Rock art image of a macropod with a snake motif on an adjacent block. This macropod has a distinct bulge to the tail which may be depicting an unknown, extinct Pilbara species.

Half a century and 40,000 years of culture: The industrialisation of the Pilbara

Large-scale mining came to the Pilbara relatively late, iron ore since the mid-1960s, and gold, tin and other minor prospecting activities a century before, from the 1870s. Aboriginal people came into this same region at least 40,000 years ago, providing a rich cultural tapestry across the landscape. Of this cultural heritage legacy, the most obvious and visually stunning is their rock art. Arguably, the greatest body of petroglyphs (engraved rock art) in the world is that within the Dampier Archipelago, including Burrup Peninsula, where it is estimated that at least one million images exist. This same place now houses one of Australia’s busiest bulk-handling ports, shipping both iron ore and liquefied natural gas. This is a landscape that has seen commercial exploitation since Europeans arrived in the nineteenth century to take the whales and pearl shell from the waters of the Archipelago, changing irrevocably the life of the original inhabitants. But it is within the last fifty years that mineral exploitation has impacted so much on the cultural legacy of Pilbara people.

Pilbara district of northwest Western Australia.

Two hundred kilometres to the east are the Port Hedland operations, a location of comparable shipping movements and also an area in which rock art can be found. Inland of these ports are the mines and rail infrastructure which feed a world market hungry for Australia’s iron ore. These mines and haulage routes cut into a landscape full of cultural relics, not least the rock art associated with the Yule River, Abydos Plain, and the Chichester and Hammersley Range. The rock art throughout the region has long been recognised as significant heritage assets, reflecting the spiritual beliefs of the original inhabitants of this land.[1]

Some of the mines and two of the ports which now service the ever-growing Pilbara mining industry were established prior to heritage protection legislation, before Aboriginal people became Australian citizens and ahead of Australians losing their cultural cringe. This may explain but not excuse the wanton destruction and ignorance of Australia’s Aboriginal heritage. Now in the twenty-first century such disregard should not be sanctioned. Worldwide condemnation occurred when the Taliban destroyed the fourteenth-century Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Yet the last few years has seen a rail-line constructed through the Woodstock–Abydos Rock Art reserve, a gas-processing plant placed within ancient and spectacular petroglyphs on Burrup Peninsula, and expansions of port facilities set amongst the rock art at Port Hedland, Cape Lambert and Cape Preston. Mines have expanded or are newly developed across the Pilbara, impacting not just on the rock art but other important cultural heritage sites. Even Barrow Island, an A-Class Nature Reserve, has not been spared from the hydrocarbon industry.

Places of incalculable aesthetic and historical value are endangered by mining development. Inadequacies, either through State heritage legislation or commercial pressures have resulted in management issues and compromise when it comes to cultural protection. There are also misguided perceptions held that archaeological places can be moderated to ensure industry is not disrupted. For example, during the 2002 Native Title hearing on the Burrup Peninsula, the State Government was asked about the impact of industrial emissions on rock art. The government representative responded by saying that protection could be achieved by either applying plastic sheets coating the rocks or by constructing shelters over the rock art, as is done in other parts of the world[2]—this, over a place that contains upwards of one million images within some 300 kilometres extending across numerous islands.

Image of a face peering out from the rock. Such petroglyphs belong to the earlier phase of rock art production; the gas flares add to the impact of the liquified natural gas plant at Withnell Bay on Burrup Peninsula
Image of a face peering out from the rock. Such petroglyphs belong to the earlier phase of rock art production; the gas flares add to the impact of the liquified natural gas plant at Withnell Bay on Burrup Peninsula 

The dilemma that has come to define the Pilbara, where high-value ore extraction and hydrocarbon enterprises are sited in places of outstanding ecological and cultural significance, is the complexity of political, social and economic pre-eminence. Boom-driven developments set up rival priorities between international company profits and mining royalties, and that of ecological and cultural merits. But there are no economic minerals present in Dampier Archipelago. In fact, the iron ore deposits are hundreds of kilometres inland and the gas reserves are offshore. Associated industry and resource infrastructure could have been located in adjacent areas with less important ecological and archaeological worth.

What existed in the Dampier Archipelago is a unique association of cultural heritage and natural environment which comprises a significant and extended cultural landscape formed through the interaction of people with the environment over many tens of thousands of years. The rock art and other archaeological features reflect the conditions when the area comprised hills and ranges in a vast coastal plain, the coming of the last Ice Age, then the formation of the archipelago as sea levels rose with the subsequent warming of the planet. Nowhere else is such dramatic environmental change reflected in a seemingly continuous production of rock art images.

Some of the earliest art suggests a sophisticated society with links extending across the mid-latitudes of this continent. Elaborately designed human faces peer from the rocks within the Dampier Archipelago and eastward, through the Calvert Ranges and Cleland Hills to Carbine Creek in western Queensland. Included in this continental spread of images are others, of intricate geometric construction, and figures which display elongated torsos decorated by dots, bars or lines. There are also figures unique to this area, which now forms the islands of the archipelago. Small human-like images with a separated dot head are arranged in dynamic postures. Their antiquity is only guessed at, but certainly must date to before the last Ice Age some 22,000 years ago.

