Painting: Julie Dowling

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.

Jay Griffiths’s books include A Sideways Look at Time, A Country Called Childhood, and Savage Grace, originally published as Wild: An Elemental Journey, winner of the Orion Book Award.


  1. This article needs photos!!! Nothing wrenches one more than seeing these ancient artifacts. Are there no photos of them?

  2. Let’s not get so carried away. The environmental world is where it is today because we have not elected the people who care about our planet to do the work in Congress and our state and city governments. Now we must get out there and let them know that we want wind and solar at 20% of our power usage by 2030. Read the DOE’s article on this. Google 20% Wind and Solar by 2030 by the DOE (Dept. of Energy) Surprised? I sure was! If the DOE thinks we can do it, then I KNOW we can! Read the article and spread the word!!!

  3. This is very disturbing to learn of! IS there some campaign we can connect to to help fight this destruction? I hope orion scan send this info out to its e list as I do not usually go back to blogs for info

  4. Ah, we humans cannot seem to avoid breaking up the furniture for firewood. When will we learn that the record of life is more important than out momentary need to exploit the earth and destroy the natural history along with it? Perhaps global warming and diminishing fossil fuels will get our attention. Its obvious that we seem blind to other evidence of our plunder.

  5. From ‘getup.org’ site:
    “Even as you read this, Woodside Petroleum is bulldozing priceless rock carvings in a small area excluded from the [heritage] listing. This is for a new gas plant that could have been re-negotiated to already destroyed land only 500m away from the current site – a wasted opportunity by Minister Turnbull.

    Speak up now and we will take your message to the international and national corporate and government parties affecting the future of this unique site. Call for an ongoing solution that puts industry profits back into protecting the little that remains of our Indigenous heritage for future Australian generations. Sign the petition.”


  6. This article clearly delineates between two cultural perspectives: one that is rooted in the land and sees the land as a living entity, numinous, and life-giving; the other which sees the land a mere commodity, a resource, a piece of property to be disposed of as the powers that be see fit. Similarly, one culture sees larger implications of causing harm and not living in balance; the other laughs off savage superstition and assumes humankind is the meaning of the earth. One culture can thrive for well over 30,000 years, while the other fouls the nest in a few generations. The solution is beyond enforcement of the law or the creation of yet another commission; we need a cultural revival, a reconnection with the land and an elevation of the land (writ large) to its proper place in our view of the cosmos. Until then, stories like this will continue to be the norm.

  7. It’s called change. Get over it.

    For someone that doesn’t like boundaries, it would seem that trying to enforce them would be a rather hypocritical endeavour. Just the type of muddy thinking and intellectual laziness we can all do without.

  8. This is the Facebook page of the Coalition for UNESCO World Heritage Listing for the Murujuga/Dampier Archipelago Rock Art Precinct
    Wilfred Hicks, spokesperson for Tim Douglas, Senior LawMan for the West Pilbara, has asked people to organise a Second Global Stand up for Burrup campaign.

    The Global Stand Up for the Burrup Campaign was launched on 20.12.2006.

    We send photographs of the Stand Up events to several thousand politicians, media representatives, Woodside and other corporate executives, and senior public servants. …

    We demand that the Australian government give UNESCO World Heritage List protection for Murujuga’s sacred art, the world’s oldest and largest rock art landscape.

    Wilfred Hicks is and Co-Convenor of the Coalition for UNESCO World Heritage Listing for the Murujuga/Dampier Archipelago Rock Art Precinct.


  9. How old is Murujuga? No matter your beliefs, it is much much older than the “Bible” we know of. So consider this, Aboriginal Australians are one of the oldest cultures known to humankind, one of the OLDEST.
    So what if that ‘rock art’ IS the bible?
    I live nearby in Ieramuggadu, Ngarluma country.
    I have heard stories of men ‘who came across the sea from the west’….lawless men, who were given some Law by Lawmen here, it was given to them from two rocks….seem familiar? Well, what if that site, a site that contains hundreds of thousands of engravings, what if that WAS the bible?
    Would we consider ripping out chapters from the modern bible? What if that Law, written into the rock, was, as is believed here, the very Law handed down from the Minkula? ( Sky God)….what if????

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