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Dynamics of the Dreaming: a collaboration legacy

This week the Honorable Dr Carmen Lawrence launched the second CRAR+M monograph detailing the Dynamics of the Dreaming Linkage project. This book is a new way of disseminating research, and represents a framework for engaged Aboriginal agency for heritage protection - in a potential World Heritage estate. The Murujuga cultural landscape is of great significance to the Ngarda-ngarli, represented by Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC). MAC represents the Yaburara-Mardudunhera, Ngarluma-Yinjabarndi and Wong-goo-tt-oo peoples who own and co-manage this conservation estate with DBCA.


Murujuga is recognised as one of Australia’s most culturally and scientifically significant rock art regions.  On our National Heritage List since 2007 and placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List in February 2020, the Murujuga cultural landscape nomination dossier was lodged with UNESCO in 2023. 



Murujuga: Dynamics of the Dreaming documents rock art production and lifeways across the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga), focusing on how people lived here through the ice age and after rising seas created the islands.  It also engages with new historical evidence about colonial encounters that culminated in the Flying Foam Massacre of 1868.



This book, edited by Jo McDonald and Ken Mulvaney, details the first research collaboration here between academy, community and industry. The 19 chapters - by a combination of 17 authors - document significant cultural and scientific values and an approach to ongoing two-way learning to ensure protection of this heritage estate.  The ARC Linkage Project began in 2014 and concluded in 2019, but analysis, writing up and cultural clearances took a further four years. 




During the project there was continuous reporting back to the Circle of Elders -- of fieldwork just completed, and with permissions then sought for the next study areas. These monthly meetings with MAC’s cultural authority and the project governance committee ensured that the process of engagement transformed from consultation to collaboration.



Important science and culture findings can be found throughout the monograph – in chapters according to the landscape(s) in which they are found. Excavations to contextualise rock art production, and details of the rock art and stone structures are also presented on their different islands.  All imagery has been cleared by MAC for public consumption. This was a time-consuming process, and we are grateful to Peter Jeffries (MAC CEO from 2017-2021) and Amy Stevens (MAC Heritage Manager) who oversaw and facilitated these processes.


Deep time

The project focused on how, and where, people create rock art here through deep time. A 50,000 year occupation sequence has now been documented at nearby Barrow Island, increasing the time depth originally modelled by Ken Mulvaney.



Exciting Murujuga deep time finds include:



Landscape to Seascape

We were also focussed on how people transitioned from arid inland hunter-gatherers to Holocene coastal hunter-gatherer-fisherpersons.  Important findings were made about this transition and there is a chapter visualising this change from landscape to seascape using Terragen software. 


Caption: views of Rosemary Island during the Ice age (top) and (bottom) in 1842 with the visit by the north American whaler Connecticut documented by an inscription on this island’s east coast (see chapter 19).


We also found that:

  • Island-use continued after sea level rose, eventually changing to targeted coastal and reef resources around their perimeters;

  • Symbolic behaviour in the late Holocene included widespread wearing of beads, with a manufacturing site for these ornaments found in the centre of Enderby Island;  

  • There was extensive use of fish traps and specific fibre fishing equipment (nets and baskets) with evidence for these being made on extensive grinding areas;



  • There is increasing detail about animal species, particularly marine animals, in the late Holocene rock art.  This research by PhD candidate Vic Wade, tells about different marine habitats as well as dietary preferences.



Colonial encounters and impacts 

What were the early encounters with explorers, whalers, pearlers and colonial settlers?



  • Evidence was found for Aboriginal people being incorporated in the labour industry at the West Lewis Island pastoral station.

  • The rock art here shows marking behaviour using introduced materials (fencing wire) and European subjects (boats) as well as documenting the presence of Europeans known to have been on the island through historical sources.



  • here are many historic references to family groups in the archipelago after the 1860s, particularly in the northern islands.

  • More detail of the Flying Foam massacre – including sustained hunting of people using native police “Swan Valley natives” for months after the initial retaliation.

  • Use of mangrove-log watercraft was extensive – as was movement between islands and the use of signal fires.


The Murujuga cultural landscape

This book has contributed content to the WHL nomination but has also been an important part of Ngarda ngarli’s demonstration of their ongoing management of this landscape as traditional owners and custodians. Murujuga’s rock art is the knowledge repository that demonstrates their deep time connections and social responsibilities. Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation has a collective cultural and legal responsibility and demonstrates this by their ongoing management of the place.


This monograph was founded on a research collaboration that was critical to building Aboriginal agency and capacity for the World Heritage nomination process which is the framework for ongoing two-way science exchanges.



This collaboration continues with two current projects: Dating Murujuga’s Dreaming and Desert to the Sea: Managing Rock art culture and country.  These bring innovative, multidisciplinary science and a two-way science approach to knowing and managing country. Both projects were co-designed by the researchers with the Aboriginal knowledge holders, and are focused on answering questions that will better our knowledge of the deep time record and support the aspirations of MAC in protecting this cultural landscape.



Our heartfelt thanks to all those who worked on this project and monograph, including the original project researchers, project personnel and volunteers, the 17 authors who contributed to the various chapters, Kate Pickard and Kelly Somers at UWA Publishing and Jess Lindsay at DBCA. And to Carmen Lawrence for launching us! Special thanks to the MAC Circle of Elders who kept us safe throughout the project, and the MLSU (led by Sean McNeair in Topaz) without whom the logistics would have been overwhelming.


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