Between a Rock and a Hard Place

It’s hard to imagine a more impressive—or more endangered—cultural landscape in Australia than the Dampier Rock Art Site. The largest, and quite possibly oldest, rock art precinct in the world consists of thousands of jagged red Pilbara rocks which, on closer inspection, reveal in their shadowed crevasses or sun-beaten surfaces the images of lively humans, animals, and plants. Some are darkly outlined images of the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger, each so individual in their sleek stripes or wolfish mien that they hint at myriad artists and several millennia of rituals involving the carnivorous marsupial. Others resemble photo negatives, faces created by tapping down through mineral-darkened surfaces to reveal pale rock. They are mysterious, often beautiful clues to generations of industrious artists who, over a period spanning perhaps 20,000 years, roamed this remote archipelago on the northwest coast of Western Australia, which jutts into the Indian Ocean. Yet, unlike the more famous Bradshaw paintings found further north in the Kimberley region, no book has ever been published that celebrates the importance of Dampier and conveys its ethnographic and aesthetic qualities to the public. Nor is there any hint that the reverential care and protection accorded England’s Stonehenge, Cambodia’s Angkor, or the painted caves of Lascaux, France, will ever be enjoyed here, despite the site’s inclusion on WMF’s 2006 list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Just why Dampier’s rock art has failed to attract the kind of advocacy that has propelled the Bradshaw paintings into prominence over the years lies squarely in its location. While the Bradshaws are found in caves on pastoral leases held by sympathetic owners, Dampier’s artifacts blanket a 20-kilometer-long sliver of land and sea on which multibillion-dollar industries have set up shop.

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