‘The rocks remember’: the fight to protect Burrup peninsula's rock art

As the WA government pushes for world heritage listing of the sacred site, traditional owners warn of the threat of heavy industry, acid rain and graffiti

There is a Tasmanian devil on the northwest coast of Western Australia. He sits on a ridge looking back to the Dampier port, where the towers at the nearby liquid natural gas plant flare at dusk.

Another devil sits below him, also looking toward the port. On another ridge made of heaped volcanic rock sits a thylacine, the extinct Tasmanian tiger, the lines difficult to see in the harsh afternoon light. Both species have been extinct on the Australian mainland for more than 2,000 years, but the rocks remember.

Above the thylacine is a large depiction of a giant flat-tailed kangaroo, a species of megafauna that died out more than 30,000 years ago. It, like the extinct thylacine and the departed devils, was captured in real time. They form part of a gallery of more than one million petroglyphs that cover the Burrup peninsula and Dampier archipelago, dating from 50,000 years ago to the mid-19th century.

As the light changes, it reveals images on other rocks. Some are warnings, like the three-fingered spirits that mark the edge of Deep Gorge, one of the best-known sites on the peninsula.

Deep Gorge, like much of the Burrup, is a sacred men’s site, dangerous to enter for the uninitiated. A Ngarluma marni, a symbol made of stacked half-circles, marks it as a Ngarluma place. Twin emu tracks, carved into either sides of the gorge, mark the entrance.

One of the ‘Tasmanian’ devil rock carvings at Deep Gorge, part of a gallery of more than one million petroglyphs that cover the Burrup peninsula and Dampier archipelago. It dates from 50,000 years ago to the mid-19th century.
One of the ‘Tasmanian’ devil rock carvings at Deep Gorge, part of a gallery of more than one million petroglyphs that cover the Burrup peninsula and Dampier archipelago. It dates from 50,000 years ago to the mid-19th century. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

Above them is a shaky-looking arrow carved by a non-Indigenous visitor with an irrepressible urge to imitate what cannot be imitated – the practice and performance of one of the oldest living cultures on earth. This particular arrow was drawn in 2016, but rangers from the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), an association of five traditional owner groups, the Ngarluma, Mardudhunera, Yaburara, Yindjibarndi people and Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo peoples, say they discover fresh graffiti all the time.

Brandon Lockyer, Ngarluma man, is one of the six MAC rangers. He sings out to the country when we arrive, telling it, in a mixture of Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi, that we will not harm this place and this place should not harm us: “Ancestors, we all come here. These people, they come here to learn the country, to walk here. Don’t follow! Don’t grab them! Are you listening to me? Stay where you are. We are not coming here to make trouble.”

The rangers keep a digital catalogue of every petroglyph on the peninsula and the 42 islands of the Dampier archipelago, and are constantly discovering new images.

“I have been coming here since I was 17,” MAC chief executive Peter Jeffries says. “When I come here now, and have a look, sometimes I think: oh, I’ve never seen that before.”

The push for world heritage

The rock art on the Burrup peninsula is older and more extensive than the Lascaux cave paintings.

It is the largest petroglyph site in the world and the single longest depiction of a hunting, fishing, and gathering lifestyle. As well as art, there are stone circles that tell of houses and structures, fish traps and artefact scatters.

Emu tracks rock art at Deep Gorge, a sacred men’s site.
Emu tracks rock art at Deep Gorge, a sacred men’s site. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

In a seemingly innocuous spot beneath power lines next to the Dampier highway, Jeffries points out a man-made stone wall used like a terrace garden to keep the good topsoil in one place so yams and bush tomatoes grow readily.

But where sites like the Lascaux cave are heavily protected, the rock art of the Burrup remains caught in a decades-long fight between culture, tourism, and industry.

On Monday, the Western Australian government signed a statement of intention with MAC to formally pursue an application for world heritage listing.

The agreement is a gesture of good faith by both parties but some traditional owners remain skeptical.

The narrow 30km-long peninsula on the outskirts of Karratha, at the heart of the Australian resource and mining industries, already hosts heavy industry associated with the north-west shelf Karratha gas project and has also been earmarked for future industrial development.

The WA government is pursuing further industrial development and the world heritage listing in earnest, but a briefing note to premier Mark McGowan leaked to the media earlier this year warned that the timing of the latter was “critical” to ensuring industrial development continued.

