Deep orange-brown and red rocks expand across the entire landscape. Spinifex grass grows in clumps adding flecks of yellow and green to the saturated colour palette. The craggy hills contrast the vibrant blue sky scattered with tufts of white. Heat radiates from the iron-stained rocks, as flies buzz in the arid air. The rocks are strewn with ancient art engravings: kangaroos, emus, complex patterns, and simple geometric shapes. It is a beautiful natural landscape. An old and historic landscape. Withstanding fire, flood, and extreme changes in climate, this art is sacred. It provides an insight into the lives of the first humans who were here, maybe 60,000 years ago.
The Dampier Archipelago is located 1550 kilometres north of Perth in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. It is made up of 42 islands, one of which is the Burrup Peninsula or in the Ngarluma-Yaburara language, Murujuga, meaning hip-bone sticking out. Murujuga is home to the richest concentration of petroglyphs in the world. In a statement provided by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), Murujuga is much more than a rock art site but is an important record of law and documentation of how the Ngarda-Ngarli protected and managed their country since The Creation.
The Murujuga National Park is leased by MAC and jointly managed with the Department of Biodiversity. When the Native Title Act was introduced in 1994, overlapping claims were made for Murujuga. The claimant groups represented the Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi, Yaburara, Mardudhunera and Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo peoples. In 2001, the State Government wanted to acquire additional land for industrial projects on Murujuga. The Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estates Agreement (BMIEA) was finally signed in 2003 which it was agreed that notwithstanding the outcome of native title claims, BMIEA secured a percentage of land that was not required for industrial development to the Traditional Owners. These 4913 hectares were subsequently named the Murujuga National Park in2013, with an additional 221 hectares granted in 2020. The five claimants formed MAC and the collective term Ngarda-Ngarli was coined for the Traditional Owners and Custodian Groups of Murujuga.
As a result of BMIEA, this historic site is shared with a large petrochemical industrial complex with two Liquefied Natural Gas LNG plants, a fertiliser plant and an ammonium nitrate plant, producing billions of dollars’ worth of exports annually. The first LNG production facility, situated within what is now commonly known as the Burrup Hub, opened in 1984. Led by Woodside Energy, the Burrup Hub is a $50 billion project involving the development of two offshore gas fields and train infrastructure. But according to retired politician, activist and engineer Robin Chapple, Murujuga was never meant to be the home of Australia’s gas giants.
“The reason why the Burrup was chosen was from bad information. It was a mistake,” he said.
Land surveys conducted in the 1960s to determine a location for industrial development under-reported the prevalence of petroglyphs in Murujuga. Chapple said two botanists were sent to conduct the initial botanical surveys of the Dampier Archipelago. In passing, they estimated that 200 engravings were present on the site. He said the subsequent report which was given to the government outlined Depuch Island had 5000 engravings, Port Hedland had 800, Woodstock Station had 500, and the Dampier Archipelago had 200 engravings. Chapple said the government took the report and decided against the initial proposed location of Depuch, instead saying the Dampier Peninsula was the ideal location for industry development.
“They never did a proper survey or understood there were over one million engravings across the Burrup Peninsula and Murujuga,” he said.
Chapple first visited Murujuga in 1976. He knew nothing about Indigenous history, rock art or culture but was fascinated by the petroglyphs and the sheer magnitude of engravings. He started working in the area as an engineer and took his one day off a week to explore the Burrup.
“It was so prolific. Almost every rock had a carving on it. I felt like I was visiting my own personal art gallery,” he said.
Chapple said he developed a fascination and cultural appreciation of Murujuga. It wasn’t until he started working for BHP in the Pilbara and began to explore the area, he began to understand the timeline, chronology, and cultural significance of the engravings. Chapple dedicated his working life to the Burrup, discovering undocumented petroglyphs and artifacts, working with traditional custodians and archaeologists and advocating against industry within the area.
“No place like it in the world.”
