Ancient treasures

FROM A SCIENTIFIC perspective, Aboriginal people entered the landmass of Sahul (greater Australia) more than fifty thousand years ago and were in the Pilbara region of Western Australia by 42,000 BP (Before Present). There they etched marks and images into the region’s hard rock surfaces to create an enduring treasure of abundant rock art for their own cultural life, and a priceless legacy for generations to come.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the Dampier Archipelago, where up to a million images are visible – the densest accumulation of engraved rock art (petroglyphs) in the world. These petroglyphs display a great variety of subjects and styles, documenting shifting artistic fashions and embodying cultural, ecological and environmental changes across millennia. These ancient art galleries occur in association with other archaeological features, including artefact scatters, shell middens and stone arrangements, all in a landscape that has become an industrial hub for mining and petrochemical industries.

The Dampier Archipelago sits on the subtropical coast in the north-western arid zone. The archipelago includes forty-two islets and islands, the largest being Dampier Island (gazetted Burrup Peninsula in 1979) at 118 square kilometres. Gabbro and granophyre igneous rocks, in jointed and fractured block piles and slopes, dominate the landscape. Narrow, sheltered rocky gullies and broad spinifex-covered valleys bisect these rock massifs. This is a striking and fractured landscape where the rock slopes, although appearing like scree, have been stable for millions of years.

FOLLOWING MY RETURN to Australia in late 1980, with an archaeological degree but little experience, I was lured to this shore. It was the call to ‘go west’, to document this spectacular and significant cultural heritage that brought me to the Pilbara as part of a team endeavouring to staunch the loss of this rock art. In Western Australia, destruction of Aboriginal sites has been accepted as a necessary by-product of economic prosperity. If you want to live in the modern world, drive cars and use electrical appliances, then nature and heritage must give way. At least, that is the general thinking. So we laboured in front of the machines, transforming this ancient place into modern industrial infrastructure – it was said – for the betterment of the nation. Working in the dust, heat and noise of industrialisation, it was hard to accept that such priceless art was being obliterated, especially when there were alternative locations for this development.

Up to seventeen archaeologists were working on the rugged block slopes festooned with petroglyphs, busily documenting what was there for posterity. When we finished two years later, there were 720 registered Aboriginal sites recorded, 544 containing rock art. Unfortunately, less than half of these sites remain intact and five thousand petroglyphs were destroyed. This is one of the richest rock art and archaeological provinces in the world. Overseas, such awareness of cultural richness would have mobilised a program of documentation and protection, a promotion of their cultural value, plus a strategy for tourism. Not in Western Australia, where the focus was on big industrial ventures. The cultural and natural beauty of the place was lost in the dust and heat, giving way to exports.

Twenty-five years after first coming to the Pilbara, having spent much of the interim in the Northern Territory, I returned to work in the footprint of infrastructure development. Some things had changed, yet other circumstances were remarkably similar to the early 1980s. Today, the Yaburara, Ngarluma, Mardudhunera, Wong-goo-tt-oo and Yindjibarndi people (descendants of the original artists and custodians of the rock art) hold title to a national park covering 41.5 per cent of Burrup Peninsula. Some commercial enterprises have located elsewhere, and much of the place is now recognised for its national heritage values. Yet the frontier mentality persists – the lure of exploitation sets mineral wealth higher than heritage and tourism and Aboriginal needs. What has changed in the west?

IN 1976, WHEN I finished school, I was lured to the distant shores of England. I hoped to excavate the ancient civilisations of Britain, to remain in the green fields of England. The consequences of the Thatcher government’s policies pushed me back to the red earth of Australia. In Thatcher’s Britain, people like me, with cultural links but no blood ties, were sent packing. Like the convicts of old, I had no chance to remain in the ‘motherland’ and so, with a degree in archaeology from Sheffield University, I was transported back to Australia.

One thing that made the return to Australia more bearable was the prospect of work with the Western Australian Museum in the Pilbara. The museum’s Department of Aboriginal Sites was recruiting a large team of archaeologists to document the cultural sites and features on Burrup Peninsula, between King Bay and Withnell Bay. I was based in the then-frontier town of Karratha, full of workers engaged in the construction of a natural gas liquefaction plant – at the time the biggest engineering project in the world. With my acquired Yorkshire accent and academic ways, I was an odd fit. Most were engaged in the glory of monumental construction, while we laboured in the face of epic destruction. In a few short years the commercial enterprise wiped away the accomplishments of countless previous generations. All we could do was document its passing and lament the myopic nature of government and capitalism.

