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Australia's First Aboriginal Cultural Site Discovered Underwater

The Deep History of Sea Country (DHSC) Project has recently concluded. A publication this week details our finding of the first fully submerged archaeological evidence found in the Dampier Archipelago!

Over the life of this ARC Discovery Project, led by Flinders University, the UWA team has included coastal geomorphologist (Mick O’Leary) and rock art specialist and archaeologist (Jo McDonald).

Fieldwork on Murujuga as part of the Deep History of Sea Country

Several UWA students have also been involved in the project: PhD candidate Emma Beckett (researching stone features) and Patrick Morrison BA who analysed an intertidal archaeological site. This project built on the ARC Linkage Project Murujuga: Dynamics of the Dreaming (MLP), which had developed a research collaboration with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. The MLP Project provided the terrestrial context from adjacent islands, and Jo McDonald provided continuity between the two projects.

"The rock art tells that story – and DHSC has shown that evidence can survive under the sea which adds to that story!" – Jo McDonald

DHSC mobilised a number of remote–sensing techniques (e.g. airborne LIDAR, drones, side-scanning sonar) to provide imagery of the offshore bathymetry (features of the shallow sea-floor) to identify areas of high potential for sites to be located by divers and snorkelers. The team developed a predictive model that considered the distribution of sites on the islands – and made links between these and the submerged features observed by remote techniques.

Fieldwork on Murujuga as part of the Deep History of Sea Country

The limestone geology of some of the outer islands made them suitable for cave formation: and a number of these caves were visited and inspected by the team. These islands provided an extraordinary counter-point to some of the bigger islands with different geology, where people have lived more continuously - and created a lot of rock art - both before and since - being cut off by rising sea levels.

"The community is totally delighted – but not surprised – by this evidence which shows clear connections between land and sea country. It’s great to continue our work with researchers to provide more evidence of the earliest Aboriginal occupation of this important cultural landscape" – Peter Jeffries, Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation CEO

The Cape Bruguieres channel became a focus of the DHSC project – after locals told Victoria Anderson (MLP team member and UWA PhD candidate) about some stone arrangements that were partially submerged at Spring High Tides. Our investigation of these stone features – combined with the LIDAR and drone data, geomorphology, radiocarbon dating and diver surveys – has borne remarkable fruit. Our DHSC research has demonstrated that the artefact assemblages associated with these features occur on a late-Holocene beach rock platform – and that these are very different (in size and morphology) from the submerged assemblage found in the adjacent channel.

Fieldwork on Murujuga as part of the Deep History of Sea Country

So far we have found limited hard (volcanic) rock – the matrix for region’s significant petroglyphs – extending into the intertidal and submerged waters. We have, however, found numerous intertidal features (like Aboriginal quarries and fish traps), as well as documenting some amazing coastal platform petroglyph sites.

“The DHSC has provided a glimpse into the submerged cultural record of Murujuga, and it an exciting example of how much more there is still to know about this culturally and scientifically significant archipelago." - Jo McDonald
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