Australia’s first-ever ancient underwater Aboriginal archaeological site undercovered
Breathtaking isles and incredibly diverse marine life have drawn holidaymakers and avid divers to Western Australia’s Dampier Archipelago for generations, but now a team of researchers have uncovered an even rarer find.
As little as two metres below the glistening surface, hundreds of ancient Aboriginal artefacts have lain preserved on the seabed for thousands of years.
The Dampier Archipelago is nationally heritage listed for its rich Aboriginal rock art, but this is the first time ancient artefacts have been found underwater.
Grinding tools, knives and hammers were among the artefacts that archaeologists say can provide unique insights into the Indigenous people’s way of life from when the seabed was dry land, before the last ice age.
The artefacts mark Australia’s first ever ancient underwater archaeological sites in what the authors have labelled “the last real frontier of Australian archaeology”.
The result of years of research by a huge team of archaeologists from around Australia and as far afield as the United Kingdom, the findings were published yesterday in PLOS ONE.
The Dampier Archipelago is a group of islands located off the Pilbara in north-western WA. (PLOS ONE)
The researchers worked closely with the traditional land owners through the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.
Program Coordinator at Flinders University’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Associate Professor Jonathan Benjamin, told nine.com.au he initially began investigating the Dampier Archipelago as a potential underwater site in 2016.
“It was an area that had rich archaeology on the islands, so why wouldn’t it have them underwater?” he explained.
The three-year investigation involved extensive aerial and boat-based surveys of the waters around the islands. (Supplied)
In 2019, the search had been narrowed down and experienced marine archaeologists began conducting dives.
The National Heritage Listed archipelago and Burrup Peninsula contain some of the richest concentrations of Aboriginal rock art and stone arrangements in the country.
An intensive three-year investigation followed, using predictive modelling, aerial geographical surveys and boat-based missions.
In 2019, extensive dives by experienced marine archaeologists began.
They combed the seabed, took photographs and, finally, extracted examples of the stone tools they uncovered.
In total, 269 artefacts were located at Cape Bruguieres in shallow waters at depths down to 2.4 metres below sea level.
Analysis of radiocarbon dating and sea-level changes have dated the tools to at least 7000 years old.
Even more ancient artefacts were then located at an underwater freshwater spring, 14 metres below the surface at Flying Foam Passage.
A diver examines a stone artefact recovered from the sea bed. (Sam Wright Photography)
Some of the ancient stone artefacts collected by the archaeologists. (PLOS ONE)
Archaeologists have dated these tools to at least 8500 years old, but even that figure is conservative, Associate Professor Benjamin said.
Despite the huge find, the archaeologist maintains this is just the beginning for underwater archaeology in Australia.
“Australia is a massive continent, but most people don’t realise that more than 30 per cent of its land mass was drowned by sea-level rise after the last ice age,” he said.
“This means that a huge amount of the archaeological evidence documenting the lives of Aboriginal people is now underwater.”
He pointed to the Sydney coastline as one location which held promise for potential underwater archaeological finds.
The locations where the underwater finds were uncovered at Cape Bruguieres, broken down by size. (PLOS ONE)
“Underwater archaeology is just part of archaeology now and that’s what we want to see going forward… it integrated into the broader discipline.”
The archaeologists have joined calls from traditional owners for greater protection of these unique archaeological sites, which currently fall outside the domain of heritage listings.
Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation CEO Peter Jeffries said the discoveries will help the community add to the story of Aboriginal people in the Pilbara.
“Further exploration could unearth similar cultural relics and help us better understand the life of the people who were so connected to these areas of land which are now underwater,” he said.
“With this comes a new requirement for the careful management of Aboriginal sea country as it’s not automatically protected by current Heritage legislation.”