ROCK ART ON WESTERN AUSTRALIA’S Burrup Peninsula is facing more industrial threats, despite new scientific findings that the ancient Pilbara site is “a masterpiece of human creative genius” worthy of World Heritage status.

Around one million rock engravings, or petroglyphs, are scattered across the Burrup Peninsula and forty islands in the Dampier Archipelago, in northwest WA.

In 2007, the Australian Heritage Council (AHC) awarded heritage protection to Burrup’s richly detailed engravings of human figures, water birds, crabs, crayfish, kangaroos, turtles and fish. Also standing in the rocky landscape are mysterious upright monoliths and rows of three or four hundred upright stones.

Five grounds for World Heritage listing

An expert report published in late 2011 by the AHC found that Burrup rock art could qualify for UNESCO World Heritage listing on at least five grounds of ‘universal value’, far more than the usual one or more criteria required.

The report, authored by archaeologist and rock art expert Dr Jo McDonald, describes the Burrup’s engravings – created by Aboriginal peoples around 10,000 years ago – as “masterpieces of human creative genius…produced with superlative technical skill.”

She says the pitted, often beautiful patterns form a continuous engraving tradition by hunting-gathering peoples up to European settlement, while monumental stones, man-made quarries and shell middens record how humans adapted to changes in the landscape. Her report describes the Burrup as having “universal significance”, with links to the living belief systems of traditional custodians.

Dr Carmen Lawrence, AHC chair, says she will be forwarding the Council’s completed advice, including the McDonald report, to Federal Heritage Minister Tony Burke within a few weeks.
Worrying industrial threats

She told Australian Geographic that the AHC was instructed to investigate whether the Australian government should pursue World Heritage nomination for the rock art after a Senate motion last March, when Greens MPs called for an emergency assessment of “the outstanding universal values of the Dampier Archipelago and any threats to the site.”

However, The Friends of Australian Rock Art (FARA), a group of rock art experts and heritage supporters, say two worrying threats loom just as this greater global recognition is being mooted.

FARA Chair Judith Hugo says nearly 20 per cent of the rock art precinct has been destroyed or disturbed in recent decades to make way for the Northwest Shelf gas processing plant, a fertiliser plant and other industry activity on the Burrup.
Explosive development

She says more could disappear if Woodside Petroleum cancels its controversial plans to build a gas processing plant in the Kimberley, and brings more gas ashore on the Burrup. This became more likely last week when Woodside announced it was selling its 50% share in the Kimberley project.

A second threat is a proposal to build an explosives plant on the Burrup, announced last month by oil and gas company the Apache Corporation. “Apache has previously stated that it would not go onto the Burrup in light of the Aboriginal heritage values, but somehow their ethical stand has been reversed,” says Judith. “Burrup rock art is a universal record of mankind’s development.”

Apache’s spokesman David Parker says the company has a record of sensitivity to heritage, having previously relocated a natural gas plant elsewhere “in recognition of concerns about rock art on the Burrup Peninsula.” He says Apache has met with FARA members to discuss their concerns.