Australian Apocalypse. The Story of Australia’s Greatest Cultural Monument
By Robert Bednarik
Melbourne: Occasional AURA Publication No. 14. Australian Rock Art Research Association Inc., 2006.
Reviewed by Ian S. McIntosh
The moral outrage of the global citizen at the wanton destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 now has a parallel in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, a huge semi-arid zone of mountains and plains that is home to immense iron-ore and off-shore natural gas reserves. Here, we are witnessing the planned and senseless destruction by a state government hell-bent on development, of what is undoubtedly the greatest single collection of petroglyphs (and also stone assemblages) to be found anywhere in the world.
The book under review concerns Bednarik’s 30-year fight to save the Dampier Archipelago, and in particular, a part of it known as Burrup, or Murujuga. At issue is the fate of over a million richly decorated granophyre boulders, a unique expression of human creativity; the only legacy of the Yaburrara Aborigines, who disappeared under the onslaught of a genocidal campaign by state police in the mid-1800s.
Considered by many to be the most significant non-European cultural heritage property in Australia, Murujuga’s outstanding Aboriginal art shares a narrow strip of coastline with massive hydrocarbon and iron-ore processing and loading plants, and their associated deep-water harbors, railway and other conveyance lines, and of course, growing townships. The impact has been immense.
As Bednarik points out, archaeologists working for the mining industry have routinely “studied” the threatened rock art, but their goal has always been to facilitate industrial development, including supervising its large-scale removal. Over the years, literally thousands of engraved rocks have been moved and deposited in a fenced “temporary” storage area. Since the 1960s, an estimated 25 percent of these masterpieces have been destroyed. The increasing acidity of the rainwater due to the gaseous emissions of the industrial operations has also inflicted a marked deterioration of the surviving petroglyphs.
Bednarik, who is president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations, has campaigned tirelessly, and often single-handedly, to rescue this precious precinct from desecration, but he had not banked on the viciousness of his opponents. Between 2003 and 2004, for example, more than 100 standing stones were toppled in a blatant act of vandalism by persons unknown. According to Aboriginal elders from neighboring clans, these megaliths represent the spirits of the deceased Yaburrara; the only memorial to their untimely demise.
For this reviewer, one of the strongest arguments for the protection of this site comes far too late in the text. In a chapter on Bednarik’s supposed ‘rediscovery’ of the art in the 1960s, we learn that at the dawn of Western Australia’s mineral boom, there was a plan to develop nearby Depuch Island as the site of a deep-water harbor. But Depuch was rejected by the government on the basis of an archaeological report that described a mere 5,000 rock art motifs located there. The rock art of the Dampier archipelago, in this flawed report, was deemed to be of lesser significance. And yet, there are at least one hundred times as many motifs at Murujuga and, as the many beautiful photos in this book attest, the art sites are infinitely richer both in design and originality. The latter became a no-go area for developers, setting the stage for the large-scale construction we see now in and around the Dampier Peninsula.
Murujuga is Bednarik’s promised land, and, reading between the lines, he is their self-appointed and would-be savior. He breathes fire and brimstone into the text and predicts no less than a ‘mega-global’ catastrophe when the growing stockpile of explosive chemicals housed around Dampier are subjected to inevitable tidal inundation or other interference. I sighed with relief when I read, in the penultimate and final chapters, how the battle to save Murujuga had moved beyond his own Australian Rock Art Research Association, and had been taken on by Aboriginal elders in the Pilbara, local residents of the mining towns, and also by national and international organizations, including the National Trust of Australia and the World Monuments Fund. This is a David and Goliath struggle; the Pilbara is the economic powerhouse of Western Australia.
Currently, there are plans before the state government to dramatically expand petrochemical development at Murujuga, and yet there is no practical reason why this industry could not be situated in the nearby coastal plains, which are unoccupied and less environmentally and culturally significant. As it stands, there remains no management plan for what is Australia’s largest cultural monument, and development in and around the rock art precinct continues to be piecemeal; unplanned, uncoordinated. Aborigines have no voice in the decision-making process because they have no title to the land.
Bednarik, his fellow campaigners, and now I, are calling for:
The inclusion of the entire rock-art and standing-stone precinct of Murujuga in a national park, and nomination of the Dampier Archipelago for UNESCO World Heritage status;
The return of all untenanted land to surviving Aboriginal clans;
The permanent installation of a rock-art conservator-ranger, who would have full jurisdiction over any rock art on land leased to developers; and the preservation of the integrity of this cultural asset for its tourism potential for the future enjoyment of all.
To find out how you can get involved in protecting this rock art, go to the Cultural Survival website at www.cs.org
Ian S. McIntosh is a senior editorial advisor for Cultural Survival and is the Director of International Partnerships at Indiana University-Purdue University.