In 1948, Frank Setzler, the head curator of anthropology at the world’s largest museum and research complex, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, visited Arnhem Land as a member of a US-Australian scientific expedition.

While excavating for stone tools, he waited for his two Aboriginal assistants to fall asleep before plundering burial caves on Injalak, a sacred plateau on the edge of Gunbalanya in the Northern Territory, a new film alleges.

Hundreds of the bones he stole were shipped to the US to become part of one of the world’s biggest collections of human anatomy at the Smithsonian where they remained for more than 60 years before finally being returned to Australia after much wrangling.

It wasn’t until July 2011 that they were again laid to rest when Aboriginal elder, the late Jacob Nayinggul, created a ceremony, wrapping the bones in paperbark and returning them and the ancestors’ spirits to their homeland.

In a new documentary, Australian National University historian Dr Martin Thomas and his wife Dr Béatrice Bijon, of the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, work with the Aboriginal communities to tell the sorry tale.

The resulting film, Etched in Bone, will be launched in Canberra on Thursday. Although Mr Nayinggul passed away about five months after the bones were re-buried, his son Alfred and daughter Connie will be at the premiere.

The documentary is also due to be released on DVD by Ronin Films next week and could be destined for television screens at a later date.

Mr Nayinggul was central to the film, which is told from his perspective.

“Stealing people’s bones and taking them away to study, well it’s no bloody good!” he said at the time of the re-burial.

Dr Thomas said they had been able to use original colour footage dating back to 1948 in the documentary because Mr Setzler had a National Geographic camera crew with him on his trip.

“It’s a terrible story because he did the same sort of thing in the US too and excavated quite a few Native American burials over there,” Dr Thomas said.

“Then in Australia he did it on a huge scale, especially around West Arnhem Land where the traditions are to bundle the bones of the deceased in paperbark and they put them in crevices, gaps in caves and things like that, and leave them to remain on their country in perpetuity.”

“It’s not like he had to excavate or dig or discover anything. It’s like walking into a graveyard.”

Dr Thomas said the bones were stolen in broad daylight.

“Officially he was excavating for stone tools and more regular archaeological work and he had two young teenage fellows who had been assigned to him as his assistants. He actually writes in his diary that he waited until his native assistants were asleep and then he went to a cave and took bones,” Dr Thomas said.

“He knew it was wrong.”

Dr Thomas said the documentary was eight-years in the making. He said Mr Nayingull had thought it important that the matter be made public.

Dr Thomas said the bones were returned only after intense lobbying. He hoped the film would provide a new perspective around repatriation and show scientists and museum curators the damage that has been done to Indigenous cultures.

“In 2008 they (the Smithsonian) released a proportion of it,” he says. “That made the Arnhem Land mob really mad because they knew it was dividing up people.”

The rest came back later.

“It came about through Kim Beazley. Just after he’d been named the ambassador to Washington, a group of us who were interested in this subject invited him to give a talk at the National Museum and he got very upset about it and he made a promise that as ambassador he’d be putting this on his agenda and would do what he could,” Dr Thomas said.

“We think that spooked the Smithsonian and they knew it was never going to die away. They said ‘the rest of those bones, by the way, you can come and pick them up’.”

Etched in Bone will be launched on Thursday evening at the National Film and Sound Archive. Tickets are still available. On Friday there is also a public symposium at ANU in Canberra where the filmmakers, Arnhem Landers and researchers will talk about issues involved withrepatriation. More information and tickets here:

By Wendy Caccetta