We report Australia’s first confirmed ancient underwater archaeological sites from the continental shelf, located off the Murujuga coastline in north-western Australia. Details on two underwater sites are reported: Cape Bruguieres, comprising > 260 recorded lithic artefacts at depths down to −2.4 m below sea level, and Flying Foam Passage where the find spot is associated with a submerged freshwater spring at −14 m.
The DHSC project team recognises the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation Council of Elders and Murujuga Land and Sea Rangers Unit as core collaborators on this project.
The DHSC project was supported by the Australian Research Council, Flinders University and the Hackett Foundation. We thank our many colleagues, volunteers, and friends of the project including Ken Mulvaney, Shakti Chakravarty, Victoria Anderson, Sarah de Koning, Hiro Yoshida, Kerry Ludwig, Mads Holst, Sam Wright, Annette George, Tom Allardyce and Graham and Michelle Evans and the AustMarine staff for their support throughout the DHSC project. Further thanks to EGS Surveys and the Pilbara Ports Authority for supplying additional survey data.
Link to the full article published in the Public Libarary of Science (PLOS ONE):
Second, the UCH Act offers two tiers of site protection: UCH that is automatically protected, and UCH that may be declared to be protected with ministerial approval.
So what is automatically protected by the UCH Act (2018) ? Here it is:
All vessels that have been in Australian (ie. Coastal or Commonwealth) waters for 75 years or more are automatically protected by the Act. A 75 year old sunken shipwreck whether it is found near the beach, or offshore on Australia’s continental shelf, is protected automatically by the UCH Act. Sunken aircraft located in Commonwealth waters are also protected automatically by the Act.
Heritage located under water within 0-3 nm Coastal waters zone, may also be protected by the policies of each individual State or the NT, and the details of protection vary in each State or Territory.
Indigenous archaeological sites discovered on the seabed, whether in Coastal or Commonwealth waters are not automatically protected in the same way that historic shipwrecks are protected by the UCH Act (2018).
Protection of Indigenous sites in Coastal waters would therefore defer fist to the individual State’s heritage laws to protect a site located in the 0-3 nm Coastal waters zone. The Federal UCH Act could potentially protect Indigenous sites in Australian waters (Coastal or Commonwealth waters), but only ‘if the Minister is satisfied that the article is of heritage significance’. This has yet to be tested.
Australia’s UCH Act (2018) diverges from the UNESCO Convention on the protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001) which is widely referred to as global Best Practice. The UNESCO (2001) Convention defines Underwater Cultural Heritage as ‘all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years …’
There are different mechanisms to protect Indigenous heritage under water and the individual state heritage laws serve as the primary mechanism that would be protect Indigenous UCH in Coastal waters. Any Indigenous sites found in Commonwealth waters could be protected, but only with ministerial approval.
However, the Australian federal law that “provides for the protection of Australia’s underwater cultural heritage” does not automatically protect Indigenous UCH in Australian waters.
That is, unless… Indigenous material culture was present onboard a historic vessel when it sank. Then the Indigenous artefacts would be automatically protected… because of their association with the historic shipwreck.
During the past 20,000 years approximately one-quarter of the continental landmass of Australia was inundated by postglacial sea-level rise, submerging archaeological evidence for use of these landscapes. Underwater archaeological sites can offer substantial insights into past lifeways and adaptations to rapidly changing environments, however the vast scale of inundation presents a range of challenges in discovering such sites. Here we present a suite of methods as a model methodology for locating sites in submerged landscapes. Priority areas for survey were based on palaeoenvironmental contexts determined from the onshore archaeological record. Remote sensing was used to identify seabed composition and indicators of palaeolandscapes where high potential for human occupation and site preservation could be identified in Murujuga (or the Dampier Archipelago), northwestern Australia. Target locations were surveyed by scientific divers to test for the presence of archaeological material. Application of this methodology resulted in the discovery of the first two confirmed sub-tidal ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites on Australia’s continental shelf. Survey methods are discussed for their combined value to identify different classes of landscapes and archaeological features to support future underwater site prospection.
