The hunt for Dampier’s ancient artefacts

Researchers believe that ancient underwater shorelines close to Dampier hold archaeological clues to a life that vanished in the Pilbara more than 7,000-years ago.

Dr Ingrid Ward from the University of Western Australia is now hoping to raise funds to search the waters approximately 20km from Dampier for ancient artefacts and evidence of human waste materials.

Ward said the Dampier Archipelago had at one time been part of a vast sandy plain inhabited by humans that stretched hundreds of kilometres south to Barrow Island and Exmouth.

However, with the end of the last ice age, rising sea levels began to flood the plain in an event many believe is represented in the region’s rock art.

Among the more than one million rock engravings on the Burrup Peninsula, dating back thousands of years, are depictions of both marine and land animals.

“This is thought to represent the change in sea level because as sea levels rose the rock art depicted more marine than terrestrial fauna,” Ward said.

“So we’ve got this story in the rock art but we haven’t got any indication from [archaeological remains] … and we are trying to put the two together.”

The interest in the North West’s submerged archaeology follows the success of similar programs in Europe and other parts of the world.

The UWA’s Ward previously spent eight- years overseeing a project by UK government body English Heritage in which fishing vessels in the North Sea handed in fossils and artefacts they found while dredging the ocean floor for fish.

The project uncovered Palaeolithic hand-axes, Mesolithic bone and antler tools and fossils of mammoth, elk and other animals, which revealed detailed information about the vast plain that connected Britain to Europe during the last ice age.

Yet while Europeans were making their first offshore finds as far back as the 1930s, very little is known of Australia’s submerged landscapes.

“My experience is that we in Australia have fallen behind the rest of the world in looking offshore,” Ward said.

She said researchers were interested in Australia’s North West because underwater surveys completed by the oil and gas industry revealed the locations of ancient shorelines.

Ward also believes that the Dampier Archipelago and Burrup Peninsula were important to Indigenous people thousands of years ago as a source of fresh water and granite rocks for use in tools.

Such ancient artefacts would also be likely well preserved underwater because the archipelago’s seabed hardened into carbonate, a solidified mixture of shell and quartz, once it flooded.

Ward said the other great advantage of the Pilbara was the knowledge of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and locals like Tim Douglas.

As the chief law person for the Murujuga, the Indigenous name for the Burrup Peninsula, Douglas knows ancient oral histories that tell of the geographic features of the land offshore before it flooded.

“That is a big difference, because, unlike the rest of the world, we have a living heritage of people, who can still tell us about that offshore environment,” Ward said.

Yet, despite this, big challenges remain for researchers.

They must first raise the extensive funds needed to complete more detailed underwater surveys of the Dampier Archipelago before they even get close to diving for potential artefacts.

“[The project is] gaining momentum – we just need to keep making more people aware that there is a lost landscape around the whole of Australia that we need to look after,” Ward said.

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