Tens of thousands of Indigenous rock art treasures in Western Australia's remote Pilbara region will be researched, catalogued and promoted under a six-year, $1.08 million agreement with leading international mining group Rio Tinto.
The primary focus of the research will be one of the world's richest collections of Indigenous rock art at the National Heritage-listed Dampier Archipelago, about 1250km north of Perth.
The rock art is known to be thousands of years old - it includes pictures of thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) which became extinct on the Australian mainland about 3,500 years ago - and archaeologists will continue to develop modern technology to more accurately date its origins.
In a Perth ceremony today, The University of Western Australia and Rio Tinto announced the agreement to establish the Rio Tinto Chair of Rock Art Studies and the appointment of leading Australian rock art specialist UWA Professor Jo McDonald to the position.
Acting UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Bill Louden said the Rio Tinto Chair in Rock Art Studies would significantly advance global knowledge and recognition of Pilbara rock art.
"The Indigenous rock art of the Pilbara is of world-wide interest and this collaboration with Rio Tinto will allow our University to study, catalogue and protect that priceless heritage for generations to come," Professor Louden said.
Rio Tinto President, Pilbara Operations, Greg Lilleyman, who is also a member of UWA's Energy and Minerals Institute Board, said Rio Tinto had partnered with the University over several years on projects to increase our understanding of the significant rock art of the Burrup.
"This sponsorship of the Chair further develops this relationship with UWA, as well as with the Traditional Owners of Murajuga. Along with other projects, this will support Rio Tinto's drive to conduct leading-practice heritage management in Western Australia," he said.
Professor McDonald will also become Director of UWA's Centre for Rock Art Research and Management.
"Deepening our understanding of Indigenous knowledge is a key priority of this University and we are indeed fortunate in Western Australia to have this rich heritage on our doorstep," Professor Louden said. "We have made a deliberate effort to attract world-renowned researchers in the field to our University to further that knowledge."
The naming of the Rio Tinto chair follows the announcement in February of the Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art, established with a $1.5 million gift from these Melbourne-based philanthropic organisations.
The Rio Tinto funding will support research into and the recording of rock art, and this work, done in collaboration with the relevant Indigenous communities, will enhance its responsible management and protection, and increase public knowledge of rock art.
UWA has a strong history of collaboration with Rio Tinto. This year will be the third year of a joint rock art recording field school at Happy Valley on the Burrup Peninsula involving Rio Tinto and UWA staff and 12 undergraduate students.
About Professor McDonald
Professor McDonald, who has been an adjunct senior research fellow at the Australian National University and a cultural heritage management practitioner, is one of Australia's leading specialists in the study of rock art. She was Principal Investigator on the Canning Stock Route project (Rock Art and Jukurrpa) and was last year awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. Her current research focus is rock art production in arid zones, and she is studying how people have used rock art through time and in different environmental conditions in the Australian Western Desert and the American Great Basin.
About the Dampier Archipelago
The Dampier Archipelago is on the National Heritage List and is being considered for nomination to the World Heritage List. In 2006, the Australian Heritage Council (AHC) found that the Dampier Archipelago (including the Burrup Peninsula) contains one of the richest concentrations of rock engravings and stone arrangements in Australia making it of outstanding national heritage significance.
The area contains tens of thousands of engravings, with richly detailed images of water birds, crabs, crayfish, kangaroos, turtles and fish. A prolific number of schematised human figures demonstrate a complex record which includes details of material culture and regional social connections through the Pilbara.
This rock art demonstrates long term human occupation of this area and documents major climatic changes over time. The exceptionally high density of stone features includes fish traps, complex circular arrangements, and standing stones ranging from single monoliths through to extensive alignments of three or four hundred stones. The Dampier Archipelago is a significant cultural landscape and the study of its rock art will contribute significantly to a number of Australia's national research priorities.
Professor Jo McDonald (+61 8) 6488 4306 / (+61 4) 18 162 781
(Rio Tinto Chair of Rock Art Studies, UWA)
Michael Sinclair-Jones (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 00 700 783
Gervase Greene (Manager, Media and (+61 8) 9327 2975 / (+61 4) 08 098 572
Communications Iron Ore, Rio Tinto)