We are pleased to share a recent paper published on Rock Art Research 2017, Vol 34, N.2 (pp 130-148). The piece sheds some light on how change to the rock art of Murujuga has been inadequately monitored, and offers some solutions. Refer to PDF documents below for full article.



John L. Black, Ilona Box and Simon Diffey


Murujuga (‘Burrup Peninsula’) in northwest Western Australia contains the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the world. A substantial petrochemical industrial complex has been placed in close proximity to this cultural treasure. A review of the publically available research reports used by governments to justify establishment of industry and the levels of acceptable emissions reveals the research is not scientifically credible in design, methodology, analysis or interpretation. Each report has serious errors, which renders most results to be of li le value. There remains a knowledge de cit on the condition of petroglyphs. No credible decisions about the effects of industry on the rock art can be made using the reports.


The Dampier Archipelago, which includes the island Murujuga (‘Burrup Peninsula’), is estimated to contain more than one million rock art images in the form of petroglyphs (JMcD CHM 2011). These petroglyphs are thought to capture thousands of years of human culture and spiritual beliefs through a changing environment (Bednarik 1979; Donaldson 2009; JMcD CHM 2011; McDonald and Veth 2009; Mulvaney 2011). The rock art is believed by some to contain the oldest known representation of the human face (Mulvaney 2015). Other petroglyphs include elaborate geometric designs, purported extinct mammals such as megafauna, the fat-tailed kangaroo and Thylacines, as well as existing animals, birds and sea creatures (Bird and Hallam 2006; JMcD CHM 2011; Mulvaney 2009, 2013, 2015). The Murujuga inhabitants created this rock art until 1868, when the Yaburara indigenous population was almost exterminated beginning with the ‘Flying Foam Massacre’ (Bednarik n.d. 2006: 16–22; Gara 1983). The petroglyphs on Murujuga are a priceless, irreplaceable, historical and archaeological treasure of global signi cance.

The island (connected to the mainland by a causeway) is also the site of a huge industrial complex. An iron ore export terminal was established at King Bay towards the southern end of Murujuga in 1964 and a salt production and export facility commenced operation in 1970. These developments were followed in the late 1970s to early 1980s with natural gas processing facilities at Whitnell Bay and an additional liquefied natural gas (LNG) production plant in 1995. In 2007, construction commenced of a second LNG facility situated between King Bay and Whitnell Bay, with first production in 2012. An ammonium fertiliser plant commenced production in 2006 and an ammonium nitrate production facility is complete and awaiting a licence to operate. The Port of Dampier is now one of the busiest bulk-handling ports in the world. During the year 2013–2014, 6027 vessels entered the port with exports approaching 180 million tonnes. A single bulk cargo ship burning high-sulphur fuels has been estimated to release 5200 tonnes per year of sulphur oxides into the atmosphere (Vidal 2009). The sulphur dioxide combines with water to form sulphuric acid. The shipping, liquefied gas, fertiliser and ammonium nitrate plants are in close proximity to the rock art motifs. Indeed, well over 2000 rocks containing motifs were removed with many more destroyed to allow construction of the LNG facilities (Bednarik 2002, 2006; Davidson 2011; Donaldson 2009; González Zarandona 2011).

Concerns were raised in the early 2000s (Bednarik 2002) about the potential impact of increased industrial emissions, particularly acidity, on bleaching of petroglyphs and adjacent rock surfaces from erosion of the ferruginous patina crust. Monitoring changes in rock surface colour and mineralogy were chosen as appropriate macroscopic means for assessing likely changes to rock art due to industrial emissions (Summaries of proposed rock art monitoring studies 2004). The magnitude of change considered detrimental for rock art appears not to have been set. However, governments have used reports from this research on air pollutants, colour change and mineralogy at rock art sites (Gille 2008; Lau et al. 2013; Lau et al. 2007; Lau et al. 2008; Lau et al. 2010; Lau et al. 2009; Lau et al. 2011; Lau et al. 2012; Markley et al. 2014; Markley et al. 2015) to justify continued establishment of industry on Murujuga. The reports have been used by industry and the Western Australian Government to establish a new ammonium nitrate facility, and to set the limits for emissions from this facility with an acid load of 200 meq/m2/year (ERM 2012: 26), 135 tonnes/year of oxides of nitrogen, 163.7 tonnes/year of nitrous oxide and ammonium nitrate dust sized PM particle emissions at 25.2 tonnes/year (EPA 2011: 2–3).

These reports were reviewed by the authors of this paper to establish the scientific credibility and value of the reports for decision making in relation to preservation of the rock art. The lack of statistical analyses and the overall poor quality of the reports prompted this review. Several inadequacies of the Lau et al. (2007) report have been detailed previously (Bednarik 2009) and the failure of the program was predicted before it commenced (Bednarik 2004).