Alongside the Yaburara and Won-gg-tt-oo, with lawmen Wilfred Hicks and Tim Douglas, stand up for Muruga's 50,000 years of history

Gerry Georgatos
According to the National Trust of Australia (WA) Dampier Archipelago contains the largest concentration of rock art in the world, estimated at perhaps a million petroglyphs. The art is extraordinary in its range and diversity. Associated with the art is a rich archaeological record, including camp sites, quarries, shell middens and stone features. Many motifs and some stone features are connected to the beliefs and ceremonial practices of Aboriginal people in the Pilbara region today. The entire Archipelago is a continuous cultural landscape providing a detailed record of both sacred and secular life reaching from the present back into the past, perhaps to the first settlement of Australia.

The Dampier Archipelago is on the Indian Ocean coast of the Pilbara of Western Australia. It is made up of 42 islands and islets of which Dampier Island is the largest. As a result of industrial development, Dampier Island is now an artificial peninsula known as the Burrup Peninsula. The rugged landscape with its massive boulder-strewn ridges, plateaus and steep-sided valleys contrasts markedly with the broad low-lying plain of the mainland.

A series of ridges and rocky hills made up of massive boulders dominates the landscape of the Archipelago. These result from ancient weathering and erosion of the pre-Cambrian volcanic lava flows. The dominant rock type is granophyres, particularly on the western side, though gabrro, granite and dolerite also occur. Steep-sided valleys provide access corridors through the rugged terrain and are important sources of water and shelter. The coastline offers a complex array of different environments including rocky shores, sandy beaches, tidal mudflats and mangroves.

The combination of cultural wealth and scientific potential of the Dampier Archipelago has been known since the 1960s. Repeated archaeological investigations of the area over the last forty years have reinforced the view that the cultural landscape of the Dampier Archipelago is highly significant by international standards and demands comprehensive study. Nevertheless, the same period has seen the planning and establishment of major industrial and infrastructure developments in the area with little regard for its heritage values. There is still no comprehensive management plan based on sound archaeological research and consultation with local Aboriginal people. Heritage consultants investigate and make recommendations on specific projects in a vacuum without a comprehensive understanding of the values of the area as a whole. As a result, the outstanding heritage values of the area continue to be compromised by short term industrial imperatives. Sites are physically destroyed by construction, eroded or polluted by industrial emissions, damaged deliberately or accidentally by visitors as population grows and road access develops. Some sites survive, but in a radically transformed and unsympathetic landscape.

The first settlement of Australia occurred at least by about 50,000 years ago during the last major glacial period, or Ice Age, when global climates were generally cooler than today, the polar ice caps were much larger and sea levels were up to 130 metres lower. At this period the Dampier Ranges would have been a series of low rocky hills and ridges rising out of a flat plain and the sea would have been more than 100km distant. The Dampier Archipelago in its present form is a drowned landscape. It formed over several thousand years as the polar ice caps melted and sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age. The shoreline stabilised about 6,000 years ago, forming rock platforms and boulder beaches, with gradual accumulation of sand and silt in more sheltered bays. The complex terrestrial and marine ecosystems of the Archipelago and the resulting abundance and diversity of animal and plants would have provided particularly rich resources for Aboriginal peoples. However, the sheltered valleys and relatively reliable water sources of the rugged landscape would have also have provided an important focus for people at times of lowered sea level.

The National Trust of Australia (WA) and the state Greens MLC Robin Chapple nominated the Burrup peninsula to the National Trust Endangered Places List in 2002. In 2003, the World Monuments Fund added to its list of Most Endangered Places the first time an Australian place had been included. In 2004, the National Trust, the Native Title Claimants and Robert Bednarik, President of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations, nominated the Dampier Archipelago to the National Heritage list, under the new Commonwealth Heritage legislation.

