The waves first broke on the shores of Murujuga, of what was to become the Dampier Archipelago, some 7,000 years ago. The encroaching seas, rising after the last great Ice Age, heralded a shift in the resources available to the inhabitants and the way in which they portrayed their society and environment.

"Images which appear to depict mega fauna and other extinct species, such as the Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger), fat-tailed macropod and Tasmanian Devil, are evident in the petroglyphs"

In this blog Dr Ken Mulvaney tells us more about the Murujuga and its internationally significant rock art. Images Dr Ken Mulvaney.

It is this great transformation that provides a means to understand the changing patterns in the rock art of this most significant area.  Sitting on the northwest coast of Australia, in the Pilbara region, the Dampier Archipelago extends over some 1,400 square kilometres.  A place that, through the archaeological record, bears witness to upwards of 30,000 years of cultural creativity and human endeavour.  The Pilbara is a location better known for the wealth it generates through iron ore mining and petroleum extraction and processing.

Murujuga: Island landscapes

It is the imposing rocky, weathered block slopes of a deep reddish-brown, interspersed by the olive-green and straw coloured porcupine grass, alongside the azure blue waters of the Indian Ocean which characterises this unique landscape.  These same basaltic blocks provide the lasting canvases into which the images from the past are etched.  They are a record of the thoughts, beliefs, culture and habits of the people who created them, and remain as a spiritual link and law book for the indigenous inhabitants.  The general consensus is that the place is of outstanding universal value due to the extraordinary diversity, density and aesthetics of the rock art and other archaeological remains.  This recognition culminated in the archipelago being placed on Australia’s National Heritage List in 2007.  The area also possesses deep cultural and spiritual significance for the Aboriginal people of the region.  It constitutes a landscape that is imbued with the creator beings and ancestors, bearing witness to many hundreds of generations of people that created the images.

Murujuga: Macropod

On current evidence, people have been in this part of Australia for at least 45,000 years, leaving evidence of their actions in the multitude of habitation sites, artefact scatters, stone arrangements and engraved rock art (petroglyphs).  When people first arrived here, the coastline was some 160 kilometres away.  What are now islands of the archipelago are the drowned tops of hills of an ancient range in a vast coastal plain.  A portion of the early rock art depicts terrestrial animals only, like the kangaroo and emu.  Such fauna would have provided much of the meat diet at this time.  People where still here when Europeans first settled the area in 1863, attesting to an extended period of rock art production spanning many tens of thousands of years.  It affords distinct testimony to the changing repertoire of petroglyph production; mapping the shifting environmental and cultural conditions over a prolonged episode of time, unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

Murujuga: Archaic face

Particular aspects of the early phase in the artistic traditions of the place are of petroglyphs displaying elaborate geometric patterns and two distinctive ways of representing the human form. These motif subjects are in addition to terrestrial fauna images.  One of these comprises cluster arrangements of small, side profile figures with a separated, blob-head.  Human faces, some incorporating the elaborate geometric designs are the second form of human depiction.  Over one hundred such ‘archaic faces’ are known from this place; while thirty-five ‘archaic faces’ have been recorded from locations across north and central Australia.  On current evidence, these human faces, and group scenes could well be the earliest depictions of ourselves in global rock art.

Murujuga: Thylacine engraving

Images which appear to depict mega fauna and other extinct species, such as the Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger), fat-tailed macropod and Tasmanian Devil, are evident in the petroglyphs.  We know that the Thylacine became extinct round 3,500 years ago, providing a minimum age for such petroglyphs.  However, the extinction of mega fauna, acting as potential age indicators, is much more contentious.  Some have it that all species died out by 45,000 years ago, even though there are sites with mega fauna remains, such as Cuddy Springs, with more recent dates.  It is likely that such rock art images date to later millennia, not that they have survived 45,000 years or more.

