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28 July 2008
Australia's ancient Aboriginal rock art at risk

Australia's greatest ancient Aboriginal rock art is at risk of being damaged or destroyed because it sits at the epicentre of the country's resources boom, experts say.
     The etchings of men and animals on the rocks of the Burrup Peninsula, some of which are believed to be up to 30,000 years old, lie in Western Australia's remote and mineral-laden Pilbara region. Images carved onto the red rocks scattering the landscape include kangaroos, lizards and emu tracks as well as the extinct native Tasmanian tiger which died out on the mainland 6,000 years ago. Among the most significant panels are those showing human faces and activities and what experts believe are mythical figures.
     But the peninsula is also seeing increasing industrial activity, making it the only place in Australia to feature on the World Monuments Fund's list of the most endangered sites. Archaeologist and anthropologist Sue Smalldon believes the rock art has suffered since mining took off in the Pilbara in the 1960s. She said the threat to the art has intensified in recent years as mining and energy companies drain the region of iron ore, natural gas and other resources.
     Smalldon cites the removal of rock art from the area by energy producer Woodside Petroleum to build a new plant, as an indicator of how industrial development threatens the works. Woodside said it tried to avoid rock engravings when it designed its Burrup LNG Park but that 170 boulders containing art which could not be avoided were moved to nearby natural settings with the guidance of indigenous custodians. But Smalldon is unimpressed. "It's like saying Stonehenge is a round circular site, let's remove two of the stones," she said. "You're removing a percentage of the rock art and therefore reducing the significance of it. You've got to think of it as the Aboriginal people think of it - as a whole. They see it as a place, they don't see it as individual rock art."
     Smalldon has taken other affronts in her explorations over the past seven years including crude graffiti scratched into rocks bearing thousand-year-old images and construction camps built around sacred Aboriginal men's sites. Part of the problem is the lack of management for the art works which are scattered over 88 square kilometres around the peninsula. The government placed the Burrup rock art on the National Heritage List in mid-2007 but as yet there are no fenced-off areas and no walkways to guide visitors to the sites. The lack of management also means it is possible for theft to occur. The worst case involves vandals removing at least one rock face with power tools.
     Robert Bednarik, who since discovering the rock art in the 1960s has been a passionate defender of the area, said the industrial development of the Burrup was an 'enormous planning blunder' given the importance of the art. "The only rock art, the only petroglyphs that you are going to see 100 years from now are those very, very deeply carved. And they of course are a small minority," he said. Woodside and the government deny the assertion, saying air monitoring on the Burrup has found air emissions to be well below national and international environmental and health standards and are not impacting rock art. But local Aboriginal leaders such as Wilfred Hicks, from the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo people which claim a connection to the Burrup, remain concerned about the site. "I'm very worried about it. All my people are worried about it because it's destroying all the Aboriginal art," he said. "To me, there's enough development now, I don't think there should be any more."

Sources: AFP, Yahoo! News (24 July 2008)

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