Art and archaeology of the Dampier Archipelago
The archaeology of the Dampier Archipelago is rich and complex, and includes petroglyphs, various types of stone arrangements, stone quarries, rock shelters, bedrock grinding patches, shell middens and surface shell scatters, and surface scatters of stone artefacts. Some areas also have ceremonial or mythological significance for Aboriginal people today. There are more than 2500 localities registered as ‘sites’ with the Department of Indigenous Affairs, but thousands more certainly exist.
Density of registered sites is generally very high by Australian standards, although it varies in different parts of the Archipelago. Estimates from various surveys range from 17 registered sites per square kilometre to 76 registered sites per square kilometre. Such estimates, however, do not give a truthful picture of the distribution of cultural features within the landscape. The density of individual cultural components is of course much higher. The minimum density of rock art in well-surveyed areas can be as high as 1135 individual motifs per square kilometre, and particular localities may have thousands of motifs. There are very few areas where the distribution and relationships of different cultural components have been mapped in adequate detail. The complexity of associations between different aspects of the archaeological record for the area as a whole is therefore poorly understood.
Petroglyphs on boulder piles
Archaeological investigation in the Dampier Archipelago has mostly been conducted in the context of development and therefore the most detailed information is available for industrial areas on the Burrup. However, because there has never been an inventory of the cultural heritage of the Dampier Archipelago and because there has been hardly any significant research (as distinct from cultural heritage recording programs or surveys associated with development proposals) on any aspect of the heritage of the area, there is no general framework of understanding within which particular locations or individual cultural elements can be assessed. The Dampier Archaeological Project (DAP)—the first large scale archaeological investigation associated with Woodside’s LNG development in the early 1980s—recognised this problem and its impact on the salvage program that the teams were required to undertake. This situation has not changed. Management decisions over the last twenty-five years have not been informed by a broad understanding of regional heritage values on which to base a sound knowledge and understanding of the heritage values of the particular locality. Rather the process of decision making is ad hoc and contingent on the immediate circumstances; cultural heritage receives only peripheral attention. Effectively, the requirements of developers drive the destruction of cultural heritage, and archaeological investigation has been merely a prelude to that destruction.
The original report of the DAP stated that: ‘For all intents and purposes, the Dampier Archipelago exhibits a density of archaeological material sufficient to warrant its designation as a single site complex’ (DAS 1984:13). No subsequent archaeological work has modified this conclusion. What is clear is that the distribution of cultural features is effectively continuous across the whole landscape. There is no area which can be confidently stated to be without evidence of past human activity. It follows that the heritage of the Dampier Archipelago should be considered as a continuous cultural landscape.