Murujuga: Dugong hunt

We may never know the context in which they were made, nor when.  However, we can recognise in the petroglyphs designs that resemble hafted axes and bent throwing objects (boomerang).  The oldest evidence for an edge ground axe, from a site in Jawoyn country, Arnhem Land, recovered from an archaeological deposit, dated to 35,000.  Stencils of boomerangs are present in both the early art of the Kimberley and Arnhem Land regions.  It is evident that such objects in the Murujuga art shifted functionally from hunting objects to instruments of percussion used in ritual performance.  Hunting technologies are also indicated by images of speared kangaroos and fish, and in two examples, the netting of dugong.  The scene depicted in these dugong hunts, matches the historic description of such activities recorded over one hundred years ago.

Murujuga: Ancient campsite

It is estimated that some one million images are placed on the rock canvases of the archipelago, a rich inheritance of which all Australians should be proud.  It also represents the greatest and longest continuous sequence of petroglyph production anywhere in the world.  Why then is modern industry wedged within this ancient cultural precinct?  It is, in part, an historical consequence of the need for a deep water port and the absence, at the time, of heritage protection or of Aboriginal personal rights.  In the early 1960s, with the lifting of an export embargo on iron ore, the Western Australian Government looked to places in the Pilbara to be able to ship the rich mineral deposits of the region.  King Bay on Dampier Island (renamed Burrup Peninsula in 1979) was not the first choice.  That location, Depuch Island with its 5,000 petroglyphs, was deemed important enough not to develop.  So iron ore export facilities where built at King Bay and at Port Hedland, an existing town, 200 kilometres to the east.

It is unknown how many petroglyphs and other Aboriginal sites were destroyed in these early years of industrial development.  Heritage protection legislation was not introduced in Western Australia until 1972, eight years after construction of port facilities and the service town of Dampier began.  Understandably, few people were aware of the richness that was being destroyed, while those who did know, the Aboriginal people, did not have a voice (they were not even Australian citizens, just wards of the State).  It took a few discerning foreign workers to bring some attention to this unique natural and cultural place.

By the late 1970s concern for the protection of the petroglyphs and the related cultural landscape was mounting.  However, this did not stop a petrochemical plant being situated on Burrup Peninsula, resulting in the destruction of some 5,000 petroglyphs.  Ironically this is a number comparable to images at Depuch Island saved twenty years earlier from such a destructive fate.  As the petroleum product is situated at the continental shelf, the gas processing plant could have been built anywhere along the Pilbara coast.  Sited in a location with less impact on the environment and heritage would not have hindered commercial development, butt better managed all Australian assets.

It was from this disastrous development decision that the first efforts to specifically protect the cultural heritage of Murujuga were begun. Clearly for Western Australia heritage laws came second fiddle to economic avarice.  The reality is that industry can locate elsewhere, there are no commercial mineral deposits within the islands, the very rock that makes production of the petroglyphs so visible, presents an engineering nightmare for developers.  Expert opinion recommended instigating World Heritage Listing of the Burrup in 1982.  The first Burrup wide management plan along with a proposal for all vacant crown land to be vested in the relevant conservation authority began in 1987.  Unfortunately lack of funds, staff transfers and work-loads prevented implementation of these proposals.  This was not the first time such a proposal had been advocated.  As far back as 1964, the West Australian sub-committee of the Australian Academy of Science recommended that the Dampier Archipelago become either a Reserve or a National Park.  The matter was shelved in 1967 at the Mines Department’s request.

Successive State governments have lacked a willingness to enhance site protection or provide adequate management in the face of industrial construction, which has been dominated by representatives of the mines and resources departments for over fifty years.  To conserve the aesthetic and scientific values of the rock art is said to incur undue economic loss.  However, in this situation it is not so much a mineral deposit which may go undeveloped but a planning decision made fifty years ago, which in this age of enlightenment is still not overturned, even when viable alternatives exist.

Murujuga: Standing stones

The UNESCO convention, ratified by the Australian Government in 1974, places responsibility on a signatory nation to identify, protect and nominate places of World Heritage significance.  That the rock art and other cultural features of the Dampier Archipelago possess values for all humanity has been acknowledged by experts for over thirty years.  Society is horrified by the destruction of cultural sites occurring now in the Middle East, condemning the actions of religious extremists. Yet here in Australia we blithely accept the procrastination of government which is having the same consequence.

ccRadio: Dr Carmen Lawrence