Heritage Values of the Dampier Rock Art Precinct
There is a general consensus that the Dampier Rock Art Precinct is a place of outstanding heritage significance because of the extraordinary range and density of its archaeological remains and particularly because of the richness of its rock art. The place is significant to contemporary Aboriginal groups in the Pilbara region, particularly the recognised Native Title claimants, for its cultural and spiritual associations. It is clear that the Dampier Rock Art Precinct has been occupied for a long time period. Evidence of occupation can be unequivocally demonstrated archaeologically over the last 9000 years. There are strong grounds for inferring that evidence for occupation goes back much further than this to the earliest colonisation of arid and semi-arid central Australia at least 30,000 years ago.
Specific localities on the Burrup have been declared Protected Places under the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972-1980) and some have also been listed on or nominated for the Register of the National Estate. The heritage values of the Dampier Rock Art Precinct are comparable in terms of richness, complexity and diversity of the archaeological record, and the likely antiquity of occupation, to other Australian places identified as of World Heritage Significance, such as Kakadu, the Willandra Lakes and the South-West Tasmanian Wilderness. The rock art represents a level of artistic achievement comparable to Kakadu, and like Kakadu, the area has strong cultural and spiritual significance for Aboriginal people. The Budj Bim National Heritage landscape in south-west Victoria, comprising the Tyrendarra lava flow and the associated remains of Aboriginal channels, weirs, ponds and traps for harvesting eels and other fish, was the first place inscribed on the Australian National Heritage list. This is one of the few parallels in Australia for the modification of the landscape that may be represented by the stone ‘terraces’, ‘pits’ and alignments in the Dampier Archipelago.
Although the outstanding heritage values of the area have been recognised for more than a quarter of a century, the industrial development that began in the 1960s has continued unabated. It is not known how much of the cultural heritage of the Dampier Archipelago was lost before 1972, when Aboriginal sites received legislative protection under the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972-1980). There have been several attempts to estimate how much of the rock art and archaeology of the Dampier area has been destroyed since 1972. Such attempts are fraught with difficulty for a number of reasons. First, the records in the Site Register have mostly been collected within the context of industrial development and are therefore not necessarily fully representative of the whole area. The results from the CALM survey are not currently available through the Site Register. This is the only systematic site recording program in any part of the Archipelago that has been conducted outside the context of development and designed to provide a statistically valid sample of cultural heritage. Second, the way the data have been collected and stored in the Site Register is dictated by administrative requirements and is of limited analytical use. The complexity and density of cultural heritage in the Dampier Archipelago is such that registered sites often contain several cultural elements in varying combinations. The definition of registered site is also arbitrary. A single registered site may contain one petroglyph or thousands. Therefore, simple counts of registered sites are misleading. Third, nearly all the archaeological investigation in the Archipelago has been directed towards site recording and salvage. There has been almost no analytical research and therefore there is no sound basis for assigning significance or making predictive statements about the nature and distribution of cultural features. Even if the various estimates of the number of sites destroyed are valid, there is no way of knowing the significance of what has been lost.
The results of the Dampier Archaeological Project in the early 1980s should have made it clear that:
· the whole Dampier Archipelago was extraordinarily rich in archaeological heritage,
· documentation of the resource, and development of a comprehensive management plan and a framework within which significance could be assessed was a matter of urgency,
· allowing further industrial development in the absence of such a plan would result in irrevocable damage to the heritage values of the area, and
· the extraordinary density of cultural material in the Dampier Archipelago as a whole showed that the basic units of management should be site complexes or entire landscapes.
The CALM representative survey in 1993 did not modify these results and further reinforced the conclusion that what was required was the assessment and management of site complexes.
Professional archaeologists and other scientists involved in the conservation of cultural heritage increasingly recognise the importance of managing sites in the context of their relationships with other sites and their landscape. A basic prerequisite for effective and meaningful cultural heritage management is a thorough understanding of the values of the place, based on sound information. In Australia, the standards for this are set by the Burra Charter. In the case of the Dampier Archipelago, this would require basic documentation and research in order to characterise the physical record and assess the range of archaeological, ethnographic, historic, aesthetic, scientific and social values. None of this has been done.
he management of Aboriginal heritage in the Dampier Archipelago is locked into crisis mode, responding to individual applications to destroy sites under the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972-1980). There is no way to make meaningful assessments of significance and, consequently sensible decisions about cultural features affected by development proposals, because no one really knows what is there. It is impossible to answer the most basic questions—about the distribution of different types of features, whether particular cultural features are common or rare, how cultural features are related to one another and to their environmental context, and what the differences and similarities are between different parts of the Archipelago, between different islands and even between different valley systems. It is not possible to identify which motifs are old and which are relatively recent, except at the most general level, nor how long the time span was during which they were produced. The little that is known is recorded in the Site Register held by DIA, which is itself riddled with errors, inconsistencies and gaps.