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The public campaign to protect precious Indigenous rock-art in the Pilbara and Kimberley could be somewhat of a double-edged sword.
While encouraging mining companies to contribute towards the protection of the rock-art, the campaign has also drawn public attention to rock-art, placing it under even greater threat.
“Vandalism and dust from busy roads are now two of the biggest threats to rock-art in the north of the state,” she said. Lichen, water run-off and wasp nests can also destroy Indigenous art that is thousands of years old.
The new centre has been established to help protect rock-art through advocacy, research and developing partnerships with Indigenous groups to create sustainable heritage strategies.
The Centre’s core values also include collaboration (with indigenous communities), understanding (through research) and communication (to both the academic and broader community).
“Everybody knows about the rock-art of France and Spain,” Professor Balme said. “But that ceased about 10,000 years ago. The great thing about Australian rock-art is that it is a continuing tradition and part of a living culture.”
Unlike most other parts of the world, knowledge about rock-art remains strong among Australian groups, with stories about symbolism and meaning being passed down from generation to generation.
Rock-art teaches us about people’s stories, history, relationships to land, social boundaries, belief systems and interaction with others.
There are more than 100,000 documented rock-art sites in Australia and many more still unrecorded.
Evidence of human history
WA is recognised internationally as home to some of the most spectacular rock-art in the world. Professor Balme said few landscapes offered as much tangible evidence of human history as the Pilbara and Kimberley regions.
“And it is still continuing. In some parts of Australia, it is traditional practice for some Indigenous people to touch up the rock-art, to renew the power of the images,” she said. “Others are transferring rock-art images onto other media such as canvas.”
The traditions of touching up and adding layers to older pictures produces a valuable record of change. Professor Balme said that, in some areas, where new art was superimposed over older art, you could see a change in the animals represented. “When you see a change, say from water animals to more land animals, you can work out how the environment has changed over time.”
She said figurative art that depicted people, for example, wearing headdresses, carrying dilly bags and using spears, could tell us about dress and material culture, even though these items had never been found in archaeological excavations.
Interest and expertise in rock-art is spread across the University. The centre’s activities involve staff from the School of Indigenous Studies, the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, the WA Supercomputer Project, the Energy and Minerals Institute and the disciplines of Archaeology, Chemistry and Fine Arts.
Funding also comes from a variety of sources: the Australian Research Council (ARC), National Geographic, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, resource companies including Rio Tinto and BHP, and Indigenous groups.
“We want to keep on developing relationships with Indigenous communities so that we can help them to make their own management decisions about their rock-art,” Professor Balme said. “And we want to build capacity among our researchers so we can train postgraduate students to continue the work. There are very few rock-art experts in Australia – you can count them on one hand.
“We need funding to develop big continuing projects to train and encourage young researchers, especially Indigenous researchers.”
The Centre brings together the expertise of Professor Balme; ARC postdoctoral fellow Dr Liam Brady; Assistant Professor Martin Porr (who has a background in European rock-art); Assistant Professor Blaze Kwaymullina from the School of Indigenous Studies; Chair of Archaeology, Associate Professor Alistair Paterson; Director of Eureka Archaeological Research and Consulting Dr Kate Morse; Winthrop Professor Ian Mclean and Assistant Professor Darren Jorgensen from Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts; the Berndt Museum’s Director, Dr John Stanton; and Winthrop Professor John Watling, a forensic chemist with experience in ochre provenancing and dating techniques.
Assistant Professor Martin Porr recently ran an international workshop on the controversial Gwion-Gwion rock-art of the Kimberley. There has long been disagreement about the age of the art (estimated to be between 3000 and 17,000 years old) and whether it was created by non-Indigenous people.
Late rock-art expert Grahame Walsh claimed the images of large, finely-painted and elegant human figures in elaborate headdress were created by a pre-Aboriginal race; however, this claim has been roundly criticised and rejected by both Aboriginal communities and archaeologists. Professor Porr said this theory had critical implications for indigenous rights and native title.
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