BURRUP ROCK ART-FASHONABLE HERITAGE

2 Oct

The high public profile of the Burrup Peninsula rock art site In the Pilbara region of Western Australia has been instrumental in securing research funding to create a rock art research data base. The research project being conducted by the University of Western Australia (UWA) Rock Art Research institute, with sponsorship from Rio Tinto, is likely to make a significant contribution to Aboriginal cultural heritage in the Pilbara. It will have value throughout the region assessing the significance of rock art and serving as a research data base (http://www.riotintoironore.com/ENG/communities/459_cultural_heritage.asp ).

The Burrup’s highly significant rock art has been the centre of public attention for many years now. The Burrup Peninsula is a major engine house for the Australian economy with significant industries including iron ore, natural gas, salt and fertilizer. There are big players involved such as Woodside and Rio Tinto. Their public profile and business interests make them key stakeholders in current and future resource developments that will impact on Aboriginal heritage sites. A positive public image on Aboriginal cultural heritage is in their best interest. Large scale developments, starting in the 1980s under less rigorous heritage regimes, have been the source of much controversy over the preceding years. The significance of the Burrup was never fully realised at the early stage of development (http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/garrett-steps-in-to-protect-ancient-pilbara-rock-art-from-mining/2008/04/04/1207249461244.html).

There is little surprise then, that rock art research in places like the Burrup can attract the type of Government protection and industry sponsored support that it does. Entered on the National Heritage Register, and with research projects financed by Rio Tinto and Woodside, the future of the Burrup rock art appears sound after years of doubt. Rock art is at the forefront of public perceptions of Aboriginal heritage. This can be seen by the huge growth in popularity of Aboriginal art in recent years. A recent press article on rock art funding saw it printed in the arts section of The Australian newspaper, indicating the public associate rock art with the arts rather than archaeology or Aboriginal heritage (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/rio-funds-pilbara-rock-art-studies/story-e6frg8n6-1226315904586). Such is the popularity of rock art that the National Trust of Australia (WA) web site sees it as not just Indigenous heritage but Australian heritage commenting, ‘It is also important to note that National Heritage Listing of the Dampier Archipelago recognised the existence of heritage values for all Australians, and that it was not simply an indigenous (sic) heritage matter’ (http://www.burrup.org.au/Latest_Information.html). This could be interpreted as an appropriation of Aboriginal culture into settler culture, however wider community interest may lead to a more secure future for the Aboriginal cultural heritage on the Burrup.

If the popularity with Aboriginal culture through admiration of rock art can translate into research funding, as has been the case with Burrup rock art, then perhaps the same could apply for open site artefact scatters. Little is mentioned in the public arena of the open sites on the Burrup which coexist with the rock art. The two archaeological sites are not independent of each other but co-exist and are part of the same cultural landscape. It is argued open sites may have more to tell us about ancient Aboriginal people than rock shelters (Ryan and Morse 2009:6). Industry sponsored archaeological research is unusual in the Pilbara.  Most archaeology is focused on statutory clearances requirements for mining developments. Consultant archaeologists, working under significant time restraints, primarily do site surveys and salvage prior to site destruction. This provides little information as to changes in the archaeological record over time and therefore insights into ancient Aboriginal peoples (Morse 2009:1-5; Marwick 2009:24).

Recent discoveries of Pilbara rock shelters with archaeological evidence proving occupation around 35, 000 BP give us an insight into the antiquity of the Pilbara (Law et al 2010:68-71). Open sites are the dominant archaeological site in the Pilbara, yet they have a much lower public profile than rock art sites. By researching open site artefact usage using residue analysis, excavation methods identifying stratified artefact deposits, and radiocarbon dating, it may be possible to gain significant insight into ancient Aboriginal lifestyles (Ryan and Morse 2009:6-15). Industry sponsored research into open archaeological sites would be a welcome contribution, complimenting the rock art research of the Burrup and rock shelter research already undertaken, making for a more regional approach to Aboriginal cultural heritage research.

Three research avenues into rock art, rock shelters and open sites would complement each other and improve our understanding of past human occupation of the Pilbara. Financing this type of research may be harder for mining company executives to sell to shareholders, due to the lower public profile of stone artefacts.  The popularity of Aboriginal art make selling the idea of funding research into rock art an easier option. However, the effort should be made to educate shareholder opinion of the need to broaden the scope of research funding. The benefits to the companies would be in improved relations with traditional owners that could facilitate smoother and faster negotiations over developments and native title interests.

The current review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (WA) 1978 could be an opportune time for Indigenous parties to propose the inclusion of research in mining industry clearances. The more knowledge gained of Aboriginal Indigenous heritage only enhances the significance and value of contemporary Aboriginal community interest in country. There may be no short term gain in it for the Aboriginal community but it could strengthen their native title claim (Goodwin 2005:74-83). Indigenous participation in this work would be essential, complimenting mining company’s policies towards Indigenous employment opportunities. If the mining companies are truly committed to enhancing Aboriginal heritage, as they often speak about in their Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) policies, then a more consistent approach to research sponsorship should be considered. Aboriginal culture is growing in popularity and awareness with the wider community, offering public relation incentives for mining companies to see value in promoting all aspects of Aboriginal culture.

References

The Age 2008 Garret steps in to protect ancient Pilbara rock art from mining. Retrieved 29 August 2012 from http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/garrett-steps-in-to-protect-ancient-pilbara-rock-art-from-mining/2008/04/04/1207249461244.html.

The Australian 2012 Rio funds Pilbara rock art studies. Retrieved 29th August 2012 from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/rio-funds-pilbara-rock-art-studies/story-e6frg8n6-1226315904586.

Goodwin, L. 2005 Everyday archaeology: archaeological heritage management and its relationship to native title in development-related processes. Australian Aboriginal Studies 1:74-83.

Law, W. B. and D. N. Cropper and F. Petchey 2010 Djadjiling Rockshelter: 35 000 c Years of Aboriginal Occupation in the Pilbara, Western Australia.  Australian Archaeology 70:68-71.

Morse, K. 2009 Emerging from the abyss-archaeology in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Archaeology in Oceania 44:1-5.

National Trust of Australia (WA) 2007 News update 25th July 2007. Retrieved 29th August 2012 from http://www.burrup.org.au/Latest_Information.html

Rio Tinto 2012 Burrup Conservation Agreement. Retrieved 29th August 2012 from http://www.riotintoironore.com/ENG/communities/459_cultural_heritage.asp

Ryan, I. and K. Morse 2009 Towards a Late Holocene archaeology of the Inland Pilbara. Archaeology in Oceania 44:6-15.

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