- Elginism - https://www.elginism.com -

Australian cave art must not be destroyed

Normally one hears about cases of artefacts whose original context has been destroyed after the event rather than before. In this case though, a campaign is underway to protect Aboriginal rock carvings in Western Australia.

Sydney Morning Herald [1]

Garrett urged to protect cave art from extraction
Marian Wilkinson, Environment Editor
September 13, 2008

A CAMPAIGN to win World Heritage listing for the Aboriginal rock carvings on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia threatens to push the Rudd Government into a confrontation with the energy giant Woodside Petroleum.

The Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, is coming under pressure from archaeologists, led by the head of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations, Robert Bednarik, to nominate the site. It is believed to hold the largest concentration of rock art in the world and is possibly the first site of human habitation in Australia.

“UNESCO are waiting for Australia to submit it to the World Heritage List,” Mr Bednarik said yesterday, “but it’s a hot potato for the Rudd Government.”

The listing would confront Woodside Petroleum with international monitoring of its operations on the Burrup. Woodside received intense criticism from archaeologists after it moved 170 of the ancient carvings on its lease on the Burrup to build a natural gas production plant, wharf and storage facilities.

The World Archaeological Congress condemned the action in July and pressure is growing to secure more protection for the estimated 300,000 ancient carvings that are spread across 88 square kilometres of the peninsula.

No archaeologists, apart from Woodside’s paid consultants, were allowed to view the removal operation, which shifted the carvings to an unknown spot on the Woodside lease this year. But the company gave photographs of the operation to the Herald this week and a spokesman described it as “successful”, saying no carvings had been damaged or destroyed.

An archaeologist who has studied the carvings for years, Ken Mulvaney, said Woodside’s actions were “unacceptable” and akin to the removal of ancient Greek art works by the British in centuries past. “It’s the equivalent quite literally of the Elgin Marbles, where you take a few friezes from the Parthenon and you house them in the British Museum and it’s argued that’s not cultural vandalism,” he said. “Where carvings sit in the landscape is vital to understanding how people themselves interacted with the environment.”

The Burrup carvings are described by the National Trust as “one of the world’s pre-eminent sites of recorded human evolution”. They depict ancient Aboriginal figures climbing a ship’s mast, a Tasmanian tiger, whales, kangaroos, emus and thousands of Aboriginal ceremonies. It is considered the most significant heritage site in Australia and is often compared to Stonehenge or the cave of Lascaux in France.

The extraordinary hardness of the Burrup rock allowed the carvings to survive, and some are believed to date back more than 20,000 years to the last ice age. Archaeologists believe they are therefore an uninterrupted recording of how human society dealt with the last period of abrupt climate change; and they fear that chemical emissions from the Woodside gas plants, which will double with the new development on the Burrup, could result in long-term damage to the carvings.

The World Monuments Fund has placed the Burrup on its list of the 100 most endangered sites on earth. Since the 1960s, successive WA governments have insisted that the Burrup is central to the state’s resource development. In the 1980s thousands of carvings were removed and many damaged when Woodside built its first LNG plant and port. But Woodside, encouraged by the state Labor government, determined to build its new LNG plant there two years ago.

Last year the former federal environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, agreed to put the carvings on the National Heritage List but excluded the Woodside lease. By then, the WA government had given the go-ahead for the construction of the plant.

WA’s Liberal leader, Colin Barnett, has expressed his strong regret over the destruction of the carvings.