Kimberley Aboriginal rock art is a precious but little understood asset that must be documented before the region is “carved up” by industry to avoid “another Burrup Peninsula”, according to an internationally renowned archaeologist.
Announced as the inaugural Kimberley Foundation Ian Potter chair in rock art at The University of WA today, Professor Peter Veth plans to work with Aboriginal custodians and researchers from his base at UWA’s Centre for Rock Art Research to build a comprehensive picture of the rich ancient resource.
“I’m interested in doing strategic work with communities so that we don’t end up with Burrup Peninsulas in other areas where the art is impacted heavily – because the Kimberley is going to be increasingly exposed,” he said.
“The time to actually document values and find out which areas are rich and which areas should be treated as estates and not carved up is before industry, not after.
“I think that’s something most communities, most landowners, traditional owners and certainly KLC and other bodies would see as important.”
Professor Veth said while the extent of Kimberley rock art was quite well understood, many longstanding questions remained unanswered. He said people recording the art in different ways would be encouraged to work in a more systematic and methodical way.
“Some of the most basic things about getting the narrative right about Aboriginal people being the descendents of the original people and the art being different ways of showing and displaying country is something I’m interested in doing,” he said.
“We know there’s a lot of it, that’s it’s spectacular and has an incredibly high profile but very basic things like the actual age of some of the earliest repertoire is still very poorly known.
“We know there is lots of variability in the art across space and through time and that hasn’t really been documented; the systematic surveys just really haven’t been done for most of the Kimberley.”
Professor Veth said along the Canning Stock Route, detailed data had been fed into databases Central Desert communities now used to build interpretative trails and in land management work.
A key role would be to advise good policy directions and work out areas of concern and need.
“You need to feed that into policy – not in a way which is just paying lip service or in catch-up, where planning and industry precedes heritage evaluations, it should be done in a proactive way,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean putting everything on registers … it doesn’t mean necessarily documenting every site … but it is possible to use intelligent approaches to find out where the areas of very high value are. At this stage, that’s only been done partially.”
Not-for-profit Kimberley Foundation Australia gifted $2 million to fund Professor Veth’s appointment, with three-quarters donated by the Ian Potter Foundation and the rest from Inpex, which has the Ichthys LNG project 180km off the Kimberley coast in the Browse Basin.
UWA has matched the funding dollar for dollar and the State Department of Indigenous Affairs has chipped in $300,000.
UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Johnson said Professor Veth’s appointment placed UWA at the centre of leading research into one of the world’s most significant collections of Indigenous rock art, likely dating back to over 35,000 years.“This University is both proud and privileged to join with Kimberley traditional owners to advance our knowledge and understanding of this rich cultural heritage and the extraordinary place held by Australia’s indigenous peoples in human history,” he said.
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