Burrup rock art depicts the array of fauna that is present through changing ecological regimes. The earlier phases are dominated by emus and macropods, but include reptiles, thylacine, echidna and eagles. Later, there is the addition of marine fauna, dominated by fish and turtles. There are also changes in the way human figures are portrayed and in the structure of geometric designs. The whole has a significant and spiritual connection for the Aboriginal people, not just the local groups but for those far inland. Here are mythological narratives which bind this place to the interior. It is not just the mining company’s rail lines which connect the inland to the coast.

Rock art (petroglyphs), Dolphin Island, on the Dampier Archipelago.
Rock art (petroglyphs), Dolphin Island, on the Dampier Archipelago. 

The peninsula is more than just a pictographic record of social evolution in a small part of remote Australia. It is a unique record of the transition of artistic phases reflecting the changes in climate, in fauna and in beliefs down through the millennia. Aeons of human activity have transformed this place into a religious and sculptured landscape in accord with the surrounding environment. Nigh on fifty years of industrial exploitation of the Pilbara has seen the transformation of these art-strewn slopes into one of Western Australia’s largest industrial hubs.

Significantly, the destruction that has occurred within the Dampier Archipelago is the consequence of protecting rock art at another location. In 1964, following a Western Australian Museum investigation of rock art on Depuch Island, the then Minister for Education and Native Welfare, E.H.M. Lewis announced “that the outlet ports for this industry will be at Port Hedland and at King Bay in the Dampier Archipelago.”[3] This change in the industrialisation programme for the Pilbara occurred in recognition that the petroglyphs were seen as the “most important collection of Aboriginal engravings in Australia.” In protecting this one small place, the destruction of rock art at two other locations has ensued, thereby setting a pattern of cultural heritage vandalism which has continued over nearly fifty years, not only at King Bay and Port Hedland but which has expanded across the Pilbara.

Unabated industrial development within a place of outstanding cultural heritage value is exemplified by what has taken place at King Bay and the rest of Burrup Peninsula. There seems to have been scant regard for the heritage values of the area, although in 1964 there was a request to have the Dampier Archipelago, including what is now Burrup Peninsula, declared a Reserve or National Park. But this plan was shelved at the request of the Mines Department.[4] Small parcels of land have been variously protected over the intervening years; some for their natural conservation values, others for heritage values. In July 2007 much of the Dampier Archipelago, including Burrup Peninsula, was placed on Australia’s National Heritage List in recognition of its outstanding importance due to the extraordinary diversity and density of rock art and other archaeological features.

For the traditional owners, after a ten year period of negotiation and legislative amendments, in January 2013, forty-two per cent of Burrup Peninsula was declared a National Park. Murujuga National Park is owned by the Aboriginal people and co-managed with the Department of Parks and Wildlife. The boundaries of the park do not take into account the natural or cultural values, but rather the land granted is those areas which the government has not earmarked for industrial development.

Western Australia has a long history of prioritising developments over cultural or natural heritage and social impacts. The Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, for example, which began in 1898. Devised and managed by C.Y. O’Connor, a pipeline and pumping stations were constructed between Mundaring Weir, near Perth and Kalgoorlie, to move water 530 kilometres to supply the goldfields population. In the promotion of such commercial enterprises, scant regard is given to either impact on cultural heritage or the concerns of the Aboriginal people whose lands these developments affect. In recent years there has been change, with some companies like Rio Tinto entering into agreements with Native Title parties. Parts of these agreements deal with site protection and engagement with the Aboriginal people in regard to heritage and land management. The more socially enlightened actions have come late into the industrialisation of the Pilbara.

We are left with a dramatic landscape of rugged rocky terrain of rich reds and browns, nestled amongst spinifex green slopes and azure-blue waters, forming a backdrop for the stunning array of petroglyphs. Rising above all this are the giant metal constructions of the gas plant flare towers, the roar of the flames heard throughout the landscape, their emissions clearly visible across the skies. The constant movement of trains feeding the iron ore stock-piles and helicopters whirring overhead ferrying workers to and from the gas platforms and ships, slice the environmental harmony. What has lain in tranquil splendour for millennia incalculable now is troubled by the frenzy of modern commerce. The songs of Murujuga that once rang out in harmony with the rock art and ancestral spirits are now marred by the chatter of global exploitation.

Turtle motifs on a block overlooking a bay on the east side of Dolphin Island. There are five species of turtle present in the waters of the Dampier Archipelago.
Turtle motifs on a block overlooking a bay on the east side of Dolphin Island. There are five species of turtle present in the waters of the Dampier Archipelago. 


  1. ^ For example, H.E. Petri, and A.S. Shultz,
  2. ^ Transcript of proceedings, Native Title Tribunal, Wednesday 6 November 2002.
  3. ^ Press Release 23 December 1964, in Ride and Neuman (eds) 1964 Depuch Island, The Western Australian Museum, special publications No. 2.
  4. ^ Robin Chapple, paper presented at the Parks and Protected Areas Forum, Fremantle September 2007.

Dr Ken Mulvaney is an archaeologist and anthropologist who has worked in the Northern Territory and Western Australia since the 1980s on Aboriginal culture and rock art, in particular the petroglyphs of the Pilbara, and their protection. He is Adjunct Associate Professor at The University of Western Australia. His latest book Murujuga Marni: the rock art of the macropod hunters and the mollusc harvesters on the Burrup petroglyphs published by the University of WA Press, is to be launched in December 2013.