Aboriginal peoples knew the Burrup as Muruga, meaning “hip bone sticking out”. The group inhabiting the Dampier Archipelago and the adjacent mainland are usually called the Yaburara. These peoples were part of the Ngarluma group in both language and culture. Although William Dampier anchored off one of the islands and saw smoke in 1699, it was Philip Parker King’s mapping expedition that first encountered Aboriginal peoples in 1818. The first sustained contact was not until 1861 when F.T. Gregory’s ship, the Dolphin, anchored at Hearson Cove for nearly three months and Gregory established a base from which to explore the Pilbara. European pastoralists forced their way into the region and this proceeded rapidly as a result of a Gregory’s reports and the Dampier Archipelago became a base for whaling and pearling. Aboriginal people were exploited as indentured labour, and this, together with introduced diseases, had a devastating impact on their society. In 1868, the spearing of a police officer led to reprisal raids by a force of police and settlers, sworn in as special constables. This resulted in the deaths of men, women and children. The impact on the community was catastrophic and as a result, the Yaburara no longer exist as a distinct group, although some Aboriginal peoples in the region identify as Yaburara descendants. The Yaburara were closing linked to neighbouring groups through family relationships and ceremonial ties.

Despite the destruction of Yaburara peoples, Ngarluma peoples, living now mainly in Roebourne, retain strong cultural associations with the Dampier Archipelago. The neighbouring coastal Mardudunera also have traditional links with the area, as do the Yindjibarndi whose country is mainly further inland.

There is no doubt that the Dampier Archipelago is part of a living cultural tradition. Aboriginal people believe that the petroglyphs are the work of the marga – ancestral creator beings – in the Dreaming. They are a permanent reminder of the Law and retain their spiritual power. Looking after the petroglyphs is an inherited and ongoing responsibility. Pilbara peoples have songs and mythology for many of the images depicted in petroglyphs on the Dampier Archipelago, as well as on the mainland and Depuch Island. Many of the images have cultural meaning over and above straightforward depictions and would likely have played a role in education and initiation.

Three overlapping Native Title claims in the Pilbara include the Dampier Archipelago. However, the Federal Court determined in 2003 that Native Title no longer exists over the Dampier Archipelago. The Native Title claimants have been in protracted negotiation with the state government over industrial development on the Burrup peninsula and a mediated agreement was reached in January 2003 – Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estates Agreement. This resulted in transfer of part of the Burrup to the Native Title claimants for joint management with the Department of Conservation and Land Management under a lease-back arrangement. Significant resources were committed for developing a management plan and development of visitor facilities, and for employment and training opportunities for the Aboriginal community. However much languishes.

The Dampier Archipelago is highly significant for Aboriginal peoples in the Pilbara and beyond. As a unique record of human achievement, it also has significance at the national and international scale. However, there is little information about the archaeology and rock art of the Dampier Archipelago that is readily accessible to the public. Most of the information is unpublished technical reports. The bulk of the content has been taken from a National Trust commissioned report written by Sylvia Hallam and Caroline Bird which describes heritage values and conservation issues in the Dampier Archipelago for a general audience. Its main focus is on the archaeological and scientific importance of the area, while acknowledging its continuing significance to Aboriginal peoples. This report is based on a longer and more technical review of the values of the Dampier Archipelago, also commissioned by the National Trust of Australia (WA), which aims to describe what is known and what is not know about the cultural heritage of the area, to outline its significance, and to identify the key issues with respect to its conservation for future generations.

The heritage significance of the Dampier Archipelago is that the rock art is extraordinary in its diversity and density, and it is probably the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the world.

The range of different states of weathering indicates that the petroglyphs were produced over a long time period and the degree of weathering of certain stylistic elements suggests a likely antiquity of tens of thousands of years for at least some of the motifs. This is comparable in age to the Palaeolithic art of Western Europe.

The petroglyphs are intimately associated with a rich and complex archaeological record with a range of elements including evidence of occupation, bedrock grinding patches, quarries and stone arrangements.