This place is more than a museum or art gallery documenting aspects of the world’s oldest continuous cultural traditions. The rock art and other features pattern the standards and lore that are entwined in the life of Aboriginal people, as meaningful today as it has been for tens of thousands of years. The term ‘rock art’ does not do justice to the petroglyphs, because they are a very dense and complex archive of symbolism that captures a range of social elements including customary law, Aboriginal knowledge of environment and resources, and cultural practices. As elsewhere in Australia, including the Kimberley region, ‘rock art remains a vital component of the lived culture of the contemporary Aboriginal people’.[i]

In the debate that took place about locating a petrochemical industry on Burrup Peninsula in the late 1970s, Aboriginal voices were ignored. This was just after the Noonkanbah intervention, when a government-backed oil drilling operation barged onto Aboriginal-owned land. The state government was not interested in hearing what Aboriginal people had to say about their sites and country. We were given to understand that, as public servants, we were not entitled to converse with the traditional custodians of the area. This was not the case with previous archaeological undertakings in the archipelago, so to have ignored the involvement of Aboriginal people was a retrograde step. Its effects still reverberate today.

WITH THE DECLARATION of Western Australia’s hundredth national park in January 2013, the Aboriginal inheritors of this place have a voice in both planning and day-to-day park management. This includes governing access, directing actions to appropriate places and ensuring culturally sensitive behaviours do not impinge on scared sites and the wellbeing of the ancestors. In addition to the Aboriginal rangers working within the 4,913 hectares of the park, one Ngarluma man has established a commercial tourism operation providing an Aboriginal insight into culture and history.

Murujuga (its traditional name) rock art represents the efforts of perhaps thousands of artisans creatively chipping away at the hard rock surfaces over some forty thousand years. Through much of this time, what is now the Dampier Archipelago was a rugged and rocky range of hills rising above an open, eucalypt-wooded plain stretching to a coastline some one hundred and fifty kilometres distant. More recently, the encroachment of the sea and the development of extensive mangrove stands, sandy embayments and rocky headlands provided rich and diverse marine and terrestrial habitats. This area is host to both tropical and arid species, with animals and plants normally found either in coastal or inland environments only.

The production of rock art images displays how people adjusted their social interactions in the context of changing environmental conditions. Following the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), a post-glacial sea level rise resulted in the formation of the Dampier Archipelago up to nine thousand years ago, and a consequent adjustment in both social and economic structures. These are reflected in the archaeological remains found at former habitation sites as well as in the rock images themselves, which switch in dominance from terrestrial fauna – kangaroos and emus – to marine fauna of fish and turtle.

This was an inscribed landscape where generations used the rock as a canvas. The archipelago is a human-marked landscape of stunning visual power. Rock art offers sensory pleasure and cognitive recognition that may be absent from other cultural markers, such as quarries and middens. It is a quality of being human that we can experience today, an aesthetic appreciation of images created in the ancient past. It is unfortunate that modern society so readily destroys the things we find beautiful.

Eminent anthropologist Howard Morphy observed that rock art ‘provides a reservoir of images for succeeding generations who not only can view and interpret this record, but additionally use it as a source of information and inspiration that influences their present practice’. For tens of thousands of years this has been the case at Dampier. Now we ignore what is there, pushing the cultural landscape aside for industrial enterprise. One can observe that this heritage was honoured and preserved by successive generations for millennia. Now it is devalued and abused. Future generations will decry this wanton destruction of a priceless heritage.

In the early 1960s, when Hamersley Iron was granted development rights for King Bay on Dampier Island (now Burrup Peninsula), there was no heritage legislation, so we are left with only a vague notion of what may have been destroyed. It was the same when Dampier Salt began construction of crystalliser ponds in 1968. As awareness and concern for the material evidence of Australia’s past increased, the Western Australian parliament passed heritage-protection legislation in 1972. As a consequence, we have a better idea of what was being destroyed. In the case of Dampier Salt, a major study was undertaken of the massive shell midden and petroglyphs that were partly destroyed by the construction of the haul road through the southern end of Dampier Island and out to the port facilities on Mistaken Island.

Timely awareness of this invaluable heritage came largely thanks to FL (Enzo) Virili, an Italian engineer-manager who worked for Dampier Salt. Virili photographed the petroglyphs and first brought them to the attention of archaeologists and scientists at the Western Australian Museum. The richness of the archaeological features led to the establishment of the salvage project in 1980, which I was involved in. It was not sufficient to stop the development of the Dampier Archipelago. The industrial footprint currently occupies over forty-seven square kilometres, with an additional thirty-three square kilometres gazetted for future industrial use.

It was only after detailed recording by the museum field teams in 1980 and 1981 that the wealth of the archaeological record was fully grasped. It inspired a sense of the importance of the cultural landscape, and exposed the absurdity of industrialising a site of such historical significance.

When I left the state it was with the expectation that common sense would prevail, that industry would be established elsewhere and there would be proper management and protection of the Dampier Archipelago’s unique environment and heritage. Sadly, this was not to be the case. At the dawning of the twenty-first century, in my capacity as President of the Australian Rock Art Research Association, I wrote numerous letters to government ministers and officials expressing concern about the continual destruction of the Dampier petroglyphs and other cultural features.

