THE FACE, THE HUMAN FACE, is a landscape of itself. With its valleys of lips, pools of eyes, winds of breath, and cliffs of foreheads, for thousands of years the human face has fascinated artists with its expression of mind. And, too, for thousands of years, people have seen expression in landscape, the mindedness of nature.
Millennia ago, an unknown artist painstakingly chiseled a human face out of rock, carving huge, haunting eyes and an expression vivid in intensity. It is probably the oldest artistic representation of the human face anywhere in the world. As priceless as it is unknown, it is one of hundreds of thousands of rock carvings spread across eighty-eight square kilometers in Western Australia’s Burrup peninsula, known as Murujuga to Aboriginal people. Some carvings are at least thirty thousand years old, and the site may be twice the age of the famous, enigmatic cave paintings of Lascaux, France, which are perhaps twenty thousand years old.
The carvings jump with life — outstretched hand- and footprints, birds, wallabies, emus, whales, turtles. For the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo, Ngarluma, and Yindjibarndi peoples, now custodians of those lands, the engravings speak of the Dreaming, that subtle, diffuse, living past, re-created in the present through song; the carvings refer directly to current ceremonies. Telling stories that reach back beyond the Ice Age, depicting creatures long extinct, such as the fat-tailed kangaroo and the Tasmanian tiger, to Aboriginal people this is a “prehistoric university.” Spiraling in meaning, pecked, hewn, carved from adamantine rock, the area is the world’s largest and oldest rock-art gallery.
Nowhere else on Earth is there a continuous record of human culture such as this, emblems of song cycles that listeners of land can still hear. Aboriginal people have frequently told me how land has voices, voices of luminous intensity. There are people everywhere in the world through whose acute hearing the land can ring with song.
Wilfred Hicks, an elder of the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo, says: “The spiritual force is alive in the thousands of rock engravings that are to us a spiritual source of energy — we can hear and see this energy when we are among them.” But what is a source of sacred energy to Aboriginal Australians is a source of literal energy for Woodside Energy Limited. One particularly sensitive part of the site, to Aboriginal people, is earmarked for an explosives factory and a liqueﬁed natural gas project. About a third of the Burrup peninsula has already morphed into the strange petroglyph of industrial infrastructure, including one current Woodside gas facility plus a quarry and a fertilizer plant. Of the carvings, up to a quarter have already been destroyed. That, says Hicks, is like “our bible torn apart.” In the 1980s, when Woodside constructed its gas plant, by the company’s own admission “sites and engravings that could not be moved were recorded and then destroyed,” probably, they said, pulverized and used as gravel, landﬁll for their plant. Nineteen years later, an estimated two thousand carvings were found lying face down in the dirt in a locked compound described by one elder as a “cemetery.” That’s a telling word, speaking of a culture that understands kinship between all things, even stones, and speaking of the lifelessness of the dislocated engravings.
It is a triple lifelessness, for the stones, torn out of their context, no longer sing. The land, emptied of the rocks, has less vitality, and people too are affected. “Once the rock has been moved, the spirit of that rock has been broken,” says Hicks. “It’s the same as moving someone from their grave. The spirit mourns, it cries for the place it was forced to leave. The archaeologists say that they can ‘salvage’ the engravings, but they are talking from a foreigner’s point of view. You cannot salvage the spirits of our land. Disturbance of these spiritual forces will lead directly to illness and death in our communities.”
Aboriginal people say that once a piece of rock art is removed, a song line is destroyed. In part, this is a story about how one culture’s deafness can be effectively “louder” than another culture’s song. Language is lodged in the relationships between words: you cannot fence off a pile of verbs, smash pronouns, scatter adjectives in the sea, and expect language to hold its meanings. In the language of land, meaning is lodged in the relationship between rocks and rivers, objects and sites. Dislocate one part and you fracture all, ﬁrst making the land into a dissonance of broken grammar, and then into a silence.
In part, this is a story of the parallel treatment of land and its people. The rock art was created by the Yaburara people, whose descendants were cruelly massacred in a planned attack by white settlers in 1868. In contemporary Australia there were many times when I saw Aboriginal people, long dislocated from their lands, literally lying face down in the dirt, victims of alcoholism and cultural scorn, pulverized by racism and poverty into social landﬁll for white constructions. Until 1967 Aboriginal Australians were legally classed as “ﬂora and fauna.” Unsurprisingly, given this background, some indigenous people have reportedly accepted a large amount of money to “help supervise” the destruction at the Burrup peninsula, giving the project a veneer of cultural sensitivity.
In part, this is a story about the indigenous human being, born to belong in the metaphorical, metaphysical, metamusical, metatemporal, metaminded world. Belonging, in other words, to life, implicitly carved into the contours of the Earth. In part it is the story of one worldview that, for all its dominance, writes its own bitter tragedy by relegating humanity into a lonely, literal, and solely material realm where matter is all that matters and there is no kinship with the Earth.
This is also a story of erasure. An erasure of history and ancestral memory. An erasure of significance, knowledge, and song. The erasure is dramatized quite literally, for over the coming century the physical depth of any remaining carvings is likely to grow shallower as they are eroded by acid emissions from chemical works.
But there is another kind of erasure. The erasure of importance, of attentiveness. Despite the World Monuments Fund listing Burrup/Murujuga as one of the world’s most endangered sites, and committed archaeologists pressing for World Heritage listing, it is highly unlikely that you will have heard about this situation.
When the Taliban dynamited the sacred ancient Buddhist statues of Bamiyan, there was a furor in the press. When Munch’s The Scream was stolen, there was an international hue and cry. If some dumbcluck set ﬁre to the libraries of Cambridge, or Stonehenge was bulldozed and used as landﬁll for an ofﬁce block, or the temple at Lhasa was demolished for a shopping mall, or someone took a sledgehammer to Michelangelo’s David, the heartfelt distress of so many would be internationally reported, and the outrage and fury would create a media ﬁrestorm.
But an equivalent crime against the human spirit is happening at Murujuga. Seeming to operate a casual cultural apartheid toward these indigenous spiritual, artistic, intellectual, historical, and symbolic values, virtually all of the world’s press has ignored this issue, though there has been a sturdy campaign to bring it to the attention of the media.
Is art not Art if the hands that sculpted it did not sign it with an individual name? Is history not History if its tellers are more at ease in song and ceremony than in the vaults of a museum? Is spirituality not part of World Religion if those who believe in it locate their spirits in rocks and land rather than bible paper and abstract heavens? Is a human face somehow not fully human when it belongs to people who in living memory were classed as animals? The acid emissions erode, as the acid omissions corrode.