The Dampier Archipelago has outstanding potential for archaeological research. The archaeological material provides evidence of complex adaptations to a distinctive and unique coastal environment on the margins of the present arid zone over the last 9,000 years. The long time span of occupation has the potential to document human adaptations when the Dampier Ranges was part of the Ice Age mainland and then trace adaptation to rising sea levels and long-term climactic changes, in the context of understanding the colonisation of the Australian continent. The complex associations between different cultural elements have the potential to yield insights into the relationships between sacred and secular aspects of life over a long time span.

The study of the stone structures of the Dampier Archipelago is urgently required to distinguish natural from cultural features and to understand the functions of those structures that are artificial. The transformation of the landscape represented by petroglyphs and by stone arrangements and by other stone features is on a scale that is rare both in Australia and in the context of hunter-gatherer archaeology worldwide.

The limited analytical research into the distribution in time and space of petroglyphs in particular areas and their relationship to the distribution of other classes of archaeological evidence indicates the research potential of the Dampier Archipelago. While this study has focused on the scientific values of the Dampier Archipelago, it is clear that the area is highly significant to Aboriginal peoples.

The Industrial development has been compounded by a failure of process, and has seriously impacted the cultural heritage values of the Dampier Archipelago since the 1960s resulting in the physical destruction of hundreds of cultural features, and thousands of individual petroglyphs.

The process of decision-making with respect to the destruction of cultural heritage is not based on a sound and comprehensive knowledge of the values and significance. Rather, it is primarily based on the requirements of developers. The original decisions to site infrastructure and industrial facilities in the Dampier area did not consider cultural heritage values. The results of these decisions have continued to shape all subsequent land-use planning on the Burrup even though the outstanding heritage significance of the area has been evident since the early 1970s. The most recent agreement perpetuates the arbitrary division between conservation reserve and developed land, based on the original unsound decisions. The entire Dampier Archipelago is of outstanding heritage significance and should be managed as a single unit.

Practices of record-keeping, site-recording standards and survey methodology have failed to develop a reliable and comprehensive data base on which land use planning decisions can be based. Although a large amount of date has been collected relevant to assessing heritage values in the Dampier Archipelago, very little of this has been analysed. The analysis of this substantial amount of archived data is vital to provide an informed basis for assessing significance and making management decisions. The density of cultural features in the Dampier Archipelago and the high level of integrity of cultural landscapes over the whole area mean that the appropriate scale of management and planning should be associations of cultural features or cultural landscapes rather than individual registered sites. The present system of approval to disturb individual registered sites under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is disastrous for heritage conservation. Over the long term, industrial development is incompatible with the cultural heritage values of the Dampier Archipelago.

The National Trust of Australia (WA) describes the distribution of cultural features in the landscape and that they have largely determined by availability of water and food resources. There is predominant evidence of specialised activities, such as food preparation or stone tool making, and habitation campsites located close to water sources. Rock art is found on boulders immediately associated with the campsites and farther away. Standing stones occur on ridgelines and vantage points. According to the National Trust these complexes are undoubtedly camping areas to which people would have returned regularly over a long time span and where they would have performed a wide range of largely domestic activities. Some locations, such as standing stones and some art complexes, are likely to have been places where ceremonial activities took place.

The National Trust describes that grinding patches provide indirect evidence of the processing of plant foods. A study of the grinding patches recorded during the Dampier Archaeological Project in the early 1980s showed that they were most common in camping areas close to Spinifex grasslands, suggesting that they were mainly used for grinding Spinifex seeds into flour. Many grinding patches had clearly been used over long periods of time, from the amount of wear and the fact that their surfaces had often been rejuvenated and re-roughened through the pecking or incising lines. Twenty-one excavations have been conducted in the Dampier Archipelago and a series of enigmatic stone features recorded. These fall into the three broad categories, standing stones, pits and walls. There is also one example of a complex stone arrangement comprising ten stone circles, a cairn, a linear stone feature and 79 small conical mounds. The National Trust records many examples elsewhere in Australia, including the Pilbara, of Aboriginal peoples building stone structures either for ceremonial purposes or for domestic purposes such as hut bases, fish traps, or hunting hides.