SO IN LATE 2003, it was with some trepidation that I took a short-term job with Hamersley Iron to essentially resolve issues around port facility expansion at King Bay, halfway up the western side of Burrup Peninsula. I thought the protection of this significant place could be achieved. Positively, the iron ore expansion had shifted to Cape Lambert, forty-five kilometres along the coast, a national park had been declared over part of Burrup Peninsula, and much of the archipelago had been included on the National Heritage List. Despite this listing, inadequate management and protection systems remained. Further development of industries had also taken place, resulting in additional destruction. In 2004 the Dampier rock art precinct was placed on World Monument Fund’s list of ‘100 Most Endangered Places in the World’; the only Australian site on the list. Lamentably, the anachronistic, incompetent and insensitive government and agencies hell-bent on taming this wild frontier lack the finesse to adequately protect this cultural heritage.

As a resident of Dampier for the last eleven years, I have come to recognise the complex and dense character of the cultural record that is the Dampier Archipelago, and have been teasing out the chronological threads associated with the petroglyphs. Although there is no suitable method for dating the petroglyphs directly, it is possible to identify a relative chronological sequence when other archaeological evidence is associated with analysis of weathering rates and motif superimposition (where one image overlies another), along with depictions of fauna that are identifiable.

THE ROCK ART is a manifestation of the social behaviours, ritual expression and subsistence practices of hunter-forager people, reaching through lore and culture to their present-day descendants. While rock art styles equate to cultural phases or traditions, form in the Dampier Archipelago petroglyphs does not so much vary with subject or technique, but with specific arrangements and graphic composition. Human-like representations may be depictions of community members (including the artist), ancestors, mythical beings/Dreaming figures, or other non-ordinary presences. These may be gendered or not. One of the most emblematic is facial representation: some incorporate complex geometric designs, others simplified bodies. All are so deeply weathered and old-looking that they may constitute examples from among the world’s earliest human depictions. These complex facial images, along with elaborate non-figurative designs and full body renderings of human and animal forms, comprise much of the range of motifs associated with the rock art’s earliest phase.

There are at least four other major artistic phases evidenced by superimposition. These include changes in style, technique and subject, including the depiction of extinct animals and a sequencing of environmental change due to a sea level rise. Artistic traditions and conventions show a shift from patterned infill faces and elaborate geometric designs to an emphasis on outline terrestrial faunal and human figures. Although bird and macropod tracks and small circle, dot and arc motifs are present in the rock art corpus, the early classic Panaramitee style of clustering small, simple geometric and track motifs is not evident.

It is believed, based on the degree of weathering, positioning in the landscape and spatial distribution across the continent, that these early artistic phases predate or possibly extend into the LGM, up to 22,000 years ago. Certainly, the ‘faces’ and life-size depictions of terrestrial fauna, albeit in low numbers, occur across the Pilbara and into what is now the Western and Central Desert, suggesting their antiquity predates the desertification of the continent.

Associated with a period of low precipitation following the LGM, and loss of territory as the rising ocean drowned a vast coastal plain, the art repertoire shifted to include an increase in species depicted. Dampier petroglyphs start to include marine subjects, especially fish, and are later dominated by turtles. The later artistic phases clearly post-date a sea level rise and the formation of the archipelago some six thousand years ago. Depictions of crustaceans, marine mammals, sharks and stingrays also appear in this Holocene period rock art. The depiction of humans also changed: they are shown with cultural items such as headdresses, ceremonial objects and implements, often in group scenes.

While the aesthetic, scientific and cultural significance of Dampier rock art is commensurate with the Kimberley and western Arnhem Land, the density and accessibility of these petroglyphs is unparalleled. If this were elsewhere in the world, or even in another Australian state, appropriate funds for documentation and management would be available. As it stands, little of the cultural heritage of the Dampier Archipelago has been mapped; the few detailed archaeological investigations have been paid for by companies as part of their development consent process. Most state government funding expended on Burrup Peninsula has been on road, rail and port infrastructure to attract and enhance industry.

The antiquity of Australian rock art awaits definitive dating. Evidence of the practice of complex burial rituals at Lake Mungo some forty thousand years ago, and the use of ochre obtained from a distant source, already hints at the practice of artistic expression. In the application of ‘contrast-state’, an index of relative time for weathering processes, it has been possible to demonstrate the antiquity and complexity of early Dampier petroglyphs. Fixing art in time provides a sense of its antiquity and cultural productivity. While awaiting conclusive proof, it is nevertheless probable that the creation of images on the rock began with the first arrival of people and only stopped in the 1860s with the coming of white settlement and the decimation of the Yaburara people.

Dampier petroglyphs have been produced on the surfaces of the block piles and slopes dominating the archipelago landscape, the hardness of which has ensured their long-term survival in spite of exposure to the harsh elements of the Pilbara coast. What has lain in tranquil splendour for perhaps forty thousand years, with successive generations contributing their own aesthetic and symbolic creativity, has over the past forty years been subject to desecration and destruction. Working long hours in the sweltering heat and earning mega wages holds more interest for most Western Australians than the presence and preservation of this significant corpus of petroglyphs. Australia’s cultural legacy deserves more than ensuring multinational companies profit from sending our natural resources offshore.



[i] Blundell, V & Woolagoodja, D 2012, ‘Rock Art, Aboriginal Culture and Identity’, in McDonald, J & Veth, P (eds.), A Companion to Rock Art, Wiley-Blackwell, Queensland.

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