The Burrup Peninsula spans over 37000 hectares with a collection of more than one million ancient petroglyphs. It is the oldest and richest collection of rock art engravings in the world. According to Ken Mulvaney in his book Murujuga Marni: the rock art of the macropod hunters and the mollusc harvesters, a petroglyph is an image created by removing a portion of the rock surface through methods of scratching, incising, pounding, engraving or abrading. Most of the artworks produced within the Dampier region were from the method of pounding or pecking. Chapple said there is no other place like it in the world.
“Not only is it the oldest and largest assembly of rock art in the world. We have the first depiction of a human face, even if it is prehistoric, anywhere on the planet,” he said.
The rocks in the region are mainly gabbro and granophyre igneous rock types which are extremely hard. Over a span of two million years the rocks developed a thick blackish brown ‘weathered skin’, also referred to as the rock ‘patina.’ This hard skin is extremely difficult to penetrate and withstands extreme weather conditions and erosion. The petroglyphs are created by breaking through the patina and exposing the lighter coloured rock underneath. The rock composition is what enabled Murujuga petroglyphs to outlast other historic engravings of its kind.
“Some of the rock art engravings would’ve taken hundreds of years to create,” retired geologist John Clarke said.
John Clarke worked for the Western Australia Museum when Woodside began construction on its first LNG plant and was one of the instrumental groups in rock art preservation. The museum during the 1970s was responsible for administering the Aboriginal Heritage Act which aimed to protect and preserve places of significance for Aboriginal people and places of archaeological significance. Clarke was part of the geological surveys of potential locations for the LNG plant, providing Woodside with recommendations as to where would have the smallest impact on Aboriginal cultural heritage.
‘It’s incredibly hard to date.’
Although the rock composition enabled the petroglyphs to last for a long time, the exact timeframe is unknown and highly contested. Clarke said unlike pre-historic paintings that involved the use of plant and animal-based pigments, rock engravings are very hard to date. Carbon dating can’t be used as there is no suitable carbon to test. Archaeologists have used many techniques to establish a potential timeframe, but it is argued petroglyphs in Murujuga could predate all of their estimates.
“We estimated the largest portion of the rock art ranged between 1500 and 6000 years old,” Clarke said.
“There are pieces that may be considerably older. We can’t know for sure. Aboriginal people have been roaming Australia for 65,000 years,” he said.
Mulvaney argues that from the remnants of a trumpet shell, the art could be at least 21,000 years old. However, he estimates that considering the generational changes in style, content, evidence of superimposition and a weathering index, some of the art is more likely from 45,000 years old and it continued to be produced up until the late 19th century.
“They were started by someone and finished by someone else. Some engravings are 3-5mm deep and utilise negative relief. There is no place in the world like it,” Chapple said.
Despite the extraordinary nature of the site, it wasn’t until 2020 the Murujuga Cultural landscape was tentatively listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, with a formal nomination from the Federal Government being lodged by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in February this year.
Commenting on the delays in lodging the application, and the continued industrial development in the area, activist Gerard Mazza said: “It is shocking to me the government are willing to allow, facilitate and actually subsidise the destruction of heritage at Murujuga.”
Mazza lives on Ngarluma country in the Pilbara, where he works as a journalist and campaigner for Disrupt Burrup Hub, a group dedicated to ending the industrial expansion on the Burrup Peninsula. He said industry in the area over many decades has led to the ‘desecration’ of the Burrup Peninsula.
“It is 2023. It’s outrageous that rock art sites are continuing to be relocated and chemical emissions are increasing. This will have a damaging effect on the rock,” he said.
Mazza is not alone in his concerns. Chapple said since his first visit to the Burrup, he has noticed evidence of the black patina exterior of rocks located under trees near Woodside’s development turning a whitish colour. He attributes this to increased emissions from the plants that convert natural gas into fertiliser.
Researchers John Black, Ian MacLeod and Benjamin Smith echo this in the paper The theoretical effects of industrial emissions on colour change at rock art sites on Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia.
