The globally significant cultural values of Murujuga

Murujuga (the Dampier Archipelago and surrounds) is ‘home to one of the largest, densest and most diverse collections of rock art in the world’. In recognition of its global significance, the Murujuga Cultural Landscape was added to the tentative World Heritage list in January 2020.

The estimated 1 million rock engravings lie across 37 hectares of the Burrup Peninsula, nearby coastal areas and surrounding islands. The art is ‘visually outstanding, has been produced with superlative technical skill, and has often been deliberately positioned to achieve a particularly high impact on the viewer’.

The engravings reveal ‘expressions of ideation, religion, ancestral cosmology’, and feature a great diversity of images, including simple archaic faces, extinct fauna (the thylacine and a fat-tailed kangaroo), fishes, turtles and dugongs, and records of early European contact such as the Mermaid (a British ship that visited in 1818). They show people ‘engaged in hunting, dancing, ceremony and social union’. Murujuga is also replete with quarries, middens and stone structures.

Five Traditional Owner groups, collectively known as Ngarda-Ngarli, share responsibility for Murujuga – Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi, Yaburara, Mardudhunera and Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo. For the Ngarda-Ngarlil, all rock art in Murujuga Ngurra (Murujuga country) was created by Marrga, the ancestral creator being who shaped the world when it was still soft. Reg Sambo, of the Murujuga Circle of Elders, says when he was young:

… the old people, the Ngarluma people, they tell me some of those rock paintings may not have been made by us Aboriginal people you know, might have been spirits been in the land many millions of years ago. They called it Ngugubura, spiritual beings that lived in the land before and with the Aboriginal people somehow.

For example, Marntawarrura (Black Hills), the highest point on Murujuga, were formed when Waramurrungka, ancestral beings in the form of a flying fox, were turned to stone by a vengeful spirit [108].

The Ngarda-Ngarlil Traditional Owners have set out their vision for management of Murujuga in the Murujuga Cultural Management Plans, one of the most comprehensive and bold plans of its type in Australia. It establishes a clear direction for the management and preservation of the rock art, culture and environment, and surrounding areas with similar cultural and environmental values. The Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, which operates the Murujuga Rangers, is responsible for implementing the plan and jointly manages Murujuga National Park, which was created in 2005 as Western Australia’s 100th national park and the first to be jointly managed with Traditional Owners.

However, the park excludes many areas with rock art and lies next to an industrial site housing the Woodside Pluto natural gas plant, Yara fertiliser and ammonium nitrate plants and the facilities for the Woodside Energy-operated North West Shelf Venture project. There is ongoing tension over industry’s impact on Murujuga’s rock art, and other cultural and environmental values.

In such ways Murujuga encapsulates many of the environmental, cultural and economic strengths and challenges of modern Pilbara, and the uneasy balance between sustaining an extractive resources economy and respecting culture and environment – as described by archaeologist Ken Mulvaney:

Nigh on fifty years of industrial exploitation of the Pilbara has seen the transformation of these art-strewn slopes into one of Western Australia’s largest industrial hubs. … What has lain in tranquil splendour for millennia incalculable now is troubled by the frenzy of modern commerce.