Research Seminar: Jenny Gregory, Stand Up for the Burrup: the movement to save Aboriginal rock art in the world’s largest open air museum

Research Seminar: Jenny Gregory, Stand Up for the Burrup: the movement to save Aboriginal rock art in the world’s largest open air museum (12/02/2007)

By Amy Jane Barnes

For this fortnight’s research seminar, the Department welcomed Jenny Gregory, Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Australia and President of the National Trust in Western Australia. Her presentation focused on the tension between heritage and industry, an issue currently being played out at the Burrup peninsula, in the Dampier region of the north-west Pilbara coast of Western Australia.

The Burrup ‘houses’ the largest concentration of rock art in the world, featuring an estimated 1,000,000 petroglyphs and a minimum of 1,000 plus motifs per square kilometre. The incised images include representations of bird and marine life, mixed animal and human motifs, geometric designs and stylised figures, notably ‘climbing men’ and archaic faces, which number among the oldest representations of people in the world. Carvings of extinct flora and fauna suggest that the earliest of the Burrup petroglyphs could date from 20,000 years ago and provides evidence for the antiquity of human presence in that region and suggests the existence of ancient trade routes or, at the very least, contact between Western and Central Australia (where similar carvings of faces have also been found). In addition to the petroglyphs, are a high density of (largely unsurveyed) standing stones associated with ceremonies and markers of sites of traditional significance and seasonal natural resources.

Undoubtedly, the site is immeasurably important to the study of the development of human creativity and to the history and culture of the indigenous population of Australia. However, the region is also the site of significant oil, gas and iron ore deposits. The ensuing clash between heritage and industry has brought to the surface long-standing prejudices and tensions, as well as highlighting the various problems inherent in the preservation and interpretation of heritage landscapes.

Despite concern expressed by heritage organisations, construction has recently begun on a new gas plant in the vicinity of the Burrup petroglyphs and standing stones, and last month the developers, Woodside, began to relocate – possibly in not the most sensitive way - some of the standing stones in order to clear the site for development. At State level, this is seen to be an adequate solution. However, the National Trust is concerned – not least because a proper survey of the area has not been completed and, with the relocation, important contextual information will be lost.

Jenny outlined the reasons why she felt this situation had arisen in the Burrup: there is a strong sense that because the stones and petroglyphs relate to indigenous heritage, they are not valued in the same way as they might if they had been evidence of early European settlers, for example. Added to this, is the remoteness of the region and the lack of political will to preserve heritage sites against the advance of industry. However, it is hoped that in the future, the site might achieve national heritage or even world heritage listing, which would go someway to ensuring its survival.

These issues generated a lively debate, with discussions focusing on revisionist history in Australia, and the attendant loss of interest in Aboriginal history and culture, the role of the media in exerting political pressure and the perceived benefits, or not, of World Heritage listing.

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Kostas said…
Hi Amy, many thanks for the review of the seminar. The tension between heritage and industry and the prejudices it reveals occurs also in Greece; I have numerous examples of archaeologists trying to save sites from destruction and being harassed because of that.

I don't think though that this is a tension occuring just in the level of state-industries. What is the role of communities for example? Also, sometimes individuals as well have their own personal interests and agendas, especially when these are related to financial issues. And this is not only when particular (e.g. indigenous) heritage is involved.
Hi Kostas! How's Manchester? I wonder how much of this tension has to do with the perception of outsiders coming in and taking over, sometimes in conflict with the needs of the local community At the discussion afterwards, Sheila Watson mentioned a case that she'd been involved in: the so-called 'Sea Henge' in Norfolk, and the negotiation and mediation between all the needs and wants of the different groups involved in the excavation and preservation of the site, and the resulting media frenzy that accompanied the debate. In the case of the Burrup, there isn't so much a 'local community', as the region is so remote and sparsely populated - the indigenous population have long since been driven off the land. The surrounding area is populated largely by workers attracted to the region by the industrial development. And, I guess, it's in their immediate interests for the development to continue! But, at the seminar, we did talk about how the site had significance for all humanity, and I guess this is why there has been so much vociferous support - and, as a result, growing international awareness - for the preservation of the Burrup. But we also talked about the possible (negative) reaction of the state government - or even the federal government - in response to international, 'outside' moral pressure, which always has the potential to backfire. You're right, there's not just a tension between industry and heritage, history and progress, but also local and national, and even national and international.

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