They found that the high concentrations of acidic and nitrate-rich pollution impacted the integrity of the outer layer of the patina which may impact the colour and visibility of the petroglyphs in the future. They also reported acidity on rock surfaces has increased in the Burrup Peninsula from a near-neutral pH to a pH of four, concluding pollution from industry “is likely to destroy the rock art over time.”
Chapple said if we do not act now to stop industrial development in the Burrup, the acid could eat through the patina rind and destroy the visibility of the petroglyphs.
“The rock art has been there for 40,000 years or more. We are already seeing these effects in 10 to 20 years. Think about what is going to happen in another 20 years. Most of the scholars are saying it will be completely gone. I fear that too,” he said.
Whether industry is impacting Murujuga engravings is a polarising debate. CSIRO conducted research from 2004 to 2014 and claimed to find no consistent evidence of colour change over the period of measurement. However, in 2017 Dr Kuylenstierna, an author of a report relied upon by CSIRO to prove its claims, stated CSIRO had mischaracterised the report in its findings.
MAC has said in a statement that it believes there is no data to allow a conclusive answer on industry impact on Murujuga rock art, but it has partnered with the WA Department of Water and Environmental Regulation to enact the Murujuga Rock Art Strategy.
Clarke said he supported the CSIRO findings, but did acknowledge there has been a ‘physical impact’ of industry in the Burrup.
“The industrial development which has occurred in the region has destroyed something in the order of 10% of the rock art in Murujuga,” he said.
World Heritage Listing
In 2007, the Burrup Peninsula was included on the Australian National Heritage List in recognition of Murujuga’s unique Aboriginal heritage values. The process of gaining international recognition and protection is more arduous. In 2020 the federal government tentatively put the site forward for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list. It was accepted onto the “tentative” list, while UNESCO awaited the Australian Government’s formal nomination.
This formal application process, led by MAC representatives and supported by the WA government, was finalised in February this year. At the time WA Minister for Environment Reece Whitby said the nomination was “reaffirming the joint commitment to protecting such a culturally and spiritually significant area.” However, he is also part of the government that approved the industrial development.
MAC said in a statement that although the government’s recognition process began in 2018, Ngarda-Ngarli had been working toward World Heritage for more than 20 years. MAC said it was confident the nomination was strong, and the property is of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ according to the criteria. The outcome is expected to be announced some time in 2024.
There are currently 41 rock art sites on the World Heritage List, three in Australia: Uluru, Kakadu and the Blue Mountains.
While Chapple started calling for UNESCO World Heritage protection in the early 2000s, he didn’t get state or federal support at the time, and so nothing was done. According to UNESCO, the formal nomination had to come from the Federal Government as only a nation that is a signatory for the World Heritage treaty can nominate sites. Chapple said he is angry that it took so long for Murujuga’s nomination to be endorsed: “That shows the power of industry and dollars. Its influence and sway over development is incredible.”
Despite the nomination, construction started in April on a new $6.4 billion plant that will convert gas from the Scarborough Gas Field into urea fertiliser, mostly for export. The State Government has committed $300 million in funding for the Perdaman Urea Project, that is set to produce 2 million tonnes of fertiliser per annum. The project lease is for 80 years.
In granting approval, the WA Environmental Protection Authority released a report outlining mitigation strategies to prevent environmental and cultural harm to Murujuga. However, many are demanding the end of industrial development in the Burrup.
“It is without a doubt time to stop expanding industry in the area and wind down existing developments,” Mazza said. “It is unbelievable to me we are continuing to expand industry with new developments when it’s home to one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.”
Chapple said although he’s in his 70s, he will continue to fight for the Burrup for as long as he can: “The pressure we have been putting on throughout the years has led to incremental changes, but it isn’t enough. I’m not a defeatist. I will fight tooth and nail until they cremate me, because it has to be fought. It is important.”