Images of the ancients

Victoria Laurie; 11/5/10

Shimmering heat and a dazzling purple-blue sky hang over Burrup Peninsula’s vast rocky landscape, and intense light makes it hard to pick out details in the stony rubble. But once they adjust, the eyes can make out lively images of humans, animals and symbols. In this remote northwest corner, about 1500km north of Perth, a vast array of images is scratched on sun-beaten surfaces and in shadowed crevices. Camera in hand, Mike Donaldson has covered almost all of the Burrup Peninsula and nearby islands of the Dampier Archipelago, off the Pilbara coast. He has encountered thousands of petroglyphs, or rock engravings, scattered across the landscape. It’s thought there are probably a million or more in what is almost certainly the largest concentration of petroglyphs on any continent. Yet there has never been a complete archeological survey and, until now, no book that comprehensively captures its art. Burrup Rock Art is Donaldson’s remedy for the latter oversight, if not the former one. He decided to put together the book after attending a wake for Pat Vinnicombe, an anthropologist who conducted many early site surveys and worked tenaciously to get Burrup art protected. She died in 2003 while visiting the place she loved with politicians and rock art enthusiasts who were trying to halt destruction of Burrup sites to make way for an industrial plant.