MELBOURNE — A discovery of ancient artefacts on the seabed off Australia’s west coast has opened up a new frontier for resource companies to watch out for in conserving indigenous heritage.
Archaeologists in July reported they had found hundreds of stone tools submerged off the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia, showing evidence of people living in the area when it was dry land more than 7,000 years ago.
For most of the human history of Australia, sea levels were much lower than they are today, and there was extra dry land where people lived.
Archaeologists could only speculate about how people used those now-submerged lands, and whether any traces remain today.
In a study published in PLOS ONE, we report the first submerged ancient Aboriginal archaeological sites found on the seabed, in waters off Western Australia.
The great flood
When people first arrived in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago, sea levels were around 80m lower than today.
Sea levels fluctuated but continued to fall as the global climate cooled. As the world plunged into the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped to 130m lower than they are now.
Between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago the world warmed up. Melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise. Tasmania was cut off from the mainland around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea separated from Australia around 8,000 years ago.
The sea-level rise flooded 2.12 million square kilometres of land on the continental shelf surrounding Australia. Thousands of generations of people would have lived out their lives on these landscapes now under water.
Landscapes under water
For the past four years a team of archaeologists, rock art specialists, geomorphologists, geologists, specialist pilots and scientific divers on the Australian Research Council-funded Deep History of Sea Country Project have collaborated with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to find and record submerged archaeological sites off the Pilbara coast in WA.
In the final phase of the research, our team of scientific divers carried out underwater archaeological surveys to physically examine, record and sample the seabed.
We discovered two underwater archaeological sites in the Dampier Archipelago.
The first, at Cape Bruguieres, comprises hundreds of stone artefacts – including mullers and grinding stones – on the seabed at depths down to 2.4m.
At the second site, in Flying Foam Passage, we discovered traces of human activity associated with a submerged freshwater spring, 14m below sea level, including at least one confirmed stone cutting tool made out of locally sourced material.
Environmental data and radiocarbon dates show these sites must have been older than 7,000 years when they were submerged by rising seas.
Our study shows archaeological sites exist on the seabed in Australia with items belonging to ancient peoples undisturbed for thousands of years.
In Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula) this adds substantially to the evidence we already have of human activity and rock art production in this important National Heritage Listed place.
Underwater archaeology matters
The submerged stone tools discovered at Murujuga make us rethink what we know about the past.
Our knowledge of ancient times in Australia comes from archaeological sites on land and from Indigenous oral histories. But the first people to come to Australian shores were coastal people who voyaged in boats across the islands of eastern Indonesia.
The early peopling of Australia took place on land that is now under water. To fully understand key questions in human history, as ancient as they are, researchers must turn to both archaeology and marine science.
Protecting a priceless submerged heritage
Submerged archaeological sites are in danger of destruction by erosion and from development activities, such as oil and gas installations, pipelines, port developments, dredging, spoil dumping and industrialised fishing.
In Australia, the federal laws that protect underwater cultural heritage in Commonwealth waters have been modernised recently with the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976) reviewed and re-badged as Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act (2018), which came into effect in July 2019.
This new Act fails to automatically protect all types of sites and it privileges protection of non-Indigenous submerged heritage. For example, all shipwrecks older than 75 years and sunken aircraft found in Australia’s Commonwealth waters are given automatic protection.
Other types of site, regardless of age and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites, can be protected but only with ministerial approval.
There is scope for states and territories to protect submerged Indigenous heritage based on existing laws, but regulators have conventionally only managed the underwater heritage of more recent historical periods.
With our find confirming ancient Indigenous sites can be preserved under water, we need policy makers to reconsider approaches to protecting underwater cultural heritage in Australia.
We are confident many other submerged sites will be found in the years to come. These will challenge our current understandings and lead to a more complete account of our human past, so they need our protection now.