirits.
Miners’ processing dams, their earthworks and machinery are emblematic of the technical skill, ingenuity and inventiveness of the opal mining community, and they also function as important wildlife refuges and habitats. Lightning Ridge is the only place on earth where opal-bearing claystones are processed in this way. These are spectacular and mythic sites of social, cultural and scientific significance.
Much of Lightning Ridge’s physical heritage has been lost, due partly to the ephemeral nature of the materials in a harsh environment and partly due to re-use of materials. Recently, government policies intended to promote environmental rehabilitation have also had the unfortunate side-effect of destroying significant sites and items of opal field heritage. All of which makes the remaining heritage all the more precious. Older areas of the Lightning Ridge opal fields have been designated ‘Preserved Fields,’ recognising that their appearance should be maintained for heritage and social reasons.The opal fields of Lightning Ridge are a living landscape that is created and recreated on a daily basis by human activity. They are a much-loved tapestry that is woven and repaired every day, in a thousand ways. It is this constant, ongoing creativity that keeps the heritage of the opal fields alive.
Residents of the opal fields regard these places and objects with respect and affection. For them, the machines, mineshafts, corner posts, signposts, pudding dams, dwellings and earthworks are intimate parts of their landscape – as fundamental to their sense of place as are the land, earth and sky. They know who made things or who brought them there; what work they have done and where; which great opals they helped to find. And the places: what good or bad fortunes were made, who worked the ground, which legendary parties shook the walls or which marvellous inventions emerged from within. Even if the places and things were there before them, people know their meanings in their own lives and times.
Sometimes locals re-use or recycle items with heritage values, although the oldest and most significant items are untouched except in veneration. It’s part of the cycle of creativity and rebirth on the opal fields. These are people who know the value of the materials and skills required to build and transport machinery, tools and building materials. It is actually a very modern, ‘green’ way of treating materials and energy.