A pyramid of granite rocks rises on a flat plain in the inland Pilbara. A photograph shows the scale – a four-wheel-drive at the base of the rock pile looks smaller than a Matchbox toy.
This is Gallery Hill, so named because a picture has been carved on each of the rocks in the pile. The artworks are among the oldest on the planet. It’s believed that humans have been living in this ancient and arid landscape for at least 45,000 years.
Liam Brady, an archaeologist from Monash University, has been exploring the region alongside the local Palyku people for the past seven years. He says rock mounds covered with carvings are strewn throughout the area, known as the Woodstock-Abydos Protected Reserve.
Some of the carvings are of animals, including an extinct giant marsupial, the fat-tailed macropod. Others are of elongated human bodies – they’re known as Woodstock figures, named after Woodstock station, the place where they were first seen by Europeans.
“What are people actually doing here? What is drawing people to these sorts of places? You have other physical signposts like Uluru, for example. But here in the Pilbara you get lots of these, and they’ve never been explored.”
Another recurring motif is the “archaic face”, a stylised curved line depicting two eyes and a nose.
“They’re very distinctive faces that you find across the desert,” Dr Brady says. “And they date somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 years old. That’s the estimate archaeologists put on them, because they’re just so weathered.
“You get similar ones all the way through to central Australia. And so archaeologists suggest that maybe these were ways of linking people across huge expanses of space. When people came out they would see these designs, and they would instantly recognise some sort of relationship.” He believes that Gallery Hill, and the other immense piles of carvings in the inland Pilbara, may have once served as beacons or physical signposts in the landscape.
“What are people actually doing here?” he asks. “What is drawing people to these sorts of places? You have other physical signposts like Uluru, for example. But here in the Pilbara you get lots of these, and they’ve never been explored.”
'Chock-full' of rock art
The Woodstock-Abydos reserve is 150 kilometres south of Port Hedland and north of the Chichester Range. “This is a really special place for Palyku,” he says. “It is chock-full of rock art – huge numbers of rock art. Grinding patches, old camp places, stone tool scatters, and a really fascinating landscape.”
Dr Brady says while the region’s archaeological treasures have been relatively unexplored by scholars, “the Palyku know everything about it. They have names for all these different places. They have lots of stories, lots of interpretations. A lot of it can be related to Dreaming stories, to the work of ancestral beings, of Dreamings. There are songlines going through the whole thing.”
He’s received an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship for his project, ‘Tracing connection and change in deep-time landscapes’. Part of the work will involve archaeological research – excavations, examining the rock art and the stone tools used to make it. Another part will involve working closely with the Palyku to help them develop an “Aboriginal-owned, sustainable, cultural tourism program”.
At the same time, he’ll be “collecting oral histories about the motifs from this area, because it’s never really been done,” he says.
Carved rock piles also exist on the coastal Pilbara – on the Burrup Peninsula and other islands on the Dampier Archipelago. In August, the Western Australian government committed to pursuing World Heritage status for the Burrup rock art.
The archipelago is home to an immense collection of more than one million catalogued petroglyphs, dating from 50,000 years ago to the 1800s when the Yaburara people were killed or driven off the land in a period of sustained violence in 1868 known as the Flying Foam Massacre. The push for World Heritage status has partly been driven by unease over industry emissions on the north-west shelf and their impact on the ancient art site.
Concern about industry effects
The Palyku people are similarly concerned about the effect of industry on their precious heritage, which has so far not received the same kind of academic attention as the outdoor gallery on the coast. The Palyku petroglyphs are in iron-ore country, and three railway lines – built by BHP, the Fortescue Metal Group and Hancock Prospecting – run through the site.
“That’s why the Palyku have brought me in there, to make some management recommendations about what we might want to do to protect these places,” Dr Brady says. The miners have supported his research – he stays on the BHP site when he visits the area.
The Palyku hope archaeological research will contribute to their preservation efforts. “To be able to say, these are really important places, they date back x number of years,” he says. Another motivation is their wish for young people to learn about their heritage. “To get kids on to country, to help with the excavations, to learn about things through an archaeological lens to sit alongside the knowledge that comes from their elders.”
"These are things that are alive. They have power. They have spiritual energies and forces.”
Europeans arrived at the inland Pilbara about 1880, around the time when the making of petroglyphs stopped, he says. The more recent carvings show yellow stone beneath the surface, whereas the ancient carvings are all the same weathered brown. The Woodstock and Abydos sheep stations operated until the 1950s. The reserve was used as an agricultural research station by the CSIRO before being designated as a protected area by the West Australian government in 1979.
Dr Brady came to Australia from Canada as an anthropology student in 2001, doing his PhD and graduate research on rock art that was still being made in the Torres Strait Islands. He went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Western Australia, where he met Palyku man Blaze Kwaymullina, a PhD student at the Indigenous Studies Centre.
“We were talking about my interest in rock art and archaeology, and he invited me to meet his Palyku family. An invitation to come up to Palyku country came out of that.”
Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation in Australia from 65,000 years ago (at Jabiluka in Arnhem Land). As an archaeologist, Dr Brady wants to tell the story of what the rock art means to the Palyku people today, and how they’ve related to the site over millennia. For the Palyku, “these are things that are alive”, he says. “They have power. They have spiritual energies and forces.”
He hopes his research will provide a window into the deep prehistory of indigenous Australia. “If I find a certain style of motif at Gallery Hill, can I find it elsewhere? And if I do, what does that mean? It signals networks – people moving, ideas moving, going backwards and forwards across huge distances. And that’s the really exciting thing, to add another layer to the story of Australia’s past.