The Burrup Peninsula

The issue of development in Western Australia brings with it a number of social tensions. One of the most blatant is the inherent tension between development and heritage. A prominent example in Western Australia in the Pilbara region is the case of the Burrup Peninsula and Woodside Petroleum Development Pty. Ltd. It has also been one of the most complicated native title claims in Australian history.

Image: Vinnicombe, 1987

But what is the Burrup Peninsula?

In case you have been hiding under a rock (with lots of really old art on it) the Burrup is one of the largest known gallery of petroglyphs with the greatest abundance and highest concentration of any known site in the world. The Pilbara has been described as ‘… without doubt the richest and most exciting region of rock engravings in Australia’ (McCarthy, 1968: vi). The site is a unique cultural landscape with over 20,000 years of history recorded on the rocks.

The Yaburara people, were the pre-European inhabitants of the Burrup Peninsula and associated islands of the Dampier Archipelago. They became indentured laborers to European whalers and pearlers during the latter half of the 19th century, but were mostly killed during one incident. The majority of their numbers were killed during the ‘Flying Foam Massacre’ in 1868; an event that was sparked by a Yaburara man caught attempting to steal a bag of flour. The Yaburara man was imprisoned, but later rescued by fellow tribesmen, during his escape they speared a policeman and a pearler who was camping nearby. The retributive justice of an early colonial settlement resulted in the massacre of up to 60 Yaburara members.

The Burrup Peninsula was first industrially developed during the 1960’s. This was due to the introduction of Mt. Tom Price, an inland iron ore mine that required a need for a deep-water port for transportation somewhere along the coast. With the discovery of natural gas off the northeast continental shelf, the Burrup Peninsula seemed to be a logical place for further development.

A helicopter survey of the area was conducted in 1979 by the Western Australian Museum, which concluded that a southern development site would have a lesser impact on the island. It was recommended by various government departments in 1979 that Woodside Petroleum Development Pty. Ltd. who became the operator on behalf of the Joint Venture partners of the North West Shelf Gas Project, employ an archaeologist to ensure compliance with the 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act. There were some delays through this process and the end result was that the archaeological team involved didn’t have enough time to record all the sites on the peninsula prior to development. This meant that there is no complete archaeological record for the area, making it impossible to estimate how much of the peninsula has been impacted by development. Some conservative estimates place the impact of this development at under 10%, while others (probably more accurate) place the damage at over 20% of all sites.

According to Vinniecomb (1987) during the natural gas period of development, of the 720 indigenous archaeological sites recorded: 349 were destroyed to make way for development, 56 were partially destroyed, and 315, those on the periphery of the prime areas of operation, are preserved in situ.

Timeline of heritage listing:

– 2002 National Trust Endangered Places list

– 2004 the World Monuments Fund provided funding with the goal of achieving national heritage status for the site.

– 2006 the Australian Heritage Council advised the federal Environment and Heritage Minister that the site was suitable for National Heritage listing.

– 2007 Dampier Archipelago is listed as a National Heritage Site

The National Heritage list classes this site as significant for a number of different reasons. These include fulfilling the official values of the National Heritage list through the following:

Criterion A: Events, Processes

Criterion B: Rarity

Criterion C: Research

Criterion D: Principal characteristics of a class of places

Criterion F: Creative or technical achievement

The statement of significance for the National Heritage listing of the Dampier Archipelago comments that the area has:

The rock engravings comprise images of avian, marine and terrestrial fauna, schematised human figures, figures with mixed human and animal characteristics and geometric designs. At a national level it has an exceptionally diverse and dynamic range of schematised human figures some of which are arranged in complex scenes (National Heritage List, 2007)

The native title claimants for the Burrup Peninsula are; Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo, Ngarluma Yindjibarndi, and Yaburara Mardudhunera, they signed a “State Government heritage protection and compensation package” with Eric Ripper, Deputy Premier, Treasurer and Minister for Energy of Western Australia in 2003. The agreement has been described as the most complex native title and development agreement of its kind in Australia. It allows for industrial development for over 40% of the area, while protecting the remaining %60 in a conservation reserve. Included in this agreement was Indigenous training and jobs programs in total the agreement was worth approximately 15 million dollars.

The major question now is: Is this place safe? The short answer is, no.

Pollution and industry on the peninsula is a major problem to the integrity of the heritage-listed area. In 2010 a cement company agreed to pay $280,000 in remediation after admitting that it had severely damaged rock art during quarrying activities. While according to some, air borne pollution is slowly degrading the rock art.

Vandalism has become another major problem in the battle to conserve the Burrup Peninsula. This was highlighted in 2011 when Local MP and rock art expert Robin Chapple discovered graffiti on an Aboriginal rock art site.


In 2007 Woodside began the relocation of rock art from the Burrup Peninsula. This involved moving whole rocks that display Indigenous art, out of their original context. This has preserved some of the rock art, and allows some development to go ahead, but it also destroys the context in which the rock art was created.

The 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act, which is relevant to the Burrup Peninsula and its industrial development, is obviously inadequate to protect the best interests of heritage and heritage stakeholders in this region. Even more recently heritage sites have been impacted by development in the Pilbara region, which makes me question if this legislation is still relevant in a modern Australia. A better balance needs to be struck between development and heritage conservation in Western Australia and the only vehicle really available is the state legislation. Perhaps the end of the current mining boom will allow for more flexibility in updating the validity of this legislation.

David Tutchener

This short blog has only been intended as a brief introduction to this topic and is by no means authoritative or exhaustive, some references used are below.


Department of Conservation and Environment, Proposed Burrup Peninsula Conservation Reserve, 2006 Draft Management Plan 2006-2016, Site Accessed 29/8/2012…/burrup_draft.pdf

Laurie V, 2011 Aboriginal rock art site vandalised, Australian Geographic, Site Accessed 29/8/2012

Lawrence, C. 2011, Want to preserve Australian values? Start with the Burrup Peninsula, The Conversation. Site Accessed 29/8/2012.

McCarthy, F. 1968.  Foreword. In B.J. Wright (ed.) Rock art of the Pilbara region, Northwest Australia. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, pg. iv.

National Heritage List, 2007, Site Accessed 29/08/2012

Vinnicombe, P. 1987 Dampier Archaeological project:  resource document, survey and salvage of Aboriginal sites, Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia.  WA Museum, Perth.

World Monuments Fund, 2012 Site Accessed 29/08/2012

2 responses to “The Burrup Peninsula

  1. Tensions between development and heritage are an ongoing and constant issue for CHM and in many respects this is a healthy thing. Cultural heritage can be debated in a public forum and almost everybody has an opinion on heritage and its significance.
    Heritage for the Burrup seems to mean ‘Australian heritage’ rather than Indigenous heritage for most people. With National Heritage Listing and a Native Title claim I think the Burrup is better protection today than in the 1980s when development first started. Management of the Burrup to monitor and protect it from things like vandalism and industrial pollution, together with providing tourist information seems like the way forward for this iconic part of Australia.

  2. Everybody does have an opinion on heritage and its significance. Incidentally, when does something stop being art and start becoming vandalism?