“This place is very special, very cultural,” says Aunty Tootsie Daniels, Yindjibarndi elder and member of the MAC circle of elders – at the Yantha meeting site.
“This place is very special, very cultural,” says Aunty Tootsie Daniels, Yindjibarndi elder and member of the MAC circle of elders – at the Yantha meeting site. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

According to a Senate inquiry into preserving the rock art, emissions from nearby heavy industry such as the Yara fertiliser plant, which sits 1km from Deep Gorge, could be damaging the engravings. That in turn could be damaging to a world heritage listing.

“If you increase the acidity of the air and the acid is actually forming on the rocks, then we understand that is likely to have an impact on the surface of the rocks,” says Jo McDonald, director of the University of Western Australia’s centre for rock art research and management. “When it rains, you are actually having the rocks washed with an acid, rather than with water.”

McDonald says that while emissions from individual plants like Yara were monitored and regulated, the impact of cumulative industrial emissions on the Burrup were not.

That work is due to start soon as part of the WA government’s as yet unreleased rock art strategy.

“There is no way that industry is going to go away,” McDonald says. “But we have to think of ways of doing it so that it does not impact on rock art.”

Jeffries says that MAC has good relationships with existing industrial players on the Burrup but believed new developments should be placed not here but on the Maitland industrial estate, west of Karratha.

Even areas zoned industrial on the Burrup could contain petroglyphs. “There’s rock art all around here,” he says.

Across the road from Deep Gorge, next to the Yara plant, is an area that has been zoned industrial land zone E. It sits below an area of sawn-down cyclone fencing, which, until 2013, housed 1,800 pieces of rock art that had been picked up by Australian oil and gas company Woodside in the early 1980s during the construction of the Karratha gas plant.

Traditional owners were originally promised the art would only remain in the compound for two weeks. It stayed 32 years – until MAC oversaw a project to have it placed on a nearby ridge that sits above what is now site E.

“At the end of the day, the decision to build another plant is for the state and for the state revenue,” Jeffries said. “But I will be bringing the premier here. To put another plant where it is this badly disturbed, in an area which has already had a negative 30-year impact over Woodside’s image? We just want to be careful.”

‘We fought hard for this place’

For Aunty Tootsie Daniels, a senior Yindjibarndi woman and member of the Murujuga circle of elders, formalising the agreement to pursue world heritage listing is as significant as the ceremony the Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma people held when they were finally granted native title in 2005.

“I just bubble up with joy I think, having our world heritage listing here,” she says. “Just on behalf of the old people that’s gone on before … a lot of work that they put here, to see them talk proudly and so highly of the rock art. It’s like a museum … this place is very special, very cultural.”

Standing stones commemorate the site of the flying foam massacres, which occurred over three months from February to May 1868.
Standing stones commemorate the site of the flying foam massacres, which occurred over three months from February to May 1868. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

Among those who fought hard were her late husband, Mr Daniels, a driving force behind the native title claim. Sitting in the Yantha, a meeting place where most of those native title discussions took place, Daniels says she might cry when the agreement is signed.

“We still fought hard for this place,” she says. “These things are like a heartbeat for us … It’s like our whole life. We want to guard this place, we want to look after it.”

Daniels’ niece, Ngarluma woman Belinda Churnside, was a child during the native title discussions. She’s now chairwoman of MAC and slightly wary of government agreements.

The Burrup and Maitland industrial estates agreement (BMIEA), signed in 2003, allowed the WA government to compulsorily acquire native title rights on the Burrup peninsula for the purpose of industrial development, in exchange for protection of other areas.


“If they was told honestly that would wipe out your native title, I don’t think we would have done that today,” Churnside says.

The Ngarluma people assumed responsibility for looking after the Burrup peninsula in the late 1860s, after the majority of the Yaburara people, who were responsible for most of the rock art, were killed or driven off country in retribution for killing a white man, who the Ngarluma say had taken a Yaburara woman. The killings, which began in February 1868, are known as the flying foam massacres.

The first flying foam massacre site, which sits in the mangroves on the southern side of King Bay, overlooking Dampier port, is marked by two monuments: a plaque erected by the local council and a series of rock spines standing upright on a hill.

The massacre made the Burrup “orphan country”, a dangerous place. When Tootsie was younger, she was told to cover her head with a blanket when her family drove past because it was too dangerous to look.

“It was sacred, very sacred,” she says.

Her husband, a Ngarluma man, introduced her to the country, to the places she could and could not go. She is proud to stand up for him, and for other people who have passed, in the push for international recognition.

“This country knows,” she says. “This country knows already, it’s going to get world heritage. It’s like they’re singing out telling us: look after the country. They want us as guardians to look out for our country.”


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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