The unique archaeology of Barrow Island – much of it frozen in time 7,000 years ago – is the subject of the biggest ARC Discovery grant awarded in Australia this year.
The Federal Government this month announced research grants for 732 major projects and this one, led by UWA’s Peter Veth, Professor of Archaeology in the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management, is the richest, with $1,175,000 over three years.
Christine Casey, Associate Director Research Grants and Finance, said the project would have been assessed as one of the best in the country, with Professor Veth also awarded the Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award. He has worked previously on the archaeology of the nearby Montebello Islands and the Dampier Archipelago.
The Barrow Island Archaeology Project will examine ‘deep-time’ maritime societies in northern Australia, modelled to date back to earlier than 45,000 years ago.
Professor Veth explained that as sea levels rose and flooded access to the island from the mainland about 7,000 years ago, it appears not to have been inhabited again until American whalers and pearlers arrived in the early 19th century.
“It was essentially frozen in time and so provides us with an exceptional record of Indigenous occupation of one of the biggest islands off the northwest coast,” he said.
The people’s responses to changes in sea levels and climate, and isolation from critical resources on the mainland will be mapped, along with the reconstruction of important climatic and ecological records.
The labour history of Indigenous people and the pearling industry will also be profiled by an international group including experts in human behaviour ecology, archaeozoology, maritime archaeology, historical archaeology, arid zone archaeology and climate modelling.
Joining Professor Veth and UWA’s Professor Alistair Paterson are researchers from Stanford, California State, James Cook and Queensland universities, the Western Australian Museum and the Department of Environment and Conservation.
The group will address issues of national and global significance, including the nature and antiquity of Indigenous occupation on coastal landscapes of the North West Shelf; and the impacts on coastal groups of major climate change, drowning of the shelf, then isolation.
The oil and gas industry which has occupied Barrow Island since the 1960s has kept the caves on the western side largely isolated from visitors. “The island has been heavily quarantined which has rendered it a refuge for fauna – what we might call ‘Harry Butler country’,” Professor Veth said.
“During the 1800s, Indigenous people were forced by pearlers to work in the industry, then they were left on the island, virtually imprisoned in a slave labour camp known as Barracoons, until the pearlers returned the next season.”
Professor Paterson said: “We have found glass artefacts that have clearly been made by people from not only the Ashburton region, where we presume most of the indentured labourers would have come from, but also from the Kimberley and even Malaya. Were these people also drafted into this slave labour?”
A new (and ancient) side to the oil and gas island Professor Veth said the traditional owners speaking for Barrow Island, the Thalanjyi people, had wanted this work carried out for a long time and were thrilled to be involved in the ‘deep time’ research.
The research teams will spend up to a couple of months a year working on the island, based on the purpose-built research vessel Whalesong 3, as accommodation on the island is stretched during the resources boom.
(Peter Veth has recently been appointed the inaugural Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter Chair in Rock Art.)
Published in UWA News, 26 November 2012