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Dampier Archipelago Rock-Art Precinct

Overview

The Dampier Rock Art Precinct is comprised of 42 islands, islets and rocks in a 45km radius that make up Dampier Archipelago. These are located in a remote area of the north-west of Australia, off the coast from the town of Karratha, Western Australia.

The Islands that make up the Dampier Rock Art Precinct are formed from a recently drowned landmass, the shorelines of which stabilised about 6000 years ago. The Burrup Peninsula, approximately 27km long and 5km wide, was originally an island that formed part of this grouping until joined to the mainland in the mid 1960s by a rail and road causeway.

It is important at this time to reflect on the fate of the original inhabitants of the Archipelago, the Yaburara people, who were massacred over an eight day period in February 1868 in what is referred to as the Flying Foam Massacre.

There is currently no complete inventory or understanding of the heritage and relative values of the area, yet industrial development is being actively promoted and encouraged by the State Government.

The carvings that are the cultural landscape on the Burrup and throughout Dampier Rock Art Precinct may date back many thousands of years. Unfortunately once the rock has been removed there are no techniques available to be able to accurately date the symbols and art created on the rocks.

The “archaic faces” possibly document links with an art and ritual tradition dispersed widely across the north and centre of the continent, occurring almost always in remote valleys in impressive ranges (the Cleland Hills, the Calvert Ranges, the Durba Hills) well before the drying of Australia, before at least the last glacial maximum at 20,000 years ago.

The engravings (mainly on the granophyre, though other rock types are carved), depict a range of motifs from spiritual beings, humanoids, fish, birds and mammals including some species which are now extinct, like the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacyne). The scenes are considered to be more complex and animated than any other engravings in Australia and perhaps in the world.

The main reason why the art is visible is the contrast developed by the carving into the rocks exposing the underlying rock (grey) and contrasting with the desert varnish, a dark glossy patina (red-black) that covers the rocks of the region in varying degrees.

This varnish may in the future give rise to a dating method for the rock art. This dark glossy varnish is thought to have accumulated in arid conditions 17,000 years ago, though there is a considerable body of conflicting literature on this subject.

If it is the case that this varnish is 17,000 years old then the dating of the rock art must be pushed back into this period as clearly these are examples of carvings fully covered in desert varnish.

The spectrum of carved material, the density of the carvings, techniques and patination, make these petroglyph galleries one of the pre-eminent sites of prehistoric pre-literate documentation in the world.

It is not known how many sites or individual petroglyphs exist in the Dampier Archipelago, or more specifically the Burrup. Estimates range from 3,690 rock art sites by the government of Western Australia to (likely) millions of petroglyphs in a recent report  to the Federal Government.

What is known is that the Burrup has a density rate of at least 56 sites per square kilometer, with each site containing many petroglyphs.

This sets the Dampier Rock Art Precinct as one of the world's pre-eminent sites of recorded human evolution and a prehistoric university.

Since the early 1970s industry has been located on the Burrup Peninsula by the WA State Government against the wishes of the international anthropological and archeological community.

The expansion of industry in the Dampier Archipelego continues to be encouraged by the State Government for the Burrup and West Intercourse Island areas. These are the Woodside Energy Pluto LNG project, Dampier Nitrogen ammonia-urea plant, Agrium ammonia-urea plant, Deepak Fertilisers ammonium nitrate and Dyno Nobel ammonium nitrate projects.

The State Government has admitted that rock art may be intentionally damaged or relocated during construction. This may in fact breach the UNESCO Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage, 17 October 2003.

There are a number of different ideas concerning the amount of rock art already lost on the Burrup Peninsula. What is known from State Government parliamentary questions is that they are aware of the destruction of 4776 petroglyphs and 350 sites (10% of what has been recorded) since 1972 when the register was first established, with 1682 petroglyphs and 119 sites being relocated.

It is even known that the state government permitted the export of a petroglyph to Japan in 1973, as no record of petroglyphs or sites exist, it is not known how much other material may have been misappropriated over time

No data is available prior to 1972, to be able to determine what had been lost on the Burrup, East Intercourse Island and Mistaken Island during the development of the Hamersley Iron Ore port and rail infrastructure, the construction of the town of Dampier or the development of the Dampier Salt facilities.

Of real concern is the fact that ongoing emissions of sulphur and nitrogen will form acidic compounds which may gradually erase the varnish which has enabled the visual impact of the rock art. The West Australian State Government's management plan thus far amounts to a promise to have a team of experts standing by to document the destruction of the rock art, which offers very little consolation to future generations.

The Burrup Peninsula Rock Art Province was flagged as a potential World Heritage site in the Figgis/Mosley World Heritage Book 1988 and has long been considered by the rock art establishment as worthy of World Heritage listing. Robert Bednarik, President of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO) has described the area as the largest outdoor petroglyph gallery on earth, incorporating tens of thousands of engravings as well as other signs of daily and ceremonial activity. Inscriptions have been dated as far back as the last ice age and Aboriginal habitation of the area dates back at least 18,000 years.

In early 2004 the National Trust (WA) began to prepare a nomination of the Precinct to the National Heritage list. While preparing the nomination the National Trust (WA) became aware that some of the rock art was under imminent threat  As a consequence the nomination was put forward with a request for “emergency listing”, which required the Federal Heritage Minister to intervene within 10 working days. This led to an intense round of lobbying by industry and government. The National Trust (WA) received an undertaking from the Department of Industry and Resources and the Dampier Port Authority that further infrastructure development would be unlikely during the normal timeline for national heritage listing and as a consequence removed the request for emergency listing.

The final determination by the Federal Minister regarding the National Heritage Listing was expected in September 2005. This was delayed and an announcement is expected in September 2006. As part of this process an assessment was completed in May 2005 and released to stakeholders in December 2005.

This assessment clearly reinforces the position that the National Trust (WA) has been advocating since 2000. That is, that no further development should proceed without the development and implementation of a single holistic management plan backed by legislation and a comprehensive inventory of the Rock Art and other archaeological artifacts. The National Trust (WA) also wishes to see an independent committee appointed to monitor the processes of development and conservation.

As a reader of this article it is essential that you make your voice heard. We urge you tom bring pressure to bear on all stakeholders in support of:

  • no further rock art destruction in the Dampier Rock Art Precinct
  • a single management plan based on a clear understanding of the heritage value, and
  • a compilation of a complete inventory of cultural material in the Dampier Rock Art Precinct

 

Update

Wednesday, July 11, 2007 All Rights Reserved.
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