Rock art, in the form of petroglyphs, is the most spectacular and visible evidence of past human activity in the Archipelago. Petroglyphs are made by removing the outer surface of the rock by one of several techniques, including pounding, abrading and scoring. The rocks of the Dampier Archipelago, according to the National Trust, are particularly suited to making petroglyphs as removing the dark weathered surface to reveal the pale colour to the interior of the rock creates a sharp colour contrast. According to the National Trust it is probable that at least some of the petroglyphs date back more than 10,000 years to the last Ice Age which reached its peak about 20,000 years ago.

The Dampier rock art is diverse in its subject matter. Subjects include geometric designs, tracks of humans, animals and birds, and naturalistic or figurative representations, including humans, and a wide range of animals and birds – both terrestrial and marine. These include some depictions of thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, which been extinct on mainland Australia for about 3,000 years. There are also figures with both human and animal features which may represent mythological characters. Animals and humans are shown both as images and as tracks. Human figures are sometimes shown carrying objects such boomerangs or wearing head dresses.

Local Aboriginal Elders, Wilfred Hicks and Tim Douglas, and both Senior LawMen, and other others, have identified some figures as having ceremonial significance and stated that they should not be viewed by uninitiated peoples.

There are scenes of composite images and some of these have been clearly added to over a long period of time. The most famous is the “Climbing Men” panel. Other types of scenes show daily activities such as hunting. Tracks can sometimes be followed as trails over a considerable distance and some lead to large images of humans or kangaroos. These may well represent the routes of ancestral beings.

The campaign to save and preserve the Burrup peninsula rock art and the Dampier Archipelago archaeological history has gone global. One of the Stand Up for the Burrup Campaign organisers, Mark Lawrence, said that the campaign had to go global to bring on the people power movement, pushing for a cultural wave which parliamentarians could then ride its crest and leverage support. Mr Lawrence said, “On March 2, 2011, Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam moved successfully that the Australian Heritage Council conduct an urgent review of the World Heritage Values of the Dampier Archipelago rock art landscape.”

“The motion was seconded by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, another strong supporter of Muruga being nominated to the UNESCO World Heritage List,” said Mr Lawrence.

“Before being elected to the Senate, Scott was a spokesperson for the Stand Up for the Burrup campaign. Scott spoke at the launch of our global campaign on December 22 in 2006 and at the celebration of our 200th ‘Stand Up’ on December 22 in 2008.”

Mr Lawrence said, “Woodside moved quickly after the Senate vote for a World Heritage review of the Muruga/Dampier Archipelago rock art landscape. It sent a team of lobbyists to Canberra to fight plans for World Heritage protection.”

On May 14, Sunday Times journalist Nick Evans reported, “Woodside Petroleum is scrambling to get ahead of the latest threat to long-term plans to expand its $14 billion Pluto liquefied natural gas project, mobilising lobbyists to fight new plans to protect ancient rock art on the Burrup peninsula.”

“The company is concerned about an ‘emergency review’ order by Federal environment minister Toney Burke, after he directed the Australian Heritage Council to take another look at heritage issues on Burrup Peninsula, the home of thousands of examples of Indigenous rock art that date to the last Ice Age.”

“In response to the order Woodside sent a high-powered team of its ‘government relations’ specialists to Canberra recently, to knock on doors before the formal launch of the review,” wrote Mr Evans.

“Stage 1 on of the Pluto project is almost ready to start shipping gas to Asian customers, but an expansion is one of the key cornerstones to Woodside’s future growth, with plans afoot to double the project’s early capacity. Heritage issues could also prevent future expansion of the 25 year old North West Shelf Gas onshore processing facility.”

