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‘We were lucky’: Early intervention saves significant rock paintings from mining destruction

'We were lucky': Early intervention saves significant rock paintings from mining destruction thumbnail

A rock shelter in a remote central Pilbara eastern Hamersley gorge has been saved from destruction by the discovery of significant artwork belonging to the Karlka Nyiyaparli people.

Key points:

  • Significance of ochre paintings have saved rock shelter from mining destruction
  • Site previously granted approval for destruction in 2002
  • Discovery in 2017 by archaeologists and traditional owners resulted in redesign of mine to protect heritage

Ochre paintings are relatively rare in the Pilbara, in comparison to carvings that have survived the millennia of climatic changes in the region.

Most of the known rock art in the region, such as those on the now-famous Burrup Peninsula, are petroglyphs — carved into granophyre rock surfaces that have stood the test of time.

Even so, Associate Professor Lynley Wallis, and her Griffith University team of archaeologists and anthropologists, have documented nearly 40 painting sites across the Pilbara.

Boomerangs and kangaroos are depicted in paintings at a Hope Downs site, found in 2017 by the team of Griffith University researchers and Karlka Nyiyaparli traditional owners.

Carvings on a rock surface show intricate designs.

Petroglyphs on the Burrup Peninsula.(ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)

These two paintings, created using dry ochre crayons prepared onsite with local minerals, were discovered on a low ceiling in one of the rock shelters during a routine investigation of surface peckings.

At that point, the Karlka Nyiyaparli traditional owners expressed their surprise and delight at finding the paintings, telling the researchers and heritage specialists that the site was then deemed very different and much more important than previously thought.

Science still difficult to date the paintings

Following the discovery, the scientists looked at the detail in higher powered microscopy and biochemical analyses of geochemical and residue analyses back in the lab, and took into account ochre seams and grindstones as well as traditional owner knowledge in the difficult task of dating them.

While the site is not a major gallery where large groups gathered, it is uniquely well-preserved and holds significance for the Karlka Nyiyaparli people as a place where families camped and revisited over many generations.

Mine site redesigned to preserve heritage

The Hope Downs Management Services group, which is a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Hancock Prospecting had previously been granted a Western Australian government ‘Section 18’ approval in 2002 for mining at Hope Downs to proceed, much like many other Pilbara mines including the Brockman 4 site at Juukan Gorge, where significant heritage has been destroyed in 2020.

After the discovery, Karlka Nyiyaparli traditional owners, their archaeological advisers and the Rio Tinto workers on the ground advocated strongly for the preservation of the site.

Painting on a rock appears to show an animal or kangaroo.

A kangaroo or macropod motif found in a rock shelter at Hope Downs mine site on Nyiyaparli country.(Supplied: Griffith University and Karlka Nyiyaparli)

Following consultations, the mine pit was redesigned to avoid destruction of the priceless Indigenous heritage.

“This is ideally how things should work [in heritage protection], that the cultural heritage assessments are undertaken early enough in the planning process, so that when and if new information comes to light, those new discoveries can be taken into account, when it’s not too late in the day to change the plans that have been put in place,” Dr Wallis said.

Dr Wallis said she believed the WA system of heritage protection is not in keeping with cultural heritage best practice, undermining the notion of ‘fully informed consent’, and her company will be making a submission to the Juukan Gorge federal inquiry.

It’s all in the timing of the discoveries

Approvals are often granted to miners before the significance of sites are well understood and proper investigations have been completed, which can take years in the academic world of peer-reviewed papers.

Even then, it takes the strong advocacy by heritage workers on the ground to protect sites from destruction.

Dr Jillian Huntley, of the Griffith University archaeological team, said this example shows that resource companies need not act on previously issued consents to impact Aboriginal sites and can instead change their plans to provide long term protection for priceless heritage.

CEO of Karlka Nyiyaparli Aboriginal Corporation, Nick Preece, said the elders and families of the Karlka Nyiyaparli are very pleased that they were able to engender support for the preservation of their heritage.

“That was with some very significant work undertaken by archaeologists and anthropologists,” Mr Preece said.

“I think also having consistent support from experts contributed to the ability to eventually be able to preserve that artwork.”

Mr Preece said that as a general rule, heritage teams are very aware of the significance of what they are dealing with and are very conscientious.

“In this instance I think everything aligned,” he said.

Mr Preece said there is now a real heightened sense of awareness among mining companies, since the huge media coverage on the destruction of Juukan Gorge heritage— which is, in itself, a good outcome for native title holders across the Pilbara and elsewhere.

The federal Juukan Gorge heritage destruction inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia is still open for submissions from stakeholders until the end of July.

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