‘Protecting underwater cultural heritage must be a priority for Australia’s federal and state govts’

The new discovery of ancient stone artefacts at an underwater spring off the Western Australia (WA) Pilbara coast has confirmed the location is a submerged archaeological site where more ancient Aboriginal artefacts are likely hidden beneath the sea.

The submerged cultural landscape, which is now the seabed, should be considered for protection in line with the UNESCO Convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage.

In a new study published yesterday in Quaternary Science Reviews, the fresh discovery from recent fieldwork confirms the presence of more preserved cultural stone material as deep as 14 metres under water– providing exciting scientific insights into the deep-time history of Aboriginal activity on what was once dry land.

The artefacts, which must be at least 9,000-years-old, have been discovered at the Flying Foam Passage underwater spring in Murujuga (the Dampier Archipelago.)

The passage was occupied in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene before it was drowned by sea level rise.

A total of five stone artefacts were discovered at the site by Flinders University and UWA archaeologists working in partnership with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.

Flying Foam Passage is one of two ancient cultural sites where researchers previously uncovered artefacts through the Deep History of Sea Country project, through a series of surveys that provided evidence of Aboriginal activity preserved on what is now the seabed.

The landscape was eventually flooded during the postglacial sea-level rise, which drowned more than two million square kilometres of Australia’s continental shelf. But some of these cultural sites still survive today.

An international team of archaeologists from Flinders University, the University of Western Australia, James Cook University, in collaboration with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, have identified the fresh stone artefacts through scientific dives, marine fieldwork with 3D models and lidar systems, and underwater archaeology.

These proven techniques can now be deployed to identify springs with similar geographic features in surveys across Australia.

Lead researcher on The Deep History of Sea Country project, Professor Jonathan Benjamin, says the fresh discovery confirms that physical evidence of heritage is still present on the seabed in the archipelago, and the cultural significance of Sea Country is important. There is a need to introduce more ways to consider and protect submerged cultural sites since further discoveries are almost certainly on the horizon in Murujga and around Australia.

“The Deep History of Sea Country project was the first Australian research program to uncover ancient submerged cultural heritage on the seabed in a marine environment, ” said Benjamin.

“Those findings elicited debate and discussion, particularly around the material found in shallow waters. This new evidence confirms that the archaeological site extends underwater onto now drowned land surfaces in Murujuga.

“We’ve now identified five stone artefacts at Flying Foam Passage and confirmed the freshwater spring is definitely an archaeological site. We had a narrow window of 40 minutes for each dive when current speeds were low enough to search the passage and our scientific divers focused on locations where fortunately the cultural artefacts were waiting to be discovered.

“There is a high likelihood that more artefacts exist at nearby locations with similar geographic features throughout the archipelago, so protecting the underwater cultural heritage needs to be a priority for the federal and state governments.”

Benjamin said the new discovery presents concrete evidence that research into submberged landscapes in Murujuga should be expanded in WA and around Australia, where there are likely thousands of ancient sites in tropical environments.

“We know that the Australian continental shelf represents a vast submerged cultural landscape made up of two million square kilometres of previously inhabitable land that’s just waiting to be uncovered up to 130 metres below sea level, and our discoveries in WA provide irrefutable evidence that they should be culturally protected for future scientific endeavours.”

The findings are also featured in a new documentary series ‘The First Inventors’ looking at thousands of years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander innovation.

Bejamin added having research findings at Murujuga aired in the documentary will strengthen public awareness and understanding of the importance of preserving newly discovered sites as a matter of urgency.

Main image: Flinders University

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