“(The Australian Heritage Commission) has no direct powers to force a rethink of industry expansion on the Burrup peninsula, but the review was initiated by the Australian Greens, through a parliamentary motion in March” wrote Mr Evans.

“AHC recommendations could also damage Woodside’s chances of winning federal government approvals for any expansion plans that led to the destruction of more rock art.”

Senator Ludlam told The Sunday Times he had no sympathy for Woodside’s predicament. “I think Woodside shareholders could justifiably be demanding to know why they’ve set up in such a ridiculous location. It’s now damaging future expansion because they’ve set up in an insane place.”

Mr Lawrence said local Aboriginal peoples are moving with strategies to save the Archipelago from rapacious multinational interest groups who decimate the landscape and its history. The Coalition for World Heritage Listing for the Dampier Archipelago Rock Art is being formed by the Won-gg-tt-oo people and a broad range of supporting community, said Mr Lawrence. The Coalition is on Facebook and can be found at

“The Coalition’s present aim is to get as many ‘likes’ on Facebook as they can on the ‘Stand Up for the Burrup’, while we continue to build the network throughout Australia and the world.”

“The Coalition believes that pressure must be brought to bear on the Gillard/Greens/Independents Australian government now, and the World Heritage Listing must be achieved, won in 2012,” said Mr Lawrence.

The Global Stand Up for the Burrup campaign has captured the attention, minds and hearts of people all around the world, and in December the 200th Stand Up took place, and as commemoration of the powerful campaign, in Perth, with representatives of Muruga’s Owners. The campaign had been launched exactly two years earlier, on December 22, 2006. At the 200th, there was the long standing advocate and spokesperson of the Wong-goo-tt-oo people, Elder Wilfred Hicks, Wong-goo-tt-oo Senior LawMan and spokesperson, Tim Douglas, Ngarluma peoples’ representative Bernadette Lockyer, Nyoongar Elder Ben Taylor Cuermara, Senator Scott Ludlam, Ian Viner QC (former Australian minister for Aboriginal Affairs – 1975 to 1978) who is the counsel to the Wong-goo-tt-oo peoples, Dr Sylvia Hallam who is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, Father Emil Ciercierega, the Catholic Chaplain for the Aboriginal community in WA, amongst many others – the speakers were unanimous in that the Australian government must immediately nominate Murujua to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The time, and the opportunity, to do so has come.
Stand Up for the Burrup is onFacebook, go to this site to hit the Like button
THE WEST Australian Government will prosecute cement company Cemex for allegedly destroying protected Aboriginal rock art up to 10,000 years old.
This peninsula home to an estimated one million rock art pictures that are also known as petroglifs. Well one man who knows a lot about the rock art of the Burrup is Wilfred Hicks.
See pictures of some rock art. Listen to some of the Burrup experts
I refer to the minister's deliberation on how to protect the heritage values of the Burrup Peninsula.
Stand Up for the Burrup - The official video 2008 of the international campaign.



Many thanks Gerry and all at N.I.T.

We hope people will look at our facebook page where there is lots of information about Murujuga/the Dampier Archipelago and about the Global Stand Up for the Burrup campaign.

A win in 2012 on World heritage Listing for Murujuga will be a win for Aboriginal cultural heritage everywhere.

Needs preserving by being left alone from big industry, polluters and greed

Old man Col

needs to be saved, yeah

This is an effort for the good of the knowledge of those still not born, good work to all of you

I support preserving history

Well done to the Elders and the campaigners


Wonggttoo is a fake organisation. The traditional owners are the Ngarluma people.

Why you say this? My family is supposbly Wong-gg-tt-oo people? Wilfred hicks is clearly stated above as being from Wong-gg-tt-oo which is my granddads brother. If my ancestors aren't that name, then who are we??

im still learning my culture myself, this is in no manner disagreeing you. Any information about my culture is always important.

please email me at to discuss any information about the wong-gg tt-oo tribe 

many thanks